Ok, now that the Dateline episode has aired, I’m back to share some thoughts and observations on this twisted case as it’s been banging at my brain ever since I listened to the podcast. Twice now.
SPOILER ALERT!!! If you have not listened to the Dirty John podcast OR read about it at the LA Times, please do before reading here as this post will spoil the storytelling for you.
You can access it all here. Shout out to Christopher Goffard and his masterful investigating and storytelling. PLEASE keep doing podcasts!
Ok, on to the nitty gritty.
Debra Newell grew up with an older sister named Cindi. Cindi grew up to marry a violent man, who ultimately killed her. Sound familiar? This is just one of the similarities this story has to my life. There is a con man/sociopath involved too, but not in Cindi’s life; in Debra’s. It’s like my sister’s story, but split between two sisters.
Goffard was brilliant in his attempt to understand the seriously twisted and dangerous set of decisions that Debra Newell made after inviting this sociopath in to her life, so he went back. Back to her mother. This may have been the tipping point for me in the podcast right there. More on that later.
I think many of my readers out there found me because of my connection to true crime. I think many of you have also watched every Dateline/48 Hours kind of show out there and tune in to Investigation Discovery. Maybe you even read true crime books. Never, ever have I seen a story with a violent man and a woman trapped in his clutches where the audience also turns away the woman in disgust, like in Dirty John.
Let’s just say this. There was a moment in one of the podcast episodes, as we listened on some long boring highway across Oklahoma last Fall, where my very caring, very loving and compassionate Psychologist husband blurted out “I don’t care what happens to her anymore.” He was referencing the identified “victim” in this story, Debra Newell. He had reached a tipping point. I think he’s not alone, in fact I know he’s not.
For me, I’ve crossed Debra Newell off the Victim List in the Dirty John debacle given everything, including her most recent interactions with me on Facebook. And I will tell you why. The victims are her children and her nephew and even her daughter’s dog, in this story.
I should be the last person to put her under this kind of scrutiny as I have spent nearly 30 years defending my sister who made similar mistakes and terrible choices that cost her her life. I am also the first person to do so for the very same reasons. What skeeves me though about Debra, is her abject unwillingness to look at her role in this life threatening situation that nearly killed her own daughter. Well, that’s one of the things that skeeves me.
Debra walked in to this situation with so many red flags blaring at her, that she could (and did) host a red flat parade. She was getting them from every angle–him, her daughters, her nephew and even herself. Ok, she “fell in love”, it happens. Sociopaths are charming, their greatest skill is seeing holes in a person’s psyche, then filling them before the person has taken their coat off. That’s their super power. And that’s all Debra Newell wants you to see in her–that she “fell in love with the wrong guy”. That it could “happen to anyone”. That it was all about him.
But it’s far more complicated than that with her. And, in my opinion, that is why, perusing social media following the airing of this show to a wider audience on Dateline, there is very very little sympathy coming her way--posts are filled with words like “stupid, Dumb Debbie, vile, terrible mother, idiot” on and on.
I’m not calling her names like this though. The words I am using are vulnerable and, dare I say, manipulative.
Debra desperately appears to want to be seen as the victim here; the primary victim.
Yet, a glaring truth she cannot avoid and wiggle and giggle her way around is SHE PUT HER CHILDREN KNOWINGLY IN HARM’S WAY AND NEARLY GOT HER DAUGHTER KILLED.
Debra is attempting to explain all of this under the banner of coercive control.She even told me that I needed to study up on it. Honey, I’ve been knee deep in attempting to understand these things for several years now during the process of writing my book on MY sister Cindy’s death who was under the spell of coercive control against her better judgment. I think I’m one of the last people who needs to read up on that particular subject.
Debra wants us to believe that all of her actions and decisions were because she was being abused and manipulated, yet why are so many of us annoyed and outright pissed at her? Because we are being manipulated right back.
You see, unlike my sister Cindy, who was filled with questions that her sociopath had quick and condemning answers for, filling her with guilt for the audacity to ever ask the question and seemingly rational explanations, Debra Newell was surrounded by ANSWERS.
Sociopaths love to play in the world of gray, where they are being questioned about inconsistencies and lies, which is their playground. They love this volleying because they know they almost always win. This is fun for them! Their prey questions something, they start with the guilt trip over the nerve of the question itself (how dare you even think that about me?), then having disabled the nervous questioner, they go on to fill in the blank with such confidence and bravado that it leaves their prey often apologizing for even doubting them. This is where they excel, and this did happen to Debra Newell over and over.
However, what takes her right out of this Land of Excuses, justifying her own bizarre behavior, is that, at some point, he was out of the equation of this dynamic and her hands, her home, her awareness was filled with cold hard evidence and every answer she should have ever needed about him.
He was in the hospital for three weeks, and she had received ample information through her family who had hired a private investigator about John Meehan’s criminal background, violent past, various incarcerations, drug addiction, arsenal of weapons, restraining orders, impersonations, multiple social security numbers, CYANIDE for God’s sake. She had all of this information at her disposal, in her hands, in front of her eyes, with full support of every person in her life who was close to her and loved her and had warned her about for weeks. She went through all of his belongings in her home and saw it all–hard and cold–right in front of her, without any of his influence.
This was not a matter of him spinning at this point. This is where it all tipped in to her spin. She knew, objectively, without a doubt, that every single thing he had told her about himself was a lie. That he was a con artist, swindler and had, by that time, threatened the lives of her children and her nephew who she helped raise following her sister’s murder. Then Debra Newell started acting like John Meehan herself. In one eerie part of the interview, she giggles as she talks about him “teasing” about taking out her daughter like a sniper “from a thousand yards”. She began lying to and manipulating her own family, as she took him back for her own selfish reasons, governed not by naivete anymore, but by her needs.
Now at the beginning, she threw her counselor under the bus and said she stayed with him despite early warning signs from her daughters because this counselor had said she needed to set firmer boundaries with them. Debra Newell is masterful at playing victim, while actually not being a victim. I personally find that whole counselor story suspect and I imagine, that therapist is somewhere cringing at this characterization, or bastardization, of what really happened in that office.
Debra wanted to justify staying with him, she loved the attention–the flowers, the back rubs, the cars filled up with gas, the walks at night, that she still recalls with dreamy-eyed school girl tone AFTER KNOWING ALL SHE DOES. She justified it by putting that ownus on the counselor. It was not the last time she employed this sophisticated deflection. Debra doesn’t like to look at herself much, nor take ownership.
I think the worm turned with me, though further on in the podcast. I really wanted to give her every benefit of the doubt. But she pushed it too far.
In part of John Meehan’s manipulation to get back in her life, he somehow convinced her that they needed to sue someone on his behalf (which by now she had known was his MO–frivolous lawsuits against people he had actually wronged). They went to one lawyer, who immediately felt Debra’s life was in danger, so he gently tried steering her toward getting a post-nuptial agreement with the thought that if Meehan believed he wouldn’t benefit financially from her death, he might not kill her. Of course, Meehan was having nothing of this idea, so he ended up firing the lawyer, paid for with Debra’s money of course, demanded a refund, threatened him, THEN reported him to the Bar. Debra sat back and watched this, knowing this lawyer had done nothing but try to protect her, yet she played dumb and turned a blind eye as he was thrown under the bus for helping her.
Then, she ended up hiring another lawyer. She had put Meehan up in another home she had purchased in Nevada (this all went down in Orange County, CA). And she set about “protecting herself”. Debra claims she was living in hotels and using rental cars and running around southern CA in dark wigs as she attempted to hide from Meehan and was getting protection. As her new lawyer was preparing the strategy to get him out of her life, including a restraining order, Debra decides he has said something that tells her she should travel to NV, alone, unprotected and MAKE A VISIT TO THIS SCARY MAN’S HOUSE (well, her house she’s putting him up in). In person, alone!
That’s where she lost me. I think that’s the point where I realized that Debra Newell was addicted to this attention from John Meehan and would do absolutely anything to get it. She saw him and spent the night at his (her) house and again, taking no responsibility, tried to claim this was some instruction from her lawyer WHO WAS GETTING A RESTRAINING ORDER for her, that she just sabotaged. Of course the lawyer, also interviewed, was as exasperated as us listening.
He had threatened her life, both of her daughter’s lives, her nephew’s life by this point and she still either flew or drove a state away to see him. And she wants to blame that decision on absolutely anyone and anything but herself. To this day, she does.
I believe this trip became the catalyst for what Meehan shortly after, started plotting and executing: the murder of at least one of her daughters and/or kidnapping them. They are who he came for, not Debra, with his knife collection and zip ties in his trunk. Just like the Mafia he so often bragged about. Hurt the person by hurting their loved ones.
Debra Newell comes by this shocking lack of the instinct to protect her young honestly. Her mother was a stellar teacher of this appalling style of parenting. I’ve never seen anything like it.
This part of the podcast is hard for me to write about, because it’s hard for me to think about.
Debra’s sister Cindi was in, clearly an unhappy marriage with a man she described as too controlling. She married very young, had one son, and decided to leave her husband. She told her mother–her very “Christian” mother–who wasn’t happy about it. In her breathy, little girl sounding voice (much like Debra’s, by the way), Cindi’s mother describes how disappointed she was in her daughter’s decision.
So, she decided to do what any ABNORMAL mother would do: she took in her daughter’s husband to live under her roof, as Cindi separated from him. That man, Billy, left his mother-in-law’s home where he was living, with a loaded gun he’d borrowed from a friend, went to see his estranged wife who was sitting at a table paying bills.
He lifted that gun to the back of her neck and shot and killed Cindi, the day she was to go have lunch with her mother, at the home he was living.
Of course, Cindi never showed up for that lunch. Her mother never thought to inquire about her, but went on with her afternoon, packing up the uneaten lunch and giving piano lessons, until the State troopers showed up at her door, telling her that her daughter had been killed. And her son in law had shot himself as well but appeared to be surviving.
Within moments of hearing this shocking news, with her grandson right in her home, this grandmother and mother of the victim, describes a revelatory moment on her doorstep, where she feels a Christ-like spirit invade her body and has a complete moment of forgiveness for Billy. The man who had just murdered her daughter.
She breathy-brags about how she now speaks worldwide about forgiveness with a similar inappropriate giggle we often hear in Debra as well, on the podcast.
Goffard then describes how Billy’s trial went down and how the victim’s mother– Debra’s mother–chose to side with her son in law, the murderer and testify on his behalf, throwing her own daughter under the bus. He’s read the transcripts, so I believe him as he details a family who basically shared a perspective that Cindi almost deserved to be murdered because she wasn’t nice to Billy, therefore he should be spared. And he was. He’s a free man now, walking around with a free pass handed to him by his victim’s family. In the podcast, Billy was described as incredulous they would support him like this. He seems more normal than they do.
THIS IS NOT FORGIVENESS. This is some kind of weird denial and avoidance. Somehow Cindi’s mother chose to sidestep her pain and grief by focusing on Billy and that cause, elevating herself in the process. Or maybe she was just a shitty mother all along. Or maybe there is a value in that family where men, even violent, terrible men, will always come before a woman. The latter is kind of where I land, because Debra did the exact same thing, in her own way, with her own daughters.
Last week, I was talking about this story with a friend, who has had some domestic violence in her past. She immediately sided with Debra, before listening to the podcast. “I’ve done similar things,” she said. “I went back to my daughter’s Dad, even though I knew he was not good for us.”. She thought she would have sympathy for Debra, so I said “let’s talk after you’ve listened yourself”.
“I just finished episode one. I hate Debbie,” her text read later that day. Wow, I at least gave Debra til episode 3, before giving up on her.
When we had a chance to talk, she described how Debra’s breathy voice, talking about John Meehan in present tense with the wistful delivery of a widow who had lost her beloved made her feel like Debra was still in love with that sociopath, even now.
The Dateline Facebook page is filled with people with their various, but similar, impressions, most focusing on how she put her kids in harm’s way. That’s the button that got pushed in most who are bugged by it. There are a few who champion for her, thinking she’s a victim, that she’s brave for telling her story. I’m not one of them.
Click this link to see the exchange I had with Debra (and others) on the Dateline page (hopefully this works):
I think she could be brave if she started getting real. I mean this JUST HAPPENED in 2016. Clearly her daughter Terra who was attacked, is still traumatized.
Yet Debra is posting inane comments on that page like, “I’m happy!” and “it’s healthy to want a companion!” and “not desperate!”. Yes, with those exclamation points like a cheerleader. In the face of her daughter miraculously saving her own life and looking evil, literally in the face and having to KILL SOMEONE before she has barely started her own life. I have seem almost zero remorse from Debra Newell about his horror, anywhere. And she has had multiple platforms now.
Two details stand out to me as I draw this to a close. Terra’s voice as she calls her mother from the crime scene and apologizing to her for “killing her husband”. That is the first thing she thought about–not that she had been viciously attacked–but that she needed to apologize.How sad is that? Debra engendered the relationship that would result in that sentiment. She is the mother. That is on her.
The last detail is the photo of John Meehan, braindead, in a hospital bed. Hooked up to IV’s, and we know a stab wound through his eye socket.
That photograph was taken by Debra Newell herself. There are so many layers of disturbance with that fact, that I will just let it lie. That, combined with Goffard’s masterful ending of the podcast: Debra Newell’s own words while viewing the wedding video that she still has saved, after all of this. It’s not just the words, or the fact she has kept this video at her disposal, but it’s the romantic way she reminisces about the man who attacked and tried to murder her own flesh and blood. Like a dreamy-eyed school girl, talking about her first crush, “he looks happy, doesn’t he?”