Dirty John Part 1: The Real Thing | LA Times & Wondery Podcast (Transcript)
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Dirty John Part 1: The Real Thing | Los Angeles Times & Wondery (Transcript)
Length: 42 mins
A reader/listener note: This story contains adult content and language.
Matt Murphy: There are a total of 13 stab wounds which penetrated the body. They are all arbitrarily numbered, from 1 to 13. They are eight wounds noted in the left side and upper back, in the shoulder and scapular area, where wound number 1 is on the top of the left shoulder
Christopher Goffard: I'm sitting in the office of a man who prosecutes murders for a living. His name is Matt Murphy; he's a veteran Assistant District Attorney who handles homicides out of Newport Beach, California.
If you're from somewhere else and have a mental picture of Orange County, about an hour south of LA, Newport Beach is probably part of that image. It's the side of the county that the tourist guides want you to see. Pacific Coast Highway runs through it, luxury shopping, piers and surf shops and plastic surgeons, yachts and cliffside mansions. I used to cover this city as a crime reporter for a local newspaper. There weren't a lot of murders, maybe one a year, two or three in a very bad year. Greed or lust figured prominently in the most memorable ones.
These days, if you're one of the rare people who meet a violent death in Newport Beach, Matt Murphy is the prosecutor who will hear about it. The homicide case that landed on his desk in the summer of 2016 was particularly violent and it was unique in his experience.
Matt: Number 5 is on the left, more to the upper arm area. Number 6, 7, and 8 are close to the midline region of the upper back. All of these stab wounds are superficial wounds. They have all been sutured by metallic staple sutures.
Christopher: Murphy is reading the autopsy report, which is part of how he assesses whether there's a prosecutable offense. A homicide is the killing of one human being by another. He had to decide whether it was a crime.
Matt: Wound number 13, which is the fatal wound, is the upper left eyelid, 1 centimeter in size. Only wound number 9 has some bruising around it and another bruise noted around 12 and 13. So, when you review something like this, what it tells you is this young woman fought like hell.
Christopher: From the Los Angeles Times and Wondery, this is Dirty John. I'm Christopher Goffard.
PART 1: THE REAL THING
In the fall of 2014, Debra Newell was flipping through profiles on OurTime, a dating site for singles over 50. 84 strangers wanted to get to know her. She took a chance on three guysÔøΩ she had coffee with one, dinner with another, breakfast with the third. They were older and less handsome than their profile pictures. There wasn't any chemistry. Debra Newell has hazel eyes and high cheekbones and wavy blond hair. When she was in her 30s, a man threw himself on the hood of her car begging for a date.
For years, attracting men had been as easy as walking into a room. Now she was 59, married and divorced four times, her four kids were grown and she had a flourishing interior design business. She wanted a man to travel with and share her success with. She worried that she was too old for another chance at love. She tried the site again. Someone else wanted to meet her. This guy checked every box.
Debra Newell: He looked very successful according to everything in this profile. He posted a few pictures, said he was a physician, so I thought, "Interesting. Seems safe," so we started talking.
Christopher: John Michael Meehan had thick, dark hair and a big, warm, friendly smile then invited trust. If you saw his smile on a billboard, you'd want whatever he was selling. He looked a little weathered, but he might have once been an All American quarterback on a trading card. They exchanged texts then phone calls.
Debra: He said, "You are so my type," and the last guy I was with said I wasn't his type. I thought, "I'm so his type. Well, okay, good. That's a good thing." He sent me pictures of him as a little boy. Said he was a Christian, said that he had gone got to my church. I said, "I go to Mariners. Where do you go?" He goes, "That's where I go." I said that I had four kids and grandkids, he goes, "Oh, how lucky you are. I would love to meet them."
Christopher: She lived in Irvine, about an hour south of Los Angeles. They met at her penthouse. She grabbed her Chanel bag and they walked down the block to a casual dining restaurant called Houston's, where they found a place at the bar. John was 55, 6 foot 2 with broad shoulders. He had flawless teeth, a strong jaw, and hazel green eyes. He focused on her intently. Debra wore black Gucci stiletto heels and designer jeans; John seem to care almost nothing about his clothes.
Debra: He looked like an overgrown college guy with his preppy shirt and his shorts and I don't know.
Christopher: Like a frat guy who'd never grown up?
Debra: Yeah, exactly. That's what he looked like.
Christopher: He was smart and charming and articulate. He was divorced with two daughters. He said he had houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs, that he was an anesthesiologist just back from a year in Iraq, where he had worked with Doctors Without Borders. He told stories about being on the frontline, jumping out of a helicopter.
Debra: We just talked about what we wanted out of life. He asked a lot of questions about my business and how it works. I thought it was a good trait that he's more interested in me than himself. I think it's healthy when the conversation goes back and forth.
Christopher: She was still stung by her last boyfriend, who would complain that she'd put on some weight, but John told her that she was beautiful, that she stopped his heart.
Debra: I remember him rubbing my back.
Christopher: As you're sitting side by side?
Debra: Yeah. He moved very fast.
Christopher: They kissed that night back at her place. He wanted it to go further; he did not want to leave. He even threw himself on her bed and said, "This feels incredible." She was getting uncomfortable. She had to insist he leave. She had to kick him out.
The next day, she was back in her office a little sad. She tried to lose herself in her work. There were always deadlines. She'd spent 30 years building her business, Ambrosia Interior Design, and she was a name in her field. She supervised a team of devoted designers, marketers, and project managers. 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.
She took me through her storage warehouse in Irvine. It's as big as a supermarket and crammed with sofas, modern art, mirrors, frames, and a thousand other furnishings. She drums her fingers on an elegant object in the shape of an inflated blowfish.
Debra: I like these.
Christopher: It looks, to me, like a vase, but she calls it a ceramic decorative ball.
Debra: If it's a white and cream scheme, they pull a lot of white. If it's a gray, more of a restoration look, they pull those. So it just depends on the scheme.
Christopher: When people walk into one of Debra Newell's model homes, they're invited to imagine their futures in them; she calls them approachable dreams. Her warm, flawless rooms are like glossy ads in upscale lifestyle magazines. No kids' toys or dirty dishes in sight, none of the messiness of actual living. One whole section of Debra's warehouse is shelf after shelf of hardback books, coordinated by color, because books make nice furniture in perfect homes. A little nod to culture though the pages inside might as well be blank.
Can you explain the books again?
Debra: Sleeve pulled by color. Like let's say it's a blue and beige scheme, cream will pull. Blue, and beige, and cream books. So depending on what the color scheme is.
Christopher: And where do you get them?
Debra: Libraries. I go around on Saturdays and collect books. I love to read and it's really become something that's a little bit of a hobby of mine to go around and find books.
Christopher: So aqua books, blue books, navy books, white, gray, yellow, brown. And the books themselves don't matter.
Debra: Well, we don't want anything that says death or sex on it. So we have to stay away from those. And then there's always‚Äö√Ñ¬∂
Christopher: Did you make up those rules yourself?
Debra: No, the builders did.
Christopher: It's like the face you show someone on a date. You're inviting someone to fantasize about the piece that may complete his or her life. If your eagerness or loneliness or desperation show too soon, you're done. Maybe that had been John's mistake.
One of Debra's daughters was working with her on the day after her disastrous date with him. She told her about it.
Debra: I thought, "What a jerk." Like, "I can eliminate him."
Christopher: Later that day, John called her. He told her he was sorry; he knew he'd overstepped. He just wanted to spend every minute with her. Would she give him another chance?
Debra: I was still attracted to him, so I was curious to hear what he had to say and, of course, he persuaded me.
Christopher: John had some idiosyncrasies. He showed up for dates in his faded, blue medical scrubs, as if fresh from surgery. He even wore them to a formal dress cancer benefit she invited him to. Some people snickered, but she thought, "Busy doctor."
By the second or third date, he was telling her he loved her, that he wanted to marry her. Two weeks after they met, she emailed him. "So you are the real thing," with a smiley face emoji, and he replied, "Best thing that will ever happen to you."
He began spending the night regularly at her Irvine penthouse. This alarmed her 24-year-old daughter, Jacquelyn, who lived there. Jacquelyn thought he looked homeless. She remembered the first time she saw him at their place.
Jacquelyn Newell: Well, the second I opened the door, I just kind of looked at him head to toe and thought to myself, "Oh, this loser." He didn't carry herself very well; his body was kind of moping around. He looked very focused. His eyes were going from one corner of the room to the other, as if he was scanning, thinking pretty hard about something. He had a lot going on in his mind, but he was pretty calm.
Christopher: Even at a glance, Debra Newell's penthouse reflected money. There were black velvet dining chairs, a glass cocktail table, fine art on the walls, including two original Salvador Dali paintings. Jacquelyn had a collection of expensive bags and purses.
Jacquelyn: I have a safe where I keep Birken bags and my nicer purses and I had it in my office area and he walked in and said, "What do you have in the safe, kiddo?" and I said, "None of your business," and I slid the door closed behind him. I believe that was my second interaction with him. And then I told my mom she'd better get this creep out of the house or I don't plan on living with her.
Christopher: Debra wasn't surprised by the criticism. She often exasperated her kids with her taste in men. They found something bad to say about anyone she dated. They had seen her endure one bad relationship after another. Over the years, men had yelled at her, hit her, and taken her money.
Soon, she and John were quietly looking for a place together. They found a house on the boardwalk on Balboa Island in Newport Beach. The rent was $6500 a month. She put down a year in advance. He didn't want his name on the lease. "Tax problems," he said.
After Jacquelyn's overt hostility, Debra wasn't about to tell her kids that John would be moving in with her. She knew what they'd sayÔøΩ 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 day by day, better than her husbands had. How he brought coffee in the morning and got her groceries. How he took her Tesla and Range Rover in for maintenance. Sometimes he even carried her purse for her. She was convinced that they'd understand how wonderful he was once they got to know him and she knew that, if any of her kids would give him a chance, it was her youngest, Terra.
Terra Newell was 23 and is quiet and non-confrontational as her sister Jacquelyn was assertive. If Jacquelyn was the streetwise family rebel, Terra was the pleaser. The first word people used to describe her was sweet. Terra was into dogs and zombie shows, church and country music. She had Psalm 23 tattooed on her foot. She had her mom's blond hair and soft manner. She was an avid hiker, fit but physically small, with a gentleness that made her seem smaller still. She was living outside Vegas with her boyfriend. They'd met at a pet store where they'd both worked and had bonded over The Walking Dead. Terra was taking online dog grooming classes.
For years, Terra had watched men come in and out of her mom's life. She knew her mom liked to take care of people and tried to see the best in them. Sometimes she trusted too easily, so Terra felt protective of her mom.
Terra Newell: She liked Christians and some men would lie and say they were a Christian just to charm her. They would go to church with her, but they wouldn't be involved or have a personal connection with the Lord.
Christopher: Terra wondered why a guy who sounded as good as John would still be single. She wanted to have a look at him. A few days before Thanksgiving, Terra and her boyfriend, Jimmy Grob, drove out to Southern California for a few days. John was helping Debra move into her new rental house on the water. At 6 foot 2, John was physically imposing and he towered over Terra by a full foot.
Terra: My first impression of this guy, we walked in and he just didn't really want to say hi to us. We tried to say hi to him; he gave us a quick hi and we tried to help him move and stuff.
Christopher: She had her three dogs with her, including her miniature Australian shepherd, Cash.
Terra: We went into the house, we had the dogs there and stuff and they were roaming around. They were very anxious, picking up, probably, from my energy from John and John's energy. Just he wasn't thrilled to meet us. I just thought maybe he might be shy or something else might be going on.
Christopher: Jimmy thought John's behavior was odd. He huffed and strained as he tried to move Debra's queen mattress single-handedly.
Jimmy: He'd try to throw the mattress a few feet in front of him, wrestle it down the stairs and onto the car. It was just‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ He wasn't taking any help. Me and Terra and someone were there and we're looking at each other like, "Is this guy for real right now? He's just really overdoing it for no reason." It seemed like he is trying to impress us or Debbie or both. Just some kind of ego trip that he had
Christopher: While Terra and Jimmy were staying in Debra's spare bedroom, Debra was trying to maintain the illusion that John wasn't really living there. He'd moved in after knowing or just five weeks. Here's Terra.
Terra: About the second day we stayed there, I went into her bathroom to get some Q-tips and his stuff was just all there and then I questioned her about it. I was like, "Why is his stuff here? You told me he wasn't moving in," because he'd only known her for two months.
Christopher: And she couldn't shake a few questions. If he had houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs, why had no one been allowed to see them? Why was he always driving Mom's cars instead of his own car? Why did he seem to spend all day playing Call of Duty on the 70-inch plasma TV Mom had bought for the house? If he was a doctor, why did he seem to own nothing but a few old clothes?
Terra: I was just confused because, to be honest, his story about having the three cars and the house, it didn't make a lot of sense to me. I called BS on that.
Christopher: Terra was looking through a closet when she found a box of John's stuff. There was a nursing certificate with his name on it.
Terra: I don't know the medical field that much, so I just thought he had a nursing certificate on top of the anesthesiologist degree or whatever and I said, " I found his nursing certificate," to my mom like, "how do you think he's not moving in here?" She told me she was getting his stuff framed for him and that's why it was there.
Christopher: Terra wasn't satisfied with the explanation and she did something Debra was not accustomed to from her quietest, most domicile daughter. For the first time in Terra's life, she lashed out and screamed at her mother. Why was she lying? Why didn't she just admit that he was living there?
Terra: My mom came up before him and started questioning me, "Why are you asking me this," and stuff, and then he came right behind her and just started screaming at me.
Jimmy: I'm in the back bedroom and I just hear a bunch of yelling and, all of a sudden, Terra runs to the back bedroom, crying hysterically, and John isn't too far behind, bursts into the room and‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ It just happened so quick, just like the flip of a switch.
Terra: He was accusing me of wanting to take my mom away from him and also accusing me of snooping through his things, which I didn't, but because he said that, it made me question what is he trying to hide. I screamed back because I didn't like the things he was saying and when someone's screaming at you, it's hard for you not to have a reaction out of that.
Jimmy: He was yelling that she shouldn't have been snooping through his stuff and that his kids would have been punished for this, been spanked and smacked. He definitely was trying to take control. He was definitely sticking his chest out, trying to take a commanding position. I had a broken hand at the time, so it was just‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ It kind of felt like I couldn't do anything in that moment except stand up for Terra and he definitely didn't like that. I could tell that she was more scared than anything because he was a very brooding, male dominant personality type. Before that, we hadn't really seen that. We'd seen this kind of cool, suave, Newport Beach looking guy.
Debbie and John kicked us out that night and it was just a very emotional, very scary event, especially on Thanksgiving. You'd expect that family would be brought closer together. I even remember telling Debbie, as we were walking out, "I thought Thanksgiving was about family and not boyfriends," and I can tell that got to her because I think she was starting to realize who and what she giving up just for this guy.
Terra: And we were not welcome there for Thanksgiving because he didn't want us there and he was living there. So that truth came out that he was living there. Yeah, I yelled at her too because I told her, "How can you let this guy talk to me," but I said it way differently. I screamed at her. I said, "How could you let this guy talk to me like this? This is your home, I'm your daughter." I'd just met him, like, "What's going on? You're going to let me leave over him?" So that day was very fearful.
Christopher: John had explanations for her kids' hostility to him. They were jealous. They wanted her money. They were waiting for her to die so they could collect. And he had an explanation for why he had a nursing degree but called himself a doctor. He said he also had a PhD, which earned him the right to the title, and he had advanced training in anesthesiology.
The day after the blowout, the family gathered for the big Thanksgiving party at the Balboa Island house. 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, like Debra's mother, Arlane. She adored him.
Arlane Hart: We are standing at the window looking at the ocean, looking at the bay I should say, and I was just kind of quizzing him and he was very nice, very nice, but he never really dressed up. He was just kind of tacky looking. I thought, for Thanksgiving day, we always dressed up in our family and just made a real special day, and here he comes down just looking pretty sloppy. But I thought, "Well, he works hard and that's okay for him to do that." We just kind of talked about little things and I told Debbie later, I said, "I think he's a great guy. He's just very nice and courteous and very kind to me."
Christopher: When Jacquelyn showed up, her cousin told her John wanted to have a private word with her in the alley behind the house.
Jacquelyn: I was like, "Oh, hell no. This is not happening right now. I have nothing to say to you." Anything that he wanted to say to me, it could have been said in the house in front of everybody, so I did not appreciate that at all and that prompted me to say some bad things about him like I think he's the devil and he is just so loser piece of shit. That's what I told everybody and then I left the home.
Christopher: To John, this was more evidence that Debra's kids were spoiled and out of control. His words tugged at Debra's anxiety that maybe they were. She thought she could use a professional's objective advice. She found a psychologist and the psychologist told her that her kids didn't have a right to run her life. She was 59; if this was the man she'd chosen, it was her business.
Debra: So then the psychologist starts working with me to have boundaries with the girls. So I was told that I have to give them rules, that if they're going to come over, they have to be invited over. They can't just stay without calling first, that I have a right to hang up on them if they're going to yell at me, tell them that I deserve happiness, just like you do. "You're not going to treat me that way or I'm going to hang up on you." She was just teaching me to not allow them to have behavior like that towards me and John loved it. "Yeah, I agree with you. This is great."
Christopher: Their house on the boardwalk had Florida ceiling windows that made you feel you were sitting atop Newport Harbor. It had a rooftop deck where they could watch the sailboats and the great yachts slide over the waves. John liked to wear baggy sweats and sweatshirts with the logo of the University of Arizona, where he had gotten an undergraduate degree.
Debra: Everything said Arizona on it. I thought, "Huh, we're 55 and we're wearing‚Äö√Ñ¬∂"
Christopher: So basically, you thought he was a mess in terms of his wardrobe?
Debra: Yeah. And had the baggiest pants.
Christopher: She took him to buy a closet full of new clothes. They went to Brooks Brothers.
Debra: He would try things on, I would say, "No, go back," and he'd come out in something, "I like that. Let's get that."
Christopher: She bought him some shoes, designer jeans, dress shirts, slacks, a black tweed sport coat, some form-fitting cashmere sweaters, deep burgundy, navy blue.
Debra: He looked better in darker tones than pastels. A guy with darker hair looks better with true colorsÔøΩ blues. He didn't look good in red. More winter tones, jewel tones.
Christopher: Like you got a blank canvas with this makeover?
Debra: Yeah. He said, "Dress me. I want to please you," so, yeah, I dressed him. He was like my new doll. He said everything was stolen when he was in Iraq.
Christopher: Every day now, he was begging her to marry him. She resisted. She loved him, but she knew her kids would be furious. In early December, she was driving to Vegas on business and he was tagging along. Why not drop by the courthouse while they were in town?
Debra: He was quite excited. I was a little more nervous and he kept saying, "I can't wait to be married to you," and just, "I'm so in love with you," and so on. I felt that this was an opportunity to love again.
Speaker: Debra, will you take John to be your wedded husband to live together in bonds of marriage?
Christopher: There's a video of the ceremony. They're standing in a dreary room against a wall with a plant covered trellis. It has the look of a spur of the moment decision. John is wearing jeans and an untucked shirt, kind of sloppy. Debra is in stylish slacks. He's beaming down at her. He chuckles a little as he tries to get the ring on her finger.
Speaker: I do pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss your bride.
Debra: Oh my gosh.
Christopher: Afterward, they celebrated with lemon drop Martinis. They had known each other less than two months. No one had been invited to the wedding. She didn't tell anyone. It was all a secret. She kept it a secret as the weeks passed and Christmas approached. The family planned to have their traditional Christmas get together at the 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 want to be around John. Here's Terra again.
Terra: Me and my mom went to therapy to try to work things out and be able to have a Christmas together and we worked out that John was not to be around the kids. I just wanted to be involved with them. Then I got there, hanging out for a while with them and then he shows up with my mom.
Christopher: John was still just her boyfriend as far as anyone knew. He bustled in with his arms full of presents for the children; dozens of presents Debra had bought.
Terra: He went up directly to the kids and started opening presents with them and I felt very offended by that because that wasn't what we discussed.
Christopher: As Debra remembers it, he didn't do anything wrong. He brought in the presents and sat by himself at the dining room table and the kids came up to him. Who could blame him for that? And he was good with kids; they brought out the playful side that she found so endearing.
Everyone agrees what happened next. Terra began crying hysterically, making a scene.
Debra: "Terra, you just need to handle this. You don't have to hang out near him. Just go hang out in the other room," and she was fit to be tied. She said, "You promised that he wouldn't play with the kids," I go, "What am I supposed to do? He's sitting right here. It's sort of a tough situation. You just have to let it go."
Christopher: Terra's grandmother didn't understand why she was so upset.
Arlane: There was Terra, sitting in the family room by herself just crying her eyes out, just trembling and crying. She was hysterical. She would not‚Äö√Ñ¬∂ She said, "I just want to leave," and I was getting upset with her for doing that. I thought, "This is terrible. All of our family meeting for Christmas," and she was just sitting there shaking and just crying.
Christopher: Terra knew what people were thinking, "There she goes again, being overemotional." She was the youngest in the family. Her dad had left the house 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.
Arlane: She always kind of got upset about things, and so I sat down and talked to her about that and she said, "I don't care. I don't like him. There's something about him. I don't like him."
Christopher: 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. She wasn't like her sister, Jacquelyn, back in Orange County, who had decided to take aggressive steps to make him go away.
Jacquelyn was angrier and more suspicious by the day. More than once, Mom would call and ask if she'd borrowed cash from her wallet; money was missing. Jacquelyn told her to keep a better eye on it.
Jacquelyn: And I would be like, No, I didn't go out of my way to your office or anything like that to go take or borrow money from you. How many places did you bring your purse today? Not only could it be that loser you're dating, but it could be anybody." It's just she has a lot of little opportunities that p