Part 1: The Real Thing

Dirty John

Part 1: The Real Thing

Dirty John

By Christopher Goffard

Their first date was at Houston’s, a restaurant in Irvine, where he opened the door for her and put her napkin on her lap. Candles flickered along the polished-mahogany bar; jazz drifted from speakers; conversation purred.

Debra Newell had taken pains to look good. Her cornsilk-blond hair fell in waves over her shoulders. High black Gucci heels, designer jeans, Chanel bag. At 59, married and divorced four times, she had begun to worry that she was too old for another chance at love. Her four kids were grown, she ran a flourishing interior design firm, and she was looking for a man to share her success with.

Houston’s, an eatery in Irvine, where Debra Newell and John Meehan had their first date. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Her date was 55, 6 feet 2, with hard-jawed good looks and a gym-sculpted frame. He looked a little weathered, and he dressed lazily — shorts and an ill-matching preppy shirt — but he might have once been an All-American quarterback on a trading card.

His name was John Meehan. He had thick dark hair and a warm, friendly smile that invited trust. His eyes were hazel-green, with the quality of canceling out the whole of the world that wasn’t her, their current focus.

It was October 2014. They had found each other on an over-50 dating site, and she thought his profile — Christian, divorced, physician — seemed safe. She had been on three other recent dates, but the men were less handsome than their profile photos, and the talk was dull.

John was different. He showed keen interest in the details of her life and business. He didn’t want to talk just about himself, even though his stories were riveting. He told her all about being an anesthesiologist in Iraq, where he’d just spent a year with Doctors Without Borders.

John told Debra he was the best thing that would ever happen to her.
This is the first photograph of herself she sent to John.
John told Debra he was the best thing that would ever happen to her. This is the first photograph of herself she sent to him.

He said he had a couple of kids. That he owned houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs. That he happened to worship at her church, Mariners. That he would love to meet her grandkids.

And he told her that she stopped his heart, she was so beautiful. She was just his type. Her last serious boyfriend had wounded her, in parting, when he said she wasn’t.

John began caressing her back. She thought this was moving a little fast, but she decided to allow it. The intensity of his attention was flattering.

She brought John back to her penthouse, just up the block. They kissed. He wanted it to go further. “This feels incredible,” he said, stretching out on her bed.

She thought, “It’s just a mattress.”

She became uncomfortable. It turned into a fight. He just didn’t want to leave, and she had to insist.

She went to bed thinking, “Jerk.”

She thought, “Cross off another one.”

The next day she was back at her office, a little sad, trying to lose herself in work. Over the 30 years that she had built Ambrosia Interior Design, it had been her refuge amid many romantic disappointments. Work was the realm in which her success was unqualified.

She designed model homes and clubhouses. She liked to hire single women and mothers because she could remember how it felt to be alone, with one child and another on the way, after her first marriage broke up.

When people walked into one of her exquisitely arranged rooms, they were invited to imagine their futures in them. She called them “approachable dreams.” They were like glossy ads in upscale lifestyle magazines — purged of kids’ toys and dirty dishes and other real-world complications.

In her big Irvine warehouse, among the vases and mirrors and other decorative bric-a-brac, stood shelves of color-coordinated hardback books — aqua, navy, gray, brown — because books made nice furniture in perfect homes. She hunted at weekend library sales. The titles didn’t matter, as long as they omitted the words “sex” and “death.”

Her perfect rooms were like the face you presented on dates, inviting people to fantasize about the piece that may complete their lives. If your eagerness or loneliness or desperation showed too soon, you were done. Maybe that had been John’s mistake.

That day he called to say he was sorry. He knew he’d overstepped. He just wanted to spend every minute with her.

By the second or third date, he was telling her he loved her, that he wanted to marry her. She didn’t mind his idiosyncrasies, like his habit of wearing his faded blue medical scrubs everywhere, even to a formal-dress cancer benefit she invited him to. Some people snickered, but she thought, “Busy doctor.”

Debra Newell and John Meehan attend a formal-dress cancer benefit in Orange County. He arrived in his faded blue medical scrubs. He seemed to wear them everywhere.

“So you are the real thing,” she texted him after one date.

“Best thing that will ever happen to you,” he replied.

He began spending the night regularly at her Irvine penthouse. Her 24-year-old daughter, Jacquelyn, who lived there with her, made it clear she thought he looked like a loser. Maybe even homeless.

She said she didn’t like the way his eyes roamed around the place, among their velvet chairs and jewelry and fine art. Or the way he seemed so curious about the contents of her safe, where she kept her collection of Birkin and Cartier bags. Get this creep out of here, she told her mom.

Jacquelyn’s reaction didn’t shock Debra, since her taste in men often exasperated her children. She thought they’d find something bad to say about anyone she dated. Her friends sometimes joked about her being a “bad picker.” Where other people saw red flags, she saw a parade.

Soon Debra and John were quietly looking for a place together. They found a $6,500-a-month house on the boardwalk on Balboa Island in Newport Beach. She put down a year in advance. He didn’t want his name on the lease. Tax problems, he said. They’d known each other five weeks.

Debra wasn’t about to tell her kids that John would be moving in with her. She knew what they’d say — that she was moving too fast, acting with her heart, repeating old mistakes.

What her kids didn’t see was how well he treated her. How he brought her coffee in the morning. Got her groceries. Took her Tesla and Range Rover in for maintenance. Carried her purse.

She was convinced that her kids would understand how wonderful he was once they got to know him. She thought that if any of her kids would give him a chance, it was Terra, her youngest.

Terra Newell, here with her then-boyfriend, Jimmy, was Debra’s youngest daughter. She felt protective of her mom and wondered why a guy who sounded as good as John would still be single.

The family’s quietest, most docile member liked to daydream about the end of the world.

At 23, Terra watched and rewatched every episode of “The Walking Dead.” She spoke of the series less as entertainment than as a primer on how to survive apocalyptic calamity.

She made careful note of why some characters lived and others perished. It had to do with vigilance and quick reflexes and the will to fight. “The world ends,” she would say, “and those who are fit to survive will survive.”

She was as nonconfrontational as her sister Jacquelyn was assertive. The first word people used to describe her was “sweet.”

She was living in Las Vegas with her boyfriend, Jimmy, and studying to be a dog groomer. She knew her mom liked to take care of people, and that she saw the best in men, at times against all evidence. Sometimes they pretended to be sincere churchgoing Christians. Terra had seen her scared, screamed at, hit, taken for money.

She felt protective of her mom and wondered why a guy who sounded as good as John would still be single. Her skepticism only deepened when she and Jimmy drove out to Southern California and met him.

John towered over her by a full foot, and a coldness came off him. He barely made eye contact. He cut her questions short. As he helped Debra move into her new house, he huffed and strained and wrestled her queen mattress down the stairs single-handedly, a show of ludicrous machismo.

Terra’s three dogs seemed anxious around John. She thought maybe they were picking up on her own unease.

She brooded on some questions. What kind of doctor had no car? Why had no one seen John’s houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs? Why did he seem to spend all day playing “Call of Duty” on the 70-inch plasma TV her mom had bought?

Terra and her boyfriend moved into the spare bedroom of the new Balboa Island rental for a few days. This made it hard for Debra to maintain the illusion that John wasn’t really living there, though she tried.

Terra discovered the truth the day before Thanksgiving, when she opened a closet and found a nursing certificate bearing John’s name. Her mom said she was getting his certificates framed, but Terra knew, and she did something uncharacteristic. She confronted her loudly.

Here came John, instantly transformed by rage. Why was Terra snooping through his stuff? Why was she trying to steal Debra from him? Did she realize that kids should be smacked for this?

Terra screamed at her mother: “How could you let this guy talk to me like this?!”

Terra left, badly shaken, with the sickening feeling that her mother was choosing John over her.

“They’re jealous.”

That was John’s explanation for her kids’ hostility to him. They didn’t want her to be happy. They just wanted her dead, so they could collect.

He had an explanation for why he had a nursing degree but called himself a doctor. He said he had a PhD, which earned him the title, plus advanced training in anesthesiology.

At the big Thanksgiving party the next day, it was impossible to ignore the sudden fissures in the family — impossible to ignore Terra’s absence. But others were willing to give John a chance.

Debra’s mother, Arlane, thought he dressed tackily, especially for Thanksgiving. But she made allowances for a busy professional. And he was so nice and courteous. “I think he’s a great guy,” she told Debra.

When Jacquelyn showed up, John asked for a private word with her. She announced that he was the devil, that anything he had to say he could say in public.

To John, this was more evidence that Debra’s kids were spoiled and out of control. His words tugged at her anxieties.

She wanted a professional’s objective advice. She found a therapist, who assessed the family dynamics and told Debra she needed to establish firmer boundaries with her children.

If they wanted to come over, they had to be invited. They couldn’t yell at her. They couldn’t try to run her life.

They couldn’t sabotage her happiness — she had a right to it, just like anybody else. If John was the man she had chosen, it was her business.

Absolutely, John said.

Their house on the boardwalk had floor-to-ceiling windows, and from the rooftop deck they could watch the sailboats and the great yachts slide over Newport Harbor. Water lapped against a ribbon of sand yards from their front door, and they could hear the tall, wind-rustled palms and the muted creaking of the boat docks.

They were living inside a postcard. They walked the island hand-in-hand. He doted on passing babies and dogs. He liked to play-wrestle her grandkids. He acted like a kid himself, vulnerable and sweet, and single-mindedly besotted with her.

Homes on Balboa Island, the neighborhood where Debra Newell and John Meehan shared a bayfront rental. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

He liked to pose shirtless and take selfies of his washboard abs. She smiled when he’d stop in front of a mirror and say, “Damn! I’m good-looking.”

Wardrobe-wise, she thought he was kind of a mess, with his baggy pants and University of Arizona sweatshirts. He said his clothes had been stolen while he was in Iraq.

“Dress me,” he told her. “I want to please you.”

She took him to Brooks Brothers. She bought him shoes, dress shirts, slacks, a tweed sport coat, form-fitting cashmere sweaters — deep burgundy, navy blue. He looked good in darker tones and pastels. It felt like having a new doll.

He kept begging her to marry him, and she kept resisting, until she couldn’t. In early December, she was driving to Vegas on business, and he was tagging along. Why not drop by the courthouse?

The ceremony was in a plain room with a plant-covered trellis. He chuckled a little as he tried to get the ring on her finger. They celebrated with lemon-drop martinis. They had known each other less than two months. No one had been invited to the wedding.

John had repeatedly begged her to marry him. In December 2014, while she was on a business trip in Las Vegas, they exchanged vows.

Debra would say, “I felt this was an opportunity to love again.”

She kept it a secret as the weeks passed and Christmas approached. The family planned to have their traditional Christmas get-together at the Orange County home of Debra’s eldest daughter, Nicole.

Jacquelyn refused to go. Terra was torn. She desperately wanted to spend the holiday with her little nieces and nephews, but she didn’t even want to look at John.

Terra went to a therapist with her mom. They came to an understanding that Terra and John would keep their distance during the party.

The day came, and John bustled in with his arms full of presents for the children — dozens of presents Debra had bought. The kids surrounded him. Terra began crying hysterically. It became a scene.

“You promised he wouldn’t hang out with the kids,” Terra told her mom.

Terra’s grandmother found her in the family room, trembling and crying.

“I just want to leave,” Terra said. “I don’t like him. There’s something about him.”

Terra knew what people were thinking: “There she goes again, being overemotional.” She was the youngest in the family, her parents split up when she was young, and she’d been looked after by nannies during the years her mom built her business.

She knew some people still thought of her as the little girl who needed attention. It was sometimes a fight to be taken seriously, and she would question the intensity of her own feelings.

In early 2015, Terra was back home in Vegas, with Jimmy and their dogs. Terra wasn’t talking to her mom. She just hoped John would go away.

Back in Orange County, Jacquelyn was thinking about John’s fingernails. They were dirty.

She had spent time around doctors, during the time she worked in sales for a plastic surgeon. Their nails were meticulously clipped and scrubbed.

Plus, the doctors she had known did not go everywhere in their scrubs, as John did. She thought he looked like a man wearing a costume.

Something else was wrong with John’s scrubs: the bottoms were frayed around the heels as if they belonged to a medical-office receptionist who ran errands in tennis shoes.

Other things unsettled Jacquelyn, like the slangy, misspelled texts she received from her mom’s number that were clearly not from her. And the way her mom kept calling to complain that money was missing from her wallet. Had Jacquelyn dropped by her office to borrow some?

Jacquelyn told her to think about the loser she was dating. She thought her mom, so nice and trusting and naive, had no idea who he was.

Jacquelyn bought a magnetic tracker and put it on her mother’s Tesla to monitor John’s movements when he left the house. He said he traveled between clinics and operating rooms, doing anesthesiology work as needed, but who knew? Debra would not remember agreeing to the tracker, but Jacquelyn insisted she asked.

From her iPhone, Jacquelyn began studying the strange routes he took around Southern California, looking for patterns and clues. He went to doctors’ offices in Irvine and Mission Viejo and San Diego, a warehouse, a post office, fast-food joints, Tesla charging portals.

Jacquelyn knew she had to be careful about what she told her mom — it could get back to John. She didn’t want to be dismissed as a meddler. And none of what she found was necessarily incompatible with his story. These were fragments of a puzzle.

When she told Terra what she was doing, Terra asked, “What if he hurts her?”

In Debra Newell’s family, the question carried a freight of unspoken dread, because the worst had happened before.

In 1984, her older sister, Cindi, had been trying to escape a husband she described as controlling and possessive. One day he pressed a handgun against the back of her neck and pulled the trigger.

It was the reason Debra hated firearms. It was the reason she refused to have one around, long after people began warning her that she needed one.

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.

Contact the writer: Email, Twitter

Credits: Produced by Andrea Roberson