John Meehan bragged frequently about his supposed ties to organized crime, and claimed to trace his bloodline to the prolific East Coast hit man who had run Murder Inc. itself. It had the ring of empty boasting from a man who lived by lies.
What is believable is that he approved of the mob’s way of doing business, particularly when it came to dealing with enemies. Over and over, he spoke approvingly of a cold-blooded ethos: A dead enemy couldn’t suffer, so you went after their loved ones. You went after their families.
Terra Newell was 25. Everyone described her as “sweet.” Her voice, a soft singsong, forced people to lean in. As a kid, the smallest on the team, she was so uncompetitive in softball games that she didn’t bother swinging at pitches.
Terra was a child of the upscale Orange County suburbs but adored country music, and she liked the songs about drinking beer, having a good time and loving God. It had started with a high school crush on a boy from Oklahoma, in the same way her current obsession with “The Walking Dead” had started with her ex-boyfriend Jimmy.
Like the company of dogs, music made her forget her anxiety. For years, Terra had lived with a vague sense of dread. When she was around 6, she woke up screaming, believing that someone had climbed through her bedroom window to snatch her. Her parents didn’t call police.
Her mother thought maybe it was a dream, the function of Terra’s distress over what was happening in the house. Her parents were fighting a lot, and were soon divorced. Terra had frequent nightmares at that age. She’d see dark shapes and become convinced they were ghosts or aliens.
Over the years, she said, she wondered whether she was a little bit crazy. In therapy she questioned whether the abduction memory was a real one, but became convinced it had actually happened.
When she was a teenager, a guy she’d been dating flipped out and rammed a car into her leg; she said he was on meth. She got a tattoo on her foot that said “Psalms 23” — the Lord is my shepherd — with a heart she’d seen in a Taylor Swift video.
Early on, even before John became her stepfather, Terra sensed he was dangerous. She had sobbed uncontrollably at a Christmas gathering, saying, “There’s just something wrong about him. I don’t like him.” But not everyone felt what she felt; for the longest time, her mother certainly didn’t.
She sensed that John was somehow watching her. She liked to have friends crash at her Newport Beach apartment so she would not be alone.
Once she had a dream that John was attacking her, and she had to stab him to save herself. She wrote out a note and put it in her drawer. If anything happened to her, it said, she wanted Jimmy to get Cash, the miniature Australian shepherd.
She was not a brawler and had no martial arts background except for a long-ago self-defense class in PE. She did, however, study television violence with uncommon intensity.
In “The Walking Dead,” she absorbed the first axiom of combat with zombies: They will keep trying to kill you until you destroy the head, by blade or screwdriver, machete or gun. She regarded the show as a fount of survival tricks. When a favorite character extricated himself from a bad spot by biting into an attacker’s jugular, she thought, “My teeth are a weapon.”
More than technique, she said, she took a certain mind-set from the show:
“Kill or be killed.”
Keep your pocketknife handy, her sister Jacquelyn warned her on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. She had spotted John in town last night.
Terra acknowledged the warning, but her mind was elsewhere. She and a girlfriend had $100 lawn-seat tickets to see Jason Aldean, one of her favorite country acts, who would perform that night at Irvine Meadows.
She put on her rain boots and drove to work at the Newport Beach dog kennel. She greeted the Labs and terriers and Dobermans and poodle mixes. She unlocked the cages. She carried the big bag of dried, high-protein pellets to the bowls. She hosed out the cages and the concrete dog-runs. She had strong, round shoulders, strengthened by years of working with large, aggressive dogs.
The French-sounding guy who was supposed to bring in his Rhodesian ridgebacks never showed, but she didn’t think much of it. She left work in her Toyota Prius just after 5 p.m. for the three-mile drive home. Cash was in the back seat. It was still full daylight.
John Meehan had removed the license plate from the gray 2016 Dodge Dart he had rented.
Inside the car, he had his passport, a vial of injectable testosterone, and what police called a “kidnap kit.”
An Oakley backpack.
Camouflage duct tape.
A set of kitchen knives.
Terra pulled up to the Coronados, the sprawling block-long complex where she lived. It was not Newport Beach’s choicest ZIP Code. People who lived there said it was common to overhear domestic fights and common to look the other way.
Now she drove up the ramp and through the sliding gate to the elevated outdoor parking lot. She always parked in the same stall, SR 423. She saw the Dodge Dart backed into a nearby stall, a man fidgeting in the trunk with a tire iron. She brushed it off, even when Cash growled. She was eager to get to the concert.
She had Mace in her car, pepper spray in her purse, a pocketknife in her apartment, and no weapon in her hands when she climbed out of the car.
He had been formidably big, 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds of steroidal muscle, a survivor of jail or prison cells in at least three states. He had lost serious weight — he was down to 163 — but Terra was still a foot shorter and 33 pounds lighter. He had the element of surprise. He had a long silver knife, concealed inside a Del Taco bag. It bore no resemblance to a fair fight.
She was crossing behind her car with Cash, and suddenly John Meehan’s arm was enwrapping her waist, his eyes cold. “Do you remember me?” he said.
He clapped his hand over her mouth. She bit down. She screamed. Cash lunged for his ankles.
Meehan jabbed at Terra with the taco bag. She realized there was a knife inside. She threw up her forearm to protect her chest. Her arm opened. They wrestled. They tumbled to the pavement.
Blond, small-boned Skylar Sepulveda, 14, who didn’t know Terra but looked as though she could have been her little sister, had just pedaled home on her beach cruiser from junior-lifeguard training at the Balboa Pier.
She was in apartment T302, wearing only a T-shirt-covered swimsuit, when she heard the screaming and went to the window that overlooked the parking lot. She saw Terra struggling on her back, and Meehan above her, the knife raised over his head.
Skylar told her mom to call police, grabbed her beach towel and said, “I gotta go.” Barefoot, she rushed out the door, rushed down the apartment stairs, rushed toward the parking-lot stairs.
Scores of balconies overlooked the lot, and she saw people standing on them, grown men and women, just watching. She saw others walking their dogs, as if the blood-curdling screams weren’t splitting the air.
“Going on with their daily lives,” she would recall. She saw some people get into their cars. She felt what she called “total disgust with people.”
Skylar — a girl with wrists so thin a grown man could have encircled them with one hand — did not pause long enough to worry that the attacker might turn the knife on her when she got to the scene. She just knew she would blame herself if something awful happened that she could have stopped.
Now John Meehan’s long silver knife was free of the taco bag, and he was striking downward.
The rain boots Terra wore that day were her sturdy pair, with thick tread.
She was on her back, pedal-kicking, trying to save herself, when she clipped his knife hand.
The blade flew from his grip.
It fell to the pavement.
It fell with the handle pointed toward her.
It fell inches from her right hand.
She was right-handed. She didn’t think. She began flailing, looking for targets. She connected, again and again.
His shoulder. His shoulder blade. His triceps. His shoulder blade. His upper back. His shoulder blade. His upper back. Between his shoulder blades. His forearm. His triceps. His shoulder. His chest.
His left eye — and through it — into his brain.
When she reached the top of the steps, Skylar Sepulveda found John Meehan face-down, bleeding and convulsing. Terra was crawling away, shaking, screaming about how he had stalked her and tortured her family.
Skylar could see exposed muscle in a gash on Terra’s forearm, like a surgeon’s incision.
Skylar wrapped it with a beach towel and tried to calm her down. She asked her questions: “What is your birthday?” It happened they had the same July birthday. Terra was terrified that her attacker would get up and come at her again. Someone else had arrived and was checking on him.
“He can’t get up,” Skylar said. “He can’t hurt you.”
Terra picked up her cellphone and called her mom. “I’m really, really sorry,” she said. “I think I killed your husband.”
John Meehan was not breathing when the police arrived, and had no pulse. They administered CPR, and soon his pulse was back, and he began to take small, short breaths as they rushed him away in an ambulance.
In another ambulance, Terra Newell asked if she would be done in time to get to the Jason Aldean concert, and they said no, but they turned on some country music. They let Cash ride with her.
Shad Vickers thought of how many times John had done evil and escaped the law, and how if anyone might rise from the dead to hurt them again, it was him. Even now, he seemed larger than he was, like a horror-movie villain.
Meehan’s sister Donna heard the news and didn’t rule out the possibility of some trick. Her brother knew every kind.
His other sister, Karen, was summoned to the Santa Ana hospital where he lay unconscious with 13 stab wounds. She had long ago come to accept that her brother would die unnaturally. Maybe of an overdose, maybe in a confrontation. Not like this.
Debra Newell did not want to be responsible for pulling the plug. She let Karen, a nurse, decide. Karen looked at the brain scans and gave the OK. A transplant team tried to harvest his organs, but years of drug use had ravaged them.
John Meehan — drug addict, failed law student, disgraced nurse anesthetist, fake doctor, prolific grifter, black-hearted Lothario and terror of uncountable women — was declared dead at age 57 on Aug. 24, 2016, four days after he had attacked Terra Newell.
Debra was numb. She and Karen were led to a room in a Santa Ana funeral home where his body lay in a long, plain cardboard box. They watched the lid go on the box and the box go in the oven. The door closed, he turned into black smoke, and that was all. There was no memorial service.
News of Meehan’s death made the local papers, with scant details. “I just wanted to hear he is really dead,” said an ex-girlfriend who called police, then cried in relief.
People were trying to reckon the improbability of the outcome. “Impossible,” said Shad. “The last person on Earth I’d ever think would send John to hell would be Terra.”
Detectives told the prosecutor, Matt Murphy, that it looked like a clear-cut case of self-defense. In such scenarios, the killer usually wound up on the run, the victim dead, dumped off a freeway or in the desert.
Blind luck, the gift of adrenaline, Meehan’s drug-weakened condition, Terra’s instinctive refusal to comply with his script — all of them had helped to save her.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, the nice person is the one that is dead,” Murphy said. “Every once in a while, good guys win.”
She was not going to take any chances, and so her last strike had been through the eye.
“I guess that was my zombie kill,” Terra said. “You need to kill their brain. That’s what I did.”
Had she killed a man loved by someone, somewhere? This bothered her. Then Donna came by with flowers and told her, “You did a good thing.” Her brother had hardly known his daughters. He was as isolated a man as ever lived.
Terra went back to the dog kennel, but barking triggered memories of the attack, and she had to quit. Sometimes she’d see a man roughly John’s age, and she’d struggle to breathe. For a while she smoked pot to get to sleep, but it made her paranoid and irritable. So she gave it up, but then nightmares flooded her sleep.
She found a therapist, who helped her build a place in her mind where she could go when things felt overwhelming. She thought of a lake in Montana where she used to go with her dad. She put dragonflies in the picture, and, as her protector, her dog.
Debra Newell still struggles with guilt that she brought John into her family’s life.
She’s close with her kids again. She recently bought her daughters stun guns, pepper spray and rape whistles. They talk every day, sometimes just to say “I love you.” She doesn’t need a boyfriend or a husband, a year later, and said she has no desire to date. She works constantly.
She said she feels she’s over John. At the Nevada house where he’d been living, she found a clutter of drug vials and syringes. She found some 200 women on the laptop he used, some of them described with references to their anatomy. She found that he was flirting on three dating sites on the day they were married.
She has concluded that he was some kind of sociopath. But for months she tormented herself, trying to figure out what was real. On her side, the love was genuine and deep, and it was hard to imagine that he had been lying every second, every minute, every day.
Not long after the attack, she took out her iPad and called up footage of their Las Vegas wedding. She watched as they exchanged rings and he smiled down at her tenderly.
She turned away from the screen. She had a catch in her throat, and a question.
“Doesn’t he look happy?”
About Dirty John
This series is based on multiple interviews with Debra Newell, Jacquelyn Newell, Terra Newell, Arlane Hart, Shad Vickers, Tonia Sells Bales, Karen Douvillier, Donna Meehan Stewart, investigators, attorneys and other sources. Christopher Goffard also reviewed thousands of pages of court documents, police reports, restraining orders and prison records, as well as text messages and emails. Learn more about the podcast.
Times Community News reporter Hannah Fry contributed to this report.
Credits: Produced by Andrea Roberson