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Dirty John 5: Escape

From the Dirty John: A six-part true-crime series series
  • 11 min to read

LOS ANGELES — This couple is all wrong, the lawyer thought.

There sat the husband, John Meehan, glowering wrathfully as he plotted legal mayhem on his enemies.

There sat the wife, Debra Newell, soft-voiced and love-struck and helplessly in his grip.

As he gazed across a conference room table at his newest clients in April 2015, attorney John Dzialo sensed that Debra was in danger.

The lawyer had not wanted to take this case, though Debra had paid an upfront $25,000 fee. His paralegal had been chilled, looking into Meehan’s background. Extortion. Stalking. Harassment.

And now Meehan wanted the lawyer to prove that he had been the victim, in case after case. His plan was a salvo of lawsuits. Against an ex-girlfriend whose accusations had put him in prison. Against cops. Against another woman he swore had cheated him.

Debra wanted help too. She wanted to fix her fractured relationship with her kids, who believed her husband only wanted her money. Could anything be done?

A post-nup, Dzialo explained. If they got divorced, it would cut John off from Debra’s money.

Meehan did not erupt, but he crossed his arms. He sank into his seat. His lips tightened. His eyes were hazel, but they filled with a fury so intense that Dzialo would recall them as “black as coal.” Dzialo sensed a “seething cauldron” in the man’s brain, a rage that looked as if it would split his forehead.

There are tales of encounters with religious personages so holy that their aura persists in memory, years later. It was like that for Dzialo, only inverted. Meeting Meehan would stay with him as a glimpse into some kind of human abyss.

“Scariest man I’ve met in my 70 years,” he would say.

He took the case; maybe he could help her.


John Meehan didn’t begin screaming until Dzialo called to say he had looked into his allegations and didn’t see the basis for lawsuits.

“I’m done! You’re fired!” Meehan yelled.

Dzialo had predicted this. He said he’d figure out his bill and return the remainder of the money.

Meehan demanded every penny. He would expose him as a cheat. He would tell the bar. He would tell prosecutors. He would ruin him.

Dzialo had put some time into the case, he had bills to pay, and he hated the thought of surrendering to threats. No way. Then he remembered those bottomless-pit eyes and thought, “This is a guy who would do anything.” He cut the check.

It did not stop Meehan from complaining to the bar. Because he couldn’t get through to Debra by phone, Dzialo drove out to her Irvine business and left her a note. What did she think of this? Soon Meehan was screaming through the phone:

“If you ever contact my wife again, you are going to regret it!”


John told her he wanted to die in her arms, that the world was a dark place without her. He got Debra’s car washed, ran her errands, dropped off packages at the post office. He brought her flowers constantly.

It was strange to be in love with someone and fear him at the same time. She came home from work anxious about finding him with another woman. When they went to the dog park with their golden retriever, Murphy, she noticed a woman who kept smiling at her husband. Had they shared something?

She had wanted so badly for this, her fifth marriage, to work. It was hard to accept another failure. She didn’t think she could endure another divorce. She thought, “How can I keep getting this so wrong?”

But the size of her mistake was dawning on her. And now she was wearing a mask, trying to buy time, trying to figure out how to escape.

At times, John seemed to sense that something had changed. “You don’t look at me the same way,” he would say. “I know you’re going to leave me.”

She told him it was just his imagination. She was busy at work; she was stressed; she was sorry. To pacify him, she’d make him one of his favorite meals: pork roast with vegetables or jambalaya.

Sometimes they had the semblance of a normal domestic life. At night he’d watch TV while she sat reading beside him. He liked “Lockup,” the documentary series about life behind bars, and “Intervention,” the show about addiction — two subjects with which he had intimate experience.

His favorite show was MTV’s “Ridiculousness,” which specialized in the mockery of people who did stupid things and got hurt. It always made John laugh.


In December 2015, for their one-year anniversary, he typed out a two-page love letter. It was a treacly bonbon with an arsenic center. It reminded her that between her family and her husband, there was room only for him.

One year … and forever means forever. It’s been an interesting year to say the least. We’ve been through some hard times … complicated times. But at the end of the day I have you to myself. No family and no issues that we can’t work out. I love you. You have the kindest, most forgiving heart I have ever known …

I want to grow old with you. Hear you breath(e) in the middle of the night. Feel you reach for me when there is nothing else between us. I can’t imagine living without you … and your absolutely nutty family. I hope to get over what they did …

You are simply the best person I have ever known with the biggest heart imaginable. I wish I was more like you … I wish I knew you when we were both younger. I can only imagine how ditzy you must have been and how you could have made me laugh until I couldn’t see straight. It would have been a dream to have a child with you …

I love you. I love the way you smell and the way you drift off to la-la land while I’m talking to you. I love the feel of you. And needless to say … making love to you is about as close to a religious experience that I have EVER had …

I hope I am a better husband than the others. I hope I am a good man and that you are proud to hold my hand. I hope you look at me the same way you do now but in twenty years … I hope you love me and we grow old together. I hope …


She was no longer thinking about forever. She was hiding money. She took $2,000 from every paycheck and gave it to a daughter or a friend. She didn’t want him to have access to all her money, for fear he’d take it. And she didn’t want him to know she was still giving money to her kids.

He didn’t even want her seeing her kids, particularly Jacquelyn, who had been so vocal in her contempt for him. One day he caught Debra sneaking away to see her and said he’d throw Jacquelyn in the ocean if it happened again.

When he discovered that Debra had been paying for Jacquelyn’s real estate classes, he called the school to malign her. He sent Jacquelyn lewd messages. She sent him a Googled image of a pile of feces.

“Mommy wants nothing to do with you and that will kill you,” he texted her.

And: “Jumping off a tall building would make me smile. Head first will work.”


This is sick, Debra thought. In March 2016 — after a year and three months of marriage, after threats and lies and the blind, desperate hope that everything would turn out if she just loved hard enough, after taking him back when everyone said it defied all sense — she decided it was over.

She withdrew $120,000 from her bank account, hoping he wouldn’t notice. She had $30,000 stashed in the bottom drawer in a closet — banded stacks of hundred-dollar bills — but he found it and dropped it in front of her.

She told him it was hers. He said, everything yours is mine.

He told her to hit him. He would make sure she never got up again. She grabbed some makeup, just one shoe, and left.


They had been dividing their time between Orange County and Henderson, Nev., where she had bought a house in the hope of keeping John away from her children.

Now she and Jacquelyn hurried out there to pack her stuff into a moving truck. Debra put tape over the camera lenses, in case John was watching.

She found a family-law attorney, Michael R. O’Neil, who filed to annul the marriage in April 2016. If Debra had glimpsed a frightening side of him during their first separation, John now seemed a creature of pure malignancy.

“You get your family,” he wrote. “I got the dog. I got the better deal.”

He demanded money. He would drain her accounts through the divorce courts if she fought him.

“For once in your holier than thou life, listen to me,” he wrote. “You are going to have to pay both sides. Which could easily take a year.”

And: “We had a good run except for your family. There is no trust. But the last thing I want to do is break you.”

He sent her a photo of himself with a provocatively posed ex-girlfriend, taunting her. He threatened to ruin her.

“Make yourself available or I ruin a family. There are children involved, Deb. This is bigger than you,” he wrote. “You’re selfish to allow this. You’ll never forgive yourself but I am doing it.”

He called her a crook on Yelp. He had once coaxed naked photos out of her, and now he posted them to her nephew’s Facebook page. He texted her that he knew where she was when she picked up her grandchild.

He lectured her. “You don’t know how to live. Sex is not love. Get help.”

He accused her of assaulting him. “It’s pathetic it’s come to this point, but you leave me with no options after your storm of lies.”

“Storm of lies!” she replied. “Wow. You are the expert in that area.”

He had entered their marriage with only a few boxes, mostly old clothes, and now he accused her of stealing $120,000 in cash and gold coins from him.

He complained that he shouldn’t have to live on the $558 monthly disability checks he received for his bad back. He demanded $7,000 a month in spousal support and $75,000 in attorney’s fees.

“It doesn’t matter that paying support isn’t what a ‘real’ man demands. It’s what the court feels is equitable. That’s all that matters. Think Deb. There is no alternative to this unless you start thinking. That, or you will eventually get bled dry,” he wrote. “Be smart Deb. You have no idea of the mistakes you made. Be smart and you’ll save a fortune.”

He had posed as her soul mate, the answer to her longings after four failed marriages, and now he used her past as a barb.

“You think I’m going to allow your family to continue. Look in the mirror. Five times and still making the same mistakes,” he wrote. “Now you’re getting yours. Pray Deb. Pray hard.”

He had turned himself into a churchgoing Christian and wept during sermons, knowing God mattered to her, and now he used her faith as a cudgel.

“Everyone is a better Christian than you,” he wrote. “Paybacks are costly and a bitch.”

He had rhapsodized endlessly about her beauty and promised she would never know loneliness again, and now turned her vulnerabilities into points of attack.

“You lying old bag,” he wrote. “You’ll grow old alone.”

He sent her a list of her clients — builders who used her interior design business — and threatened to call them twice a day.

“I don’t trust anything you say,” she replied. “You’re evil.”

“Face it Deb, I’m smarter than you.”

“Stop! Don’t contact me again or I will go to the police!”


She began wearing a wig, living and working out of hotels, checking in under the names of her assistants. In a request for a restraining order, her lawyer laid out John Meehan’s long, ugly history. How the Indiana nursing board had yanked his license and called him “a clear and immediate danger to the public.”

How he’d jumped out of a moving ambulance in Michigan. How he’d swindled multiple women and done prison time and been slapped with restraining orders. How Laguna Beach police, who had also asked for a restraining order against him, had found cyanide capsules in his belongings.

An Orange County judge decided there was no immediate threat to Debra’s safety. Her husband lived in another state; he had never physically harmed her.


If there was any chance of trying again, Debra undermined it when she visited John at the Henderson house soon afterward. She thought she could talk him into an annulment. She suggested they might even try to start fresh, afterward, with no lies — it was the only thing she could think of to say.

He looked terrible. He said he had terminal cancer. He wouldn’t hear of it. Hadn’t she promised “Till death do us part?” How could she leave him to die alone?

Trying to buy time, she wrote him a $10,000 check to rehab the Henderson house and told him he could stay there while they figured things out. She slept on a mattress on the floor that night.

“I’m dying Deb. Slowly dying. Please just come up with something so we can move on,” he texted her when she got back to California. “I’m doing horrible without you. I need you.”

O’Neil knew what a judge would say. How scared of him could she be?


O’Neil thought, “Just a sick son of a bitch.” He believed his threats were probably idle. He thought this until June 11, 2016, when Debra’s $64,000 sport-model Jaguar XF disappeared from in front of her Irvine office.

Grainy surveillance footage showed John, in jeans, crouched behind the bushes, watching the car that morning. And it showed him coming back about an hour later wearing gloves and a painter’s uniform to steal it.

The car turned up a block away, reeking of gas, with fire damage to the seat and doors. As arson, it was a display of incompetence. The windows were rolled up, the doors closed, so the fire had extinguished itself for lack of oxygen.

June passed, then July. Now it was the third week of August, and Irvine police still hadn’t charged him.

Debra was living with Jacquelyn at the Carlyle Apartments in Irvine, near the airport. Jacquelyn liked that there were security cameras.

Debra had cut John off. She wasn’t taking his calls or texts. She and her kids were looking after John’s golden retriever, Murphy, which he’d left at a pound. And she had the Buick Enclave he’d been using, which had been impounded after he ran it into a gate.


On Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, Terra was working at Rebel Run, a Newport Beach dog kennel. A man called with what sounded like a French accent.

The man made it sound as though they had met at some point, and wanted to know if she would be working tomorrow; he wanted to bring in his Rhodesian ridgebacks for her to groom.

She did not recognize the voice, or remember having met him, or think too much about the fact that most of the grooming requests came from women, not men. She told the stranger her work schedule. Yes, she would be there tomorrow until about 5 p.m.


Around 11:30 that night, Jacquelyn was returning from dinner with a male friend when she saw John in a car, in the dark, waiting outside her apartment gate.

She saw him reflected in the glow of his smartphone, and they locked eyes. John ducked his head. She told her friend, “Follow him!”

Jacquelyn watched John head onto the 405 Freeway. John had smashed or removed the lights on his car, as if to improve his ability to move furtively in the dark.

Jacquelyn believed John was there to kill her or her mom. That he had been hoping to catch one of them alone, an easy target, and the presence of her male friend scared John off.

Debra was skeptical of her daughter’s account about seeing John. She thought the guy probably had just looked like John, that Jacquelyn was overreacting. They didn’t call police.

Jacquelyn wanted to know: What if he goes after Terra? Debra didn’t share this fear; a psychologist had told her the danger was to her, not to her children. Plus, what had Terra ever done to him? She thought he even seemed to like her, sort of.

But Jacquelyn told her friend to drive to the Coronados, the sprawling apartment complex in next-door Newport Beach where Terra was living.

Jacquelyn circled her sister’s apartment complex. She checked her sister’s door at Apartment W304, to make sure it was locked. She listened for the reassuring jingle of the collar of her sister’s cat. She didn’t want to wake her.

She called Terra at 6 a.m. and said, “John’s in the area. He’s in a white Camry.”

In the dark, Jacquelyn had misidentified the car John was driving. Terra would be watching for the wrong one.

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.

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