The private investigator told Debra Newell how to make herself a difficult target. Change hotels every few nights. Study the crowd before she entered a room. Ditch her stylish clothes for bland ones. Get a wig to cover her conspicuous blond hair. Blend in.
She dreaded that she would meet the fate of her older sister, Cindi, dead 31 years earlier at the hands of her own husband. The deepest trauma in her family history seemed to be replaying, as if in a nightmare loop, and she feared her mother would have to bury a second daughter.
She had more than 300 pages of documents she’d taken from her husband’s home office, and during late winter and early spring of 2015 she pored over them, trying to determine the scope of his criminal past.
John kept texting her, pleading with her to visit him in the hospital. She wanted to look him in the eye and ask why he had lied to her. Also, she felt guilty about just abandoning him. “For better or for worse,” she had pledged. So she went.
He had explanations.
He had hidden his criminal record because he knew she would never have given an ex-con a chance.
He had pretended to be an anesthesiologist because he had been so eager to impress her — she was such an impressive high-powered businesswoman herself.
He could explain why police had found cyanide capsules in his desert storage unit. He had multiple sclerosis, and kept the poison in case he needed a quick exit.
He could explain his cruel, threatening texts to her. It was the hospital drugs.
The restraining orders? Those were other John Meehans.
His arrest for stealing surgical drugs in the Midwest? His then-wife was trying to frame him and get custody of the kids.
The claim that he solicited the murders of cops and witnesses from the Orange County jail? The fantasy of a jailhouse snitch.
His nickname, Dirty John? A mistake. He had no idea where that came from.
The idea of returning to him seemed crazy, and then less crazy, and finally a real possibility. He had her doubting what she had read — it seemed so at odds with the repentant, vulnerable John who kept writing to her in late March 2015.
“I will do whatever it takes to make your life easier,” he wrote. “I can travel with you and be there for you. No more lonely nights and no more being alone. I am your husband. That means forever. There is nothing to debate. This is going to work. Forever means forever.”
And: “When you are near me I want to protect you and be certain you are safe. It’s a good feeling. It’s just a bit odd feeling dependent on someone. Even married I never did. Bad habit I guess. I love you Deb. Nothing can take that away.”
And: “God put me here for you. You can’t see that?”
And: “I love you more than the entire world. Come with me to the four corners of the world.”
John told her he needed her. He had multiple sclerosis, after all. She wouldn’t abandon him to his illness, would she?
Debra made sure John understood that one day her children would inherit all her money. That was fine, John told her. All he needed was her. He liked to say that he would rather be with her, broke, living under a bridge, than living in a mansion without love.
She didn’t tell her family. She knew they’d be furious. She didn’t tell her employees. She knew they would look away. But she began sneaking away to see him. And she began quietly looking for another place with him. Their Balboa Island house was full of bad memories.
By June 2015 they were living in an apartment near the Irvine Spectrum shopping-and-entertainment center. He put up photos of their wedding and their travels. “He treated me so well,” she would say. “It was as if I was the only thing on Earth.”
To explain why Debra Newell returned to John Meehan, in the face of so much evidence, is not easy. He had deceived accomplished women before. A PR professional. A gynecologist. A nurse anesthetist who said it was not about the brain, and added, “The heart is a different organ.”
Maybe part of the explanation lay elsewhere, in the peculiar dynamics of Debra Newell’s family. It was a family steeped in Christian faith and the concept of forgiveness, even taken to extremes.
Debra’s older sister, Cindi, was still in her teens when she married Billy Vickers. She was beautiful and vivacious and headstrong. He was a balding supermarket manager who loved football. They had two boys and lived in Garden Grove.
Cindi told her mother, Arlane Hart, that he had become possessive, that he wouldn’t let her go shopping or wear a bikini to the beach — he feared another man might pick her up.
She met a professional football player in Palm Springs. She was flattered by the attention. He would send his limo by to pick her up. The marriage foundered. She wanted a divorce. Hart remembers her son-in-law saying, “I can’t let her go.”
On March 8, 1984, Cindi was writing out checks at the house they had just sold. Her husband pulled out a chrome-plated .25-caliber pistol with a black plastic handle. He stood behind her, raised the gun and pressed it against the back of her neck.
He fired one bullet into her and another into his own stomach, just below the belly button. He called an emergency dispatcher and said, “I shot myself.”
Later that day, Hart’s doorbell rang. Police stood with their hats on their chests and told her the news. This is her description of what happened next:
“I lifted my hands toward heaven and I just said, ‘God, you’ve gotta help me. I cannot do this alone. You’ve gotta help me, God. Help me, God.’ I’d been a Christian since I was a little girl. I knew God personally. And all of a sudden I felt a sense of peace come over me, and it drifted down all through my body, and I breathed a deep breath and I looked at the policeman and I said, ‘I’m gonna be OK.’”
Her 11-year-old grandson Shad was in another room, watching TV. She told him that his dad had killed his mom. “He looked up at me right then and he said, ‘You know, Abraham Lincoln didn’t have a mother.’ And I said, ‘Yes. That’s right. You’re right, Shad, and look what he turned out to be.’ He said, ‘I know I can get through this too, like you, Grandma.’ ”
Billy Vickers recovered from his self-inflicted wound and apologized to Hart for killing her daughter. She told him she still loved him. “And he said, ‘How could you love me? How could you?’ And I said, ‘God has given that love to us for you. We love you, and we forgive you.’ And he just sobbed and he cried.”
Vickers was charged with first-degree murder and could have gone to prison for life. At a preliminary hearing, a witness named Carol Planchon testified that he came by her house to borrow her husband’s gun about two weeks before the shooting. She joked, “Don’t hold up a liquor store.”
Planchon’s husband testified that he never gave Vickers permission to take his gun and worried that Vickers would harm himself. He called Vickers repeatedly and asked to have it back, and Vickers replied, “I don’t have it anymore. I got rid of it.”
As the trial approached, the defense attorney, James Riddet, received a call that astonished him. The victim’s mother wanted to testify on behalf of her daughter’s killer. She didn’t believe he had been in his right mind, and she loved him.
Her testimony stunned the prosecutor, Thomas Avdeef, who regarded it as a cold-blooded execution. As he interpreted it, the mother’s testimony — and that of other family members whose names he doesn’t recall — portrayed Cindi as having mistreated her husband.
“They threw her under the bus,” Avdeef says. “I don’t know the dynamics of the family. I could never understand that. Why say bad things about the victim?”
The defense attorney called on psychologists to make a case that Vickers had killed in a state of temporary unconsciousness. Jurors acquitted Vickers of murder but deadlocked on lesser charges. The prosecutor planned to retry the case, but then Vickers pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
In exchange, he got a five-year sentence. He got credit for time served, credit for good behavior, and he was out before Christmas 1986. The consequence of forgiveness was this: Billy Vickers spent two years, nine months and nine days in lockup for shooting his wife in the head. Vickers did not respond to requests for comment.
Debra disagrees with the prosecutor’s interpretation of her mother’s testimony. She says her parents taught her to see the good in people, always. Her dad was a youth pastor, her mom a piano teacher. They made it a point to take in troubled kids and give them another chance. They taught that it was important to see the good in everyone, even when it was hard. They believed that none of God’s children was irredeemable, and enough love could work wonders.
Her sister’s killer remarried and stayed in Orange County, not far from the scene of his crime. For years she’d see him in the bleachers at her nephews’ football games and at family functions, and people were careful not to bring up Cindi.
Now and then Debra ran into him at Mariners church, and she’d say hello, she’d try to be polite, but she didn’t want to be around him. Forgiveness might have brought her mother peace, Debra says, but she was never able to do it herself. Her inability to do so made her wonder if something was wrong with her, so deep did the idea run.
And now John was the soul of repentance. He wept in church. Debra thought it showed a real desire to change. The Father’s Day sermon seemed to hit him particularly hard. He said he missed his two daughters, who were being raised by their mother in another state, and thought about them every day.
He was still recovering from his hospital stay, trying to gain back the 20 pounds he’d lost, lifting weights, chugging protein shakes, frustrated at the slow pace of rebuilding his big frame.
Her kids thought it was lunacy that she had returned to John. And Meehan wanted her kids — particularly her oldest ones — out of her life. He blamed them for the troubles in the marriage, blamed them for hiring a private eye to probe his past, blamed them for temporarily turning his wife against him.
John’s hatred for Debra’s family did not seem to extend to Terra, Debra’s youngest and quietest daughter, even though she had clashed with him. He found her the least troublesome of his stepdaughters.
So he didn’t object when Debra drove out to Vegas to console Terra when she broke up with her boyfriend that summer. In the breakup, Terra got Cash, their miniature Australian shepherd.
Terra moved back to California and started applying for jobs. She found one as a kennel attendant and dog groomer. She loved the company of animals.
Terra feared and disliked John — he was the reason she sometimes carried a pocketknife.
She said she was willing to sit down with him and try to work things out, believing he would never take her up on it.
Her sister Jacquelyn was upset with Terra for seeming to give John a chance.
“Terra’s a lot more like my mom, where she wants to believe the best in people rather than see any of the bad things,” Jacquelyn would say. “I could probably be a little bit more like them, it would do me some good, but I just couldn’t see anything good in him, just all bad.”
Much of Debra’s family was in disbelief. They pulled away from her. In some cases, she couldn’t see her grandkids. It was the price of having John in her life. Even her mother had trouble understanding why she stuck with him.
“It totally, totally wrecked the family for many months. The family was just torn apart. We didn’t get together because of that,” Hart said. “Everyone was talking about it. Why is Debbie staying with this guy?”
In the months to come, Hart would become terrified another daughter would be killed. “I kept praying, ‘God, I don’t want to lose another daughter. Not another one.’ I just say, ‘God, help, I didn’t know how to pray.’ Whatever God needed to do, I just wanted that man out of our lives.”
Shad, the 11-year-old who had lost his mother to his father’s bullet, was now in his 40s and estranged from the aunt he had cherished as a second mother.
When he tried to reach Debra, John menaced him with texts and emails. Shad tried to block his phone number, and John found him. Shad got off Facebook, and still John found him.
He thought, “I’m done.” If Debra wanted to be with John, she wouldn’t see Shad or his daughters anymore.
Shad stopped trying to reach her. John left him alone.
Debra had cut John out of her will months back, for fear that he might kill her, and though she went to sleep beside him and woke up beside him, it was impossible to completely banish that fear.
He’d keep getting sick and need to go to the ER. Maybe it’s drugs, Debra thought. She couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. She just wanted it to work. Her estrangement from her kids and grandkids was breaking her heart.
Her sister had been killed trying to flee a bad marriage. What was John capable of doing, if she tried?
“I realized,” she would say, “that he’s not going to be that easy to leave.”
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.
Photo of Billy Vickers courtesy of the Calfornia Department of Corrections. Photo of Cindi Vickers courtesy of Debra Newell.
Produced by Andrea Roberson