After church one Sunday, Debra Newell walked into the living room with her husband to find a woman she did not recognize.
The stranger sat trance-like before the big window that overlooked Newport Harbor, a thin, weathered woman in her late 30s or early 40s. She had just used the shower; her curly blond hair was wet. She was dressed all in white; she had taken Debra’s clothes. She held a tiny Bible and sipped Ovaltine. She acted like she belonged there, though she wouldn’t meet their eyes.
John pushed her head onto the countertop and pulled her arms behind her back. He ordered Debra to leave the house and call the police. Debra didn’t want to press charges. She figured the woman was homeless, maybe a drug addict, and had climbed in through the third-floor skylight.
John denied knowing her, but Debra wondered. Had he said something to the woman before police took her away? Had he warned her not to reveal their connection? Had she been to the house before, and learned of its unlocked entrance?
John announced they needed to ramp up security. Even in a $6,500-a-month bayfront rental they couldn’t be too careful about drifters. Soon the home bristled with cameras that he monitored on his smartphone. He also insisted on cameras at the Irvine office of her interior design firm. He just wanted her to be safe.
Is he watching me? Debra wondered.
And she thought: I can watch him, too.
She didn’t know where he went all day, when he kissed her goodbye and disappeared in her Tesla. He never brought home a paycheck, but that was easily explained — as a freelance anesthesiologist who traveled between operating rooms, he was paid in cash by the uninsured.
One day, she pulled up the security footage and saw that John wasn’t going off to work like he said. She watched him leave the house in his blue scrubs, return a little later, climb into bed and go to sleep.
She debated whether to confront him. He could become so volatile when challenged, as he had with her children.
She decided to ask, but not in an accusatory tone that might upset him. Gently.
“The patient failed a treadmill test and they had to cancel the surgery,” John explained instantly, nonchalance itself.
She didn’t press him any further. Questions might puncture the dream.
Debra knew so little about her husband, beyond the way he made her feel. At 59, she’d never been happier with a man.
He ran her errands, the way her assistants usually did. Made sure her bills were paid. Sat beside her at doctors’ appointments. Brought her bouquets of peonies, her favorite flower. Held her all night, breathing against her neck, his weightlifter’s body draped over hers.
She wondered about the scars that crossed his abdomen and back, legs and ankles. He said he’d been in a chopper crash as a medic in the war zones of the Middle East, just before meeting her. He praised the accuracy of “American Sniper,” the film about a sharpshooter in Iraq.
During his time in the desert, he said, he had learned something about himself. Five or six times, he’d had to kill. It was easy, if you had to.
Ruthlessness was in his genes, he explained. He bragged that he was a blood relation of the notorious Mafia hit man who once ran Murder Inc. He didn’t show a violent side himself, except the time he grabbed the shirt of a homeless guy who said something rude to Debra on a Seattle street. John screamed in his face, and Debra had to pull him away.
He told her she made him a better man. They attended Mariners, an evangelical megachurch in Irvine, with modern worship music, keyboards and guitars. John always seemed excited to go.
He said he’d attended the church before he met her, though once he slipped up and called the pastor a priest. She thought it was because he’d been raised Catholic.
She watched him inject testosterone. He said this was for his kidneys. She watched him pop OxyContin. He said this was for his bad back.
Debra had been telling her nephew, Shad Vickers, all about the handsome doctor who seemed to live only for her, and when Shad met him he thought, “A good, fun guy.” He was impressed with John’s confidence and tales of battlefield derring-do. Most of all, he was glad to see his aunt happy. She’d been looking for so long.
Shad and Debra had always been close. For years he had thought of her as a second mother. Their bond was forged by a shared experience of unhealable horror. When Shad was a boy in 1984, as his parents were splitting up, his father shot his mother to death and went to prison. The victim was Cindi, Debra’s older sister.
Debra treated Shad like one of her own kids. She brought him on family vacations. She paid for his football and track leagues, which gave the traumatized boy some focus and release. She gave him a job in her furniture warehouse. She stuck with him during the years his rage and confusion were at their worst, during the brawls and scrapes with the law.
Now he was a single father in his 40s with three daughters, gregarious and sweet-tempered, with a job at a trucking company, and he loved his aunt and hoped John would make her happy. Shad brought his kids over to the beachfront house, and John was great with them.
Shad knew some people in the family disliked John — Debra’s daughter Jacquelyn had sized him up as a con man and been especially vocal in her contempt — but he was willing to give him a chance. He tried not to judge people too soon.
He did have some questions. Like why had he come into Debra’s life with only a few old clothes? Why did he play video games all day long? Did doctors really jump out of helicopters with machine guns?
Then John said something that didn’t sit right. It was at Debra’s place in late February 2015, and John was making margaritas in the kitchen when Jacquelyn’s name came up.
“I could take her out from a thousand yards,” John said, and Shad would recall that Debra laughed, not taking it seriously.
Shad thought it wasn’t a thing to joke about, even if you’d been to a war zone and had a war zone sense of humor. It seemed kind of sick, actually.
He began to fear for his aunt. So when he got word that some of Debra’s kids had hired a private investigator to look into John’s past — when he learned that a preliminary report had come back — he wanted to know everything.
He studied the report. John had a bankruptcy. A nursing license, not a doctor’s license. Addresses in Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and across California, including a recent one at a trailer park in the desert of Riverside County.
His curiosity gnawing at him, Shad called the trailer park. A woman answered. Shad thought up a lie, saying his mother had married John Meehan, and could she tell him anything about him? The woman said John had lived there. They’d had a relationship. He had disappeared. She hung up.
There was another address linked to John Meehan: 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana. The Orange County jail.
Shad wanted to warn Debra without telling her too much. What if he was wrong? What if the man in the report was a different John Meehan?
In early March 2015, Shad called Debra and reminded her that he’d lost his mom, and he didn’t want to lose her too. He said, “What if he isn’t who he says he is? What if he isn’t an anesthesiologist? What if I could prove to you he was in jail, and not Iraq?”
Her response would stay in his memory: “Even if it was true, I wouldn’t care, because I love him.”
And because she loved him, Debra relayed Shad’s remarks right to John. And John decided that Shad was his enemy.
“Why don’t you simply go away,” John texted him. “You’re not invited here. You come near and I call the cops. … Worry about your own miserable life and I’ll worry about Debbie, who is a lot closer to me than you can ever imagine. You won’t win this.”
Shad replied: “You told my grandma and I that you are a doctor. Prove it. You told my grandma and I that you own two properties. Prove it. Once you prove those two, you are good in my book.”
John: “I couldn’t give a s—- about being in your book.”
Shad said he hoped his aunt would open her eyes and dump him.
John: “Boy, are you in for a big surprise.”
Shad: “My mom is looking down on me making sure I don’t give up on her sister and making sure I know her sister [knows] the truth about your lying ass.”
John: “Good thing your mom ain’t here. She’d be embarrassed.”
Shad: “It’s not a good thing. It’s not good at all.”
John: “You don’t have an aunt anymore. Get it? … I ain’t going nowhere and neither is she. Stay away from the house. Accidents do happen. Again, Deb wants nothing to do with you and if you were on fire I wouldn’t piss on you to help you out.”
Shad: “If I hear of you threatening my aunt or harming her, you will see me.”
John: “Please show up. … And she ain’t your aunt anymore. Just ask her.”
John got a lot nastier. He insulted Shad’s girlfriend and his little daughters.
John: “It isn’t about me or what I’ve done. It’s about you harassing her to the point where she fears for her life. … And by the way, we’re married. That makes your threat my threat.”
Shad: “I pray you’re not married.”
Now the whole family knew the secret.
Shad was a former football player, 5 feet 10, a burly 195 pounds. But John had 4 inches on Shad, and probably 25 pounds, and Shad had seen boxing gloves and a heavy punching bag in the garage. Shad thought John would be able to overpower him, if it came to that.
And there was a single-minded viciousness about John, a sense that he’d stop at nothing. For now, Shad decided to keep his distance.
The beginning of Debra’s own disillusionment came in the mailbox, in the form of a letter from the county jail.
It was addressed to John, from a former jail mate saying hi. Debra tore it open and began reading, there in the walkway.
She stood there frozen for a minute or two, trying to make sense of it, and then she looked up. John was rushing toward her.
She realized that he had been watching her on camera — that maybe he’d been watching her more than she realized.
He snatched the letter out of her hand. She asked him what this meant. She told him she thought he’d been lying to her.
He demanded to know why she was looking at his mail. Didn’t she know it was a felony?
John said his jailhouse correspondent was just a guy he was helping out — sending him care packages and a little money. He wouldn’t admit he’d been in jail himself.
The next day, when John left on one of his mysterious errands, Debra walked into the home office they shared and began hunting. John was messy, and his papers were scattered everywhere.
Who exactly had she married?
The answer, she learned with apprehension that crept up on her and then came in a flood, lay in piles of documents he had made no effort to hide.
They told a story of a former nurse anesthetist who became hooked on surgical painkillers and lost his career. Of a con man who took nasty pleasure in the mechanics of a dark craft he had mastered, and who seemed obsessed with humiliating anyone who defied his will.
From 2005 to 2014 — from about the time he got out of prison in Michigan for drug theft to the time he met Debra Newell in California — he had seduced, swindled and terrorized multiple women, many of whom he had met on dating sites while posing as a doctor, court records showed.
“You are my project for years to come,” he wrote to a Porter Ranch woman after allegedly suggesting — in an anonymous letter — that he had raped her and taken photos while she was unconscious.
“This I promise. Do you think I joke? Every breath I take will be to ruin your surgically implanted life. Thanks for the pictures!” He described his planned campaign against her as “my masterpiece.”
In another case, according to court records, a 48-year-old Laguna Beach woman said she had been recovering from brain surgery at a San Diego hospital when she awoke to find Meehan standing over her bed. He said he was her anesthesiologist.
They dated. She said her family had millions. He suggested she transfer money into his account, to hide it from her estranged husband. She balked. He sent intimate photos of her to her family, and wrote: “You’re in way over your head on this one. Make it happen and I walk away. If not, I will be your nightmare.”
Police began investigating, and when they searched his Riverside County storage unit, they found a Colt .38 Special. Binoculars. GPS units. Ammunition. Heavy-duty cable ties. Syringes. A pocket saw. A bottle of cyanide powder. Eight cyanide capsules.
“A treacherous, cunning and very manipulative person who uses fear and intimidation as a means to control and coerce his victims,” police called him.
As John Meehan awaited trial in the Orange County jail in late 2013, an inmate reported that he was offering $10,000 each for the murders of two Laguna Beach detectives, plus five other potential witnesses against him, including several ex-girlfriends and his ex-wife. His philosophy: “With no witnesses, there is no trial.”
To the detectives, one of whom described him as “a ticking bomb, capable of unpredictable violence,” the threat felt real enough to request a restraining order. But the jail informant refused to be a witness, no charges were filed for murder solicitation, and the restraining order was denied.
Meehan pleaded guilty in February 2014 to stalking the Laguna Beach woman and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was out that summer, but jailed again for violating a restraining order against another woman he had threatened.
He walked out on Oct. 8. He met Debra online two days later. By the time they married in December 2014, three separate women around Southern California had standing restraining orders against him; in recent years, at least three others had requested them.
“He threatened to leak nude pictures of me if I did not give him money,” wrote one woman.
“He was choking me, telling me if I tell the police anything else he’ll kill me,” wrote another.
“He told me once he was obsessed with me. And I am VERY afraid of him,” wrote a third.
Debra thought, “I am going to be killed like my sister.”
She took Ativan for her nerves and called a lawyer, who told her to cut her husband out of her will, so he would derive no profit from murdering her.
She knew she needed to get out of the Balboa Island house, even if she lost $50,000 she’d paid on the yearlong lease. She had some time to maneuver, since John had gone to Hoag Hospital for back trouble and — because of vague complications that necessitated painkillers — had checked himself in.
Her family helped her pack. In John’s possessions they found papers on which he’d scrawled gun names, codes, phone numbers, jail-inmate numbers, bank routing numbers.
He’d saved printouts from websites on which women posted warnings about scary and unfaithful men. Datingpsychos.com had devoted multiple pages to him:
He conned me out of money … He is very persuasive. Emotionally needy… slick liar…
He grabbed me by the throat …
Do not let this man into your life …
Don’t be fooled by his good looks and prince charming personality …
He is a parasite, a leech, an infection that festers on anyone he comes in contact with …
Trust your intuition, ladies. He is a pathologically rotten apple!
Stay away at all costs!
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