Spoilers ahead for Dirty John.
The true story behind Bravo’s Dirty John is crazier than fiction, but behind even that wild story is another tale of horror and male violence.
Based on the investigative journalism podcast by journalist Christopher Goffard, the Bravo series tells the story of Debra Newell (Connie Britton), a successful interior designer who believes she is unlucky in love until she meets “doctor” John Meehan (Eric Bana), who sweeps her off her feet and soon into marriage. It’s not long before John is uncovered as a fraud, grifter, and potential threat to the lives of Debra and her family.
However, many years before John entered the picture, a close member of Debra’s family was the victim of a horrific crime, one that is alluded to in the early episodes of Dirty John.
Fear the Walking Dead actor Kevin Zegers portrays Toby, Debra’s nephew, who is close to his aunt. In the Bravo series, John makes a specific crack to Toby about shooting Debra’s daughter Veronica (Juno Temple). Toby is visibly uncomfortable, but Debra insists that of course, John didn’t mean to allude to — well, whatever it was that Toby thought John was referring to with the shooting comment.
In real life, Debra Newell’s nephew is not named Toby, but Shad Vickers. In 1984, Vickers’ father Billy Vickers shot his mother, Cindi, killing her. According to interviews on the Dirty John podcast, Debra's mother, Arlane, aided in Billy's defense, believing that Billy would never have shot her daughter — whom he was separated from — if he was in the "right" frame of mind.
Billy pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and ultimately served two years and nine months for killing Cindi. He remained in Orange County and remarried.
"[Debra would] say hello, she’d try to be polite [when she was Billy out], but she didn’t want to be around him," Goffard states on the podcast. "Debra says that forgiving him brought her mother [Arlane] peace, but that she was never able to do it herself."
According to Goffard’s reporting, Debra and Vickers grew closer because of the tragedy, with Debra taking on a motherly role to her nephew after her older sister’s death. Per the Dirty John podcast, John Meehan did, indeed, reference killing Debra’s daughter (in real life named Jacquelyn) with a gun in front of Vickers.
“Shad thought [shooting Jacquelyn] wasn’t a thing to joke about, even if you’d been to a war zone [as John claimed he had] and had a war zone sense of humor, "Goffard said in the podcast. "It seemed kind of sick, actually.”
In an interview with TV Insider, Zegers explained that we will find out more about Toby’s past in future episodes.
“You’ll hear a ton about his backstory as the story unfolds, but Debbie sort of raised him; he’s kind of her third child. His mother passed away when he was very young, and Debbie, being a nice woman, helped him through a troubled time,” Zegers told TV Insider. “I think Toby and Debbie have probably as close a relationship as that of Debbie and her kids. He’s very supportive of her in an un-possessive way, in a way that her daughters aren’t.”
In the TV series, Zegers becomes involved with the private investigator that Jacquelyn hires, though in real life, threats from John encourage Vickers to stay away from his aunt.
Though Toby is based on a real person, Zegers said that he mostly wanted to find the right motivations for the character, rather than to simply copy his persona exactly.
“Obviously, some names have been changed, but Toby, or Shad in real life, is the sweetest of the bunch. He’s the one who tries to keep everyone together and happy," Zegers told TV Insider. "And so rather than trying to get into the physical mannerisms of him in real life, I was just asking myself, ‘What was his role in the family? Why is he so loving toward this woman?’ A lot of that is just sort of trying to, as an actor, figure out how to find your way into the story.”
And what a dark story it is.