Garden Grove

Rise, fall, death of “Dirty John”

DEBRA NEWELL addressed the Garden Grove Rotary Club on April 6 (Orange County Tribune photo by Jim Tortolano).

By Jim Tortolano/Orange County Tribune

Debra Newell’s life has taken a long, wide and sensational course. It started growing up in Garden Grove and moving on to a successful career as an interior designer.

But she is best known as a central figure in a maelstrom of deceit and danger seemingly from straight out of supermarket tabloids, finally completing the circle with a speech last week before the Garden Grove Rotary Club.

Followers of true crime accounts may recognize the name. She is the author of the book “Surviving Dirty John,” an account of her hellish relationship with John Meehan, a violent psychopath who wooed and won her, and finally was killed.

“SURVIVING DIRTY JOHN,” by Debra Newell.

Why would she want to go so publically with such a heartbreaking tale?

“I feel that if just one woman is helped,” she said in her remarks on April 13 at the Navy Golf Course clubhouse, “it’s worth it.

“There are four women a day murdered by their significant others in the United States alone,” she said. “One percent of the population is a psychopath. Five percent are sociopaths. We are in a world where there is a lot of danger.”

Newell was born and raised in Garden Grove, and was graduated from Santiago High School in 1973. Although bound for business success, tragedy also seemed to follow her. In 1984 her sister, Cindy (Newell) Vickers, was fatally shot by her estranged husband, Billy Vickers, in a home in Laguna Niguel. He pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and served less than three years in prison.

In October 2014, after four marriages, Debra was ready for another chance at love, and she met Meehan on a dating site. He said he was a medical doctor and a veteran of the Iraq War.

“He had everything on my checklist that I was looking for,” she said. He was handsome, charming and romantic. He had the right career, the right looks and, maybe, the right timing.

What she didn’t know at the time was that he was not a doctor, but was a consummate con artist, ex-con and serial abuser, against whom other women had obtained numerous restraining orders.

There were warning signs about his sometimes-strange behavior (and clothing styles with shorts and surgical scrubs) and an always-empty wallet. Two of her daughters, Terra and Jacquelyn, were suspicious of her new beau, but Debra initially was “swept off her feet.” The two lovers moved in together less than a month later and were married in December.

Tensions rose and by March 2016, Debra tried to get loose of him by seeking to annul their marriage and get a restraining order against him. “Dirty John” – the name he got for his behavior in college – reacted by demanding money, making threats and eventually setting Debra’s car on fire. On Aug. 20, he attacked Terra with a knife. The daughter fought back and was able to kick the weapon out of his hand, and stab him fatally, including one thrust through an eye.

“She called me and said, ‘Mom, I think I killed your husband,’” recalls Debra.

Four days later he died at an area hospital. Authorities concluded it was a clear case of self-defense.

The experience attracted the attention of Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Gifford who wrote a six-part series on the story of her relationship with ‘”Dirty John.” It would also become a podcast, a made-for-TV movie, a television series and lead to many TV appearances. Gifford also wrote a book on “Dirty John.”

She said she lay her past before the public because she has the mission of educating women about the dangers of men who are too good to be true. There have been legislative successes in getting new protections against abuse.

Additionally, she said she’s “helped numerous women. I take every single e-mail and I find a place for them to hide, or share anything I can that’s going to help them. Or I just listen and cry with them now. I feel this is my passion now. I tell them they are OK, they are the victim of something they could not control.”

 

 

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