Dirty John Part 2: Newlyweds | LA Times & Wondery Podcast (Transcript)
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Dirty John Part 2: Newlyweds | Los Angeles Times & Wondery (Transcript)
Length: 37 mins
A listener note: This story contains adult content and language.
Christopher Goffard: Debra Newell couldn't be sure where her husband went all day and, at first, she didn't press that hard to find out. John would put on his faded, blue surgical scrubs, kiss her goodbye, and disappear in her Tesla. She never saw him bring home a paycheck, but she was too busy running her own business to pay much attention. John explained that, as a freelance anesthesiologist, he sometimes did off the books work for patients who paid cash. What she did know is that she'd never been happier with a man, that on days when he wasn't away, he doted on her endlessly, running her errands the way her paid assistants usually did, making sure her bills were paid, sitting beside her at doctor's appointments.
Debra Newell: He's incredible. He wants to do everything for me. Anything that needed to be done during the day, he would go get my cars washed, take the laundry in, go grocery shopping, do anything and everything for me. It was great coming home and having everything done. We would take a walk; he would hold my hand and want to hear all about my day. He came off as the perfect husband and I enjoyed it.
Christopher: One day, they walked into their Balboa Island home and was startled to find a stranger in the living room; a woman in her late 30s, early 40s. She looked homeless. She had taken a shower and she was wearing Debra's clothes. She was facing the big window that looked out on the Newport Harbor, drinking a glass of Ovaltine. John pushed her head onto the countertop, pulled her arms behind her, and told Debra to leave and call the police. They arrived to take her away. Debra didn't want to press charges. She wondered if John knew her, but he denied it. John said it was time to ramp up security. Even in a bayfront neighborhood where the rent was $6500 a month, they couldn't be too careful about drifters.
At his insistence, she had an ADT security camera installed in the bedroom, another down the hall, another overlooking the front door, another in the home office. John could monitor them on a laptop or on his smartphone. He wanted her to be safe. John also insisted that she install cameras at the Irvine warehouse of her business, Ambrosia Interior Design, where she kept valuable furniture and art and mirrors. Debra agreed, but Debra began to wonder whether he was watching for burglars or tracking her movements and if the cameras allowed him to watch her, they also permitted her to keep an eye on him.
From the Los Angeles Times and Wondery, this is Dirty John. I'm Christopher Goffard.
Part 2: Newlyweds
John had a kind, handsome face, and a weightlifter's build. He liked to pose shirtless and take selfies of his washboard abs. Sometimes he'd stop in front of a mirror and say, "Damn, I'm good looking." It made her smile.
Debra: There seemed to be such a closeness and such a vulnerable state. He seemed like a little boy at times. He had a really playful, cute side. Anytime he saw a dog, he would get down on the ground and play with it or, in the beginning, when my grandkids were allowed to be around him, he'd get down and wrestle with them, chase them, play in the sand. He had just this fun-loving, cute side to him. And he was funny; he had a really good sense of humor.
Christopher: His charm did not resonate with her children. Her daughter, Jacquelyn, had always been smart and intense and rebellious. As a little girl, she'd amazed her mother by reciting the Latin names of plants. And now that intelligence and intensity merged into a single-minded mission, she wanted to find out who and what John really was.
Jacquelyn Newell: There would be sometimes, as smart as I am, I would be like, "My poor mom, I can't blame her because he looks like he's doing great things for her," but I just knew that he wasn't.
Christopher: Jacquelyn had noticed John's fingernails. They looked dirty, not like a doctor's. She says she worked in sales for a plastic surgeon for a few years. She spent time around surgeons and anesthesiologists; this gave her some insight. The medical scrubs John wore, she thought he looked like a man wearing a costume.
Jacquelyn: My doctor would never leave the surgery center wearing his scrubs. It just looked like a front. It was strange. It was the same scrubs all the time, they weren't dirty from blood, they weren't dirty from the hospital; they were just worn at the back where his shoes were. When I observed that, I just said he's not an anesthesiologist either. That doesn't add up because I know many, I've worked for many, and that's not how they operate. That's not how the bottom of their scrubs look. That's how the bottom of the front office girl's scrubs look because she wears her tennis shoes all day long and goes and runs errands for us.
Christopher: His scrubs have germs on them and blood spatter. You're not supposed to...
Jacquelyn: Yeah, you don't even come in in them.
Christopher: Did you tell your mom this?
Jacquelyn: I kept a lot of these things to myself, the small details like that, because it wasn't enough to say that, "This makes him a bad person who you shouldn't be with." It just made him a person whose stories did not match up.
Christopher: Jacquelyn told her sister, Terra, that she was trying to get to the truth about John, monitoring his movements with a tracker.
Jacquelyn: She was like, "Oh my gosh, really? You're crazy. Well, what did you find out?" and I just told her "He just goes to all these random locations and I haven't really been able to put it together yet. And then, some days, he doesn't even leave the house. He's just laid out all day."
Christopher: What was Terra's attitude toward all this? Like you going a little too far?
Jacquelyn: Well, she started to get very scared. She started to be very scared for our mom and she would always tell me, "I'm very worried about Mom. What if he does something to her one day?" and I always thought the same, but I would always tell her, "Yeah, we can't think like that, but we have to get him away."
Christopher: Jacquelyn, along with her older sister, Nicole, decided to go even further. They decided to hire a private eye to look into John's background.
John told Debra that her children didn't want her to be in love. He said they didn't really love her; they just wanted her to die so they could take her money. Every chance he got, John told Debra how much he needed her. He seemed so much deeper, more emotionally available than the other men she had fallen for, the alpha males and playboys who had hurt her. Her self-esteem had been pummeled by a breakup with a guy she loved, but who had been sleeping with someone else. John had helped her get over him fast. He was making her feel whole again, healed, desired. There was passion in her life again and romance and love, things that, at age 59, she feared might be past her. They walk their Balboa Island neighborhood, past the sailboats and the beachwear shops, he brought her smoothies in bed, he brought her bouquets of peonies, her favorite flower. But because of John, Debra's kids were pulling away from her and her growing estrangement from them was crushing her. That was the price of having John in her life.
Debra traveled a lot as part of her job running Ambrosia Interior Design. She would fly out to visit the clubhouses and model homes she designed and John would tag along. He seemed protective of her. Once, as they were walking in Seattle, a homeless man said something vaguely denigrating about her. She can't remember what exactly, something like, "You have a hot old lady." John was suddenly in the guy's face, enraged and screaming. He grabbed him by the shirt and it looked like he was ready to seriously hurt the guy. Debra had to pull him away.
John didn't talk much about his family, but he liked to allude, almost proudly, to his late father's supposed mob connections. Debra thought this was amusing. And he talked about working as a medic in Iraq just before meeting her. He said he'd been in a chopper crash, which explained why his body looked battered, with scars on his legs and back and ankles. She watched him inject testosterone. He said this was for his kidneys. She watched in pop oxycontin. He said this was for his bad back. Once, in San Francisco, they went to see American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood movie about the American sharpshooter in Iraq. Afterward, John praised the film for its accuracy, "That's exactly what it's like over there." During his time in the desert, he'd had to take some lives himself.
Debra: So I said, "So what was it like? That must be so difficult," and he said, "Yeah. It was really difficult." I just found it interesting because he said, "Now you can ask me all the questions you want about my time in Iraq," and we walked around San Francisco and just talked and he told me story after story.
Christopher: He talked about killing people, right?
Debra: Yes, five of them. I think it was five. Five or six.
Christopher: And what did he say about that?
Debra: That he didn't realize, but he is the person that can do it. When faced with someone in front of you, it's very easy to do. Like an enemy in front of you, it's either him or you. I was like, "Okay."
Christopher: Shad Vickers is Debra Newell's nephew. He works in finance and he's a single father with three kids. Shad and Debra had always been close. To understand how close, you need to know something about the family that kind of looms ominously in the background of this story.
Shad's mother, Cindy Vickers, was Debra's older sister and, in March 1984, when Shad was a boy, his mother and father were separating. His dad took a .25 caliber handgun from a friend and walked up behind Shad's mom as she sat at a table in the Orange County home they had just sold. She was writing out checks. He killed her with a single bullet to the base of the neck.
Shad Vickers: Aunt Debbie was the younger sister of my mother that passed when I was 11 years old. She had a huge impact on my life. Basically raised me along with my grandparents that raised me. She financed family vacations, sporting events, just was always there for me throughout my life, from the day I was born until yesterday.
Christopher: Shad's father went to prison and Debra helped to raise Shad. She was there for him as he grew up during the years he didn't know what to do with his anger; the years he brawled and got in scrapes with the law.
Shad: She was a single mother at the time and so I think she really stepped out and earned her and me to consider her a second mother. She was always there for me.
Christopher: Shad had lost a mom, Debra had lost a sister, and they'd survived something unthinkable together. He was happy that she had found a man she loved.
Shad: My aunt just told me how great of this new man that she met. He was a doctor, just the greatest guy. He's in shape, he loves sports. She was really excited that he liked sports because she knew that myself and her son-in-law, we all loved sports. She thought we'd get along with him really well. He said, I guess, he was an ex-college athlete. Went to University of Arizona, likes to play basketball, really active, and just the greatest guy of all time. She just loved him. I could just tell, right off the bat.
Christopher: Shad knew some people in the family disliked John, but he was willing to give him a chance.
Shad: Just from how I've been... What I've gone through in my entire life, I'm always kind of cautious no matter what. No matter who I meet, I don't... I don't read a book by its cover, so if someone tells me they're horrible, I'm not going to think someone's horrible, so I'm going to try to judge someone on my own. I was definitely in the process of evaluating him, but initially, yes, he struck me like he was a good, fun guy.
Christopher: Shad brought his three little daughters over Debra's house and he said John was great with them. He said John wowed him with his intelligence and his sense of confidence and his tales of daring-do in Iraq.
Shad: One of the times he told me about jumping out of a helicopter and he said the first time he jumped out, he wasn't equipped with any type of weapon and he said bullets were flying by his head and then he said, the second time, "You rest assured I was protected with a weapon," so I said, "Yeah." I don't know if he said it was a rifle or a machine gun, he said he was shooting people. He didn't specifically tell me he shot anyone, but I do remember him telling me about jumping out of helicopters and being in a parachute, going to save people's lives, and having a gun to protect himself.
Christopher: Shad did think some things were odd, like why had he come into Debra's life with only a few old clothes? Why did he play video games, like Call of Duty, all day long? One day at Debra's place, in late February 2015, John said something that scared him. They were in the kitchen making margaritas and the subject of Jacquelyn came up.
Shad: Jacquelyn was definitely leading the crusade against him. She was saying some things that my aunt didn't like to hear. But he was just making the margaritas and he said, "I could take her out from 1000 yards out," and my aunt kind of laughed. She just thought it was just funny and, for me, it wasn't something that, typically, I have ever had a funny conversation about that. But, like I said, the part of me that just let it fall off my back like water on a duck's back is he came from Iraq and he probably had a lot of emotional, mental issues and that was probably 5%, but 95%, I was just like, "This is strange," so that was the... Definitely started me thinking about questioning things about this guy.
I remember telling my family members about it. I remember telling Jacquelyn about it and that's when she started getting, obviously, scared, which I understand. That's when she went kind of hiding.
Christopher: John always said he had houses in Newport Beach and Palm Springs, as would befit a successful doctor. One day, the private eye came back with some preliminary information. Shad studied it. The report said John had a nursing license; not a doctor's license. That he had a bankruptcy on his record and that he'd been associated with addresses in Arizona, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and across California. One of the recent addresses was on Date Palm Drive in Cathedral City in Riverside County, out in the California desert. The report said this was an RV park. His curiosity gnawing at him, Shad started making calls.
Shad: I spoke to the lady that was running the trailer park. Initially, she wouldn't give me the information, but then, once I kind of convinced her that John Meehan was married to my mother, which I like to her to get some information, she said, "Yeah, he lived here. Basically, we had a relationship and then he left and I haven't heard from him since."
Christopher: There was another address linked to John Meehan, it was 550 North Flower Street in Santa Ana. This was the county jail. Shad worried about sharing this information with Debra. He worried that anything he told her would get back to John.
Debra's mother, Arlane, continued to adore John. Over lunch, she found him charming and sweet and funny.
Arlane Hart: I live in Corona, so I wasn't in the midst of everything. By hearsay, I'm hearing all these things about him. He did email me, I think one or two times, and he said, "You're the only one in the family that loves me." I did telling one time, I said, "I love you, John. I love you because you love my daughter and I'm hoping that it goes well," that was kind of right at the beginning. And even when we had lunch that time, I told him. I said, "I love you, John," and I kind of felt sorry for him, a little bit sorry for him, because the family was so up in arms against him, but I didn't know all those things that were happening; they knew more way more than I did. Living here in Corona, I was away from it.
Christopher: Debra and John went to church together at Mariners, an evangelical megachurch in Irvine. There was modern worship music with keyboards and guitars. John always seemed excited to go; she never had to drag him. He said she was making him a better man. He said he'd attended the church before he met her, though once, he slipped up and called the pastor a priest. She thought it was because he'd been raised Catholic.
They were returning from church one day when they found the strange woman in the living room, wearing Debra's clothes and sipping Ovaltine as if she belonged there. John acted surprised to see her, but Debra wondered if they somehow knew each other. Had he said something to her before police took her away? Had he warned her not to reveal their connection? Whatever the truth, John seized on the intrusion as a reason to install a security system. At his insistence, their house was soon bristling with cameras. "Is he watching me?" Debra wondered and she thought, "I can watch him too."
One day, Debra waited for John to leave and pulled up the security footage. She saw that John wasn't going off to work like he said. He would leave in his medical scrubs, return home a little later, and walk back into the bedroom and go to sleep. She debated whether to confront him about it. He could become so volatile when challenged. She decided she had to ask. Not in an accusatory tone that might upset him, gently. John was unfazed by the question and didn't hesitate with his explanation. He'd been scheduled to work a surgery that day, but the patient had failed a treadmill test and it had been canceled. She didn't press him any further.
Shad wanted to warn Debra about John without telling her too much. After all, he had little more than a preliminary background report on the guy and what if his conclusions were wrong? What if the man in the report was a different John Meehan? In early March 2015, Shad called Debra and reminded her that he'd lost his mom and he didn't want to lose her too. He said, "What if he isn't who he says he is? What if he isn't an anesthesiologist? What if I could prove to you he was in jail and not Iraq?"
Shad: I do, specifically, remember her saying, "Even if it was true, I wouldn't care because I love him."
Christopher: Debra was relaying what Shad said right to John and John decided that Shad was his enemy. Shad gave me some texts he exchanged with John around this time.
John wrote: "Why don't you simply go away? You lost your aunt. You're not invited here. You come near and I call the cops. Worry about your own miserable life and I'll worry about Debbie, who is a lot closer to me than you can ever imagine. You won't win this."
Shad replied: "You told my grandma and I that you are a doctor, prove it. You told my grandma and I that you own two properties, prove it. Once you prove those two, you are good in my book."
John's reply: "I couldn't give a shit about being in your book."
Shad said he hoped his aunt dumped him soon. He prayed she would open her eyes.
John's reply: "Boy, are you in for a big surprise."
Shad wrote: "My mom is looking down on me making sure I don't give up on her sister and making sure I know her sister knows the truth about your lying ass."
John wrote: "Good thing your mom ain't here. She'd be embarrassed."
Shad: "It's not a good thing. It's not good at all."
John: "You don't have an aunt anymore, get it? I ain't going nowhere and neither is she. Stay away from the house. Accidents do happen. Again, Deb wants nothing to do with you and if you are on fire, I wouldn't piss on you to help you out."
Shad: "If I hear of you threatening my aunt or harming her, you will see me."
John: "Please show up. And she ain't your aunt anymore. Just ask her." John gets a lot nastier. He insults Shad's girlfriend and says he slept with her. He insults Shad's little daughters. Shad warns him not to talk about his kids. "Fuck you and your kids. Come do something about it. It isn't about me or what I've done, it's about you harassing her to the point where she fears for her life."
Shad wrote: "LOL."
John: "She fears you'll hurt either of us. Laugh about that."
Shad: "I'm just giving her facts over your lies."
John: "And by the way, we're married. That makes your threat my threat, asshole."
Shad: "I pray you're not married."
Of course, they were. It had been a secret, but now the whole family knew.
Shad is a big guy. 5 foot 10, 195 pounds, a former football player, but John intimidated him. He had four inches on Shad and probably 25 pounds and Shad had seen boxing gloves and a heavy punching bag in the garage. Shad thought John would be able to overpower him if it came to that. Even beyond his size, there was a single-minded viciousness about John, a sense that he'd stop at nothing. Shad decided to keep his distance.
Soon afterward, Debra walked out to pick up the mail. There was a letter for John.
Debra: I opened the mailbox and there was a letter from a guy from jail and what happened was I thought, "Why is he getting a letter from someone from jail?"
Christopher: She tore it open and began reading there on the walkway. It said something like, "I'm so happy you've met the woman of your dreams. Hope you're well." It sounded like he and John had actually been jailed together. She stood there frozen for a minute or two. She looked up and John was rushing toward her. She realized that he had been watching her on camera, that maybe he'd been watching her more than she realized.
He snatched the letter out of her hand. She asked him what this meant. She told him she thought he'd been lying to her.
Debra: He turned it around and said, "How dare you question me or look at my mail? This is a felony, opening my mail." So he put it back on me opposed to getting out of answering who is this and why this letter.
Christopher: John said his jailhouse correspondent was just a guy he was helping out, sending him care packages and a little money, but he wouldn't admit he'd been in jail himself. The next day, John left on one of his mysterious errands. Debra walked into the home office they shared. John was messy and there were papers scattered everywhere. She began hunting through the office. Who exactly had she married?
In the stacks of documents, Debra found legal papers about her new husband. His records showed multiple arrests, jail terms, multiple restraining orders from ex-girlfriends. There was a prison stint in Michigan for stealing drugs, more prison time in California. In that case from 2013, the year before he met Debra, a Laguna Beach woman told police he had seduced her, threatened her, and tried to swindle her. Police began investigating and, when they searched a storage unit John kept in Cathedral City, they found a Colt .38 Special, binoculars, GPS units, ammo, heavy duty cable ties, syringes, a pocket saw, and most ominously, they found a bottle of cyanide powder and eight cyanide capsules. Police called him "a treacherous, conning, and very manipulative person who uses fear and intimidation as a means to control and coerce his victims." He was convicted of stalking and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He spent 2.5 months in state prison and got out in June 2014. And he spent a couple weeks in county jail that fall for violating a restraining order against another woman. He got out on October 8, 2014. He had met Debra online on October 10, 2014, two days later.
It made Debra think about her first date with John in a new light. She remembered how he'd thrown himself on her mattress and raved about how comfortable it was.
Debra: And I'm like, "It's just a mattress." I realized he'd been in prison a few days before that, so of course, it's going to feel good.
I was shocked. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, what I was reading because I had fallen just madly in love with this man for who I thought he was and all this evidence was showing me that he wasn't that person at all.
Christopher: Some of the details about John's past she learned right then; some she would learn in the weeks that followed. Had she been in denial the whole five months she'd known him? How had she missed what seemed so clear to her kids? Debra got some Ativan to steady her nerves. She knew she needed to move out fast.
If Debra was shocked, Jacquelyn felt her hunch about him had been validated and, by then, she had an even fuller picture of John's background.
Jacquelyn: He had a felony for attempt or a threat to extort; another felony for burglary of first degree; another felony burglary, second degree; felony for stalking; misdemeanor for anonymous telephone calls; a felony, possession of firearm by felon; misdemeanor, possession of firearms; violation of protective order; and he pled guilty to stalking and having a firearm and that was not too long before he met my mom. And then he has nine social security numbers that he has used before, which was very odd. And then it says that he had spent quite a bit of time in jail and the last address that he had before he met my mother was going to the Theo Lacy Jail Facility in Orange. So when he did come to my home, in fact, he was homeless.
Christopher: Debra got lucky. John had gone to Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach for back surgery and had developed an intestinal blockage that resulted in a three-week stay. This gave her some room to maneuver without fear, to clear out her stuff. Jacquelyn and Shad came over to help.
Jacquelyn: She wanted all of his things in the garage. We don't want to touch... We don't want to ruin any of his possessions or anything like that. We don't want to anger him. We were scared to do that. We just put everything nicely into the garage.
Christopher: Shad found something in John's stuff that chilled him.
Shad: We found an envelope with my name on it, my date of birth, my employer's information, my employer's address, which, obviously, I'm really focusing on that. I'm starting to get scared.
Christopher: They looked in the closet. John had a folder with scraps of paper and what looked like booking numbers, as if these were jail acquaintances. And he had a little black book filled with what looked like codes. There were phone numbers, bank routing numbers, and they were names of guns that he seemed to have been pricing out.
Jacquelyn: Here it is right here. I have a picture. He had, let's see, $500, plus 475, plus 150, plus $3414. A Sig Sauer. He was trying to get different gun parts and he was adding them up.
Christopher: They found more papers; none of it was good. Some were printouts from websites in which women post warnings about scary and unfaithful men.
Debra: Two days later, we're going through all the papers in this office and, in his trashcan, we're pulling out papers stating that he was on WomanSavers, quite a few websites about not dating this man. That he's dangerous, he took them for money; just many, many stories.
Christopher: Debra found a lawyer. The lawyer told her to file papers to have her marriage annulled. He had more advice, just in case her husband's plan was to murder her.
Debra: He told me that this man is very dangerous and he wants my money and that I need to change my will.
Christopher: There's something about this that didn't make sense to me. If John Meehan was a veteran con man, a grifter smooth and calculating enough to insinuated way into so many women's lives, if he was good enough to fool as smart a woman as Debra, why would he leave evidence of his past out in the open like that? Wouldn't he have known Debra would eventually find it? She could have found it on day one. I asked Jacquelyn about this and she had a theory. She compared him to a serial killer who keeps mementos from his victims, like a necklace or a pair of shoes, to relive the rush.
Jacquelyn: I felt like he kept it all because he... I felt like he wanted all of that stuff, like when he maybe looked back at it, it gave him a bit of excitement. I felt like a lot of these papers that he would keep were kind of like trophies. Why would you keep all of this stuff about yourself unless you're proud of it?