Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dirty John.
At the start of Bravo’s Dirty John, it seems as though Debra Newell (Connie Britton) is the only woman in her family whose world has been destroyed by the man in her life. Then, as season 1 delves deeper into Debbie’s world, we slowly start to realize there is another tragedy lurking in her past. Namely, the death of her older sister Cindi Vickers, the late mom of Debbie’s nephew Toby (Kevin Zegers).
The red flags start popping up in the aptly named second episode “Red Flags And Parades.” Within the first few minutes of the installment, Debbie runs away from her “ex-brother-in-law” Billy Vickers at church. Later, Toby is stunned when Debbie’s con-man husband John Meehan (Eric Bana) even brings up his dad, Billy. By the end of the “Flags,” John is telling Toby he should be “glad” his mother was murdered by his father.
All of these frightening Dirty John breadcrumbs likely leave viewers wondering what actually happened to Cindi Vickers and if the series is dramatizing its leading lady’s loss for the sake of Bravo TV. When you look into the case, you’ll learn nothing could be further from the truth — and the fallout from Vickers’ murder clarifies many of Debbie’s most shocking choices.
As Dirty John the Wondery-L.A Times podcast reveals in its fourth installment, “Forgiveness,” Cindi Vickers was killed by her estranged husband Billy Vickers in 1984. At the time their son Shad, whom Kevin Zegers’ Toby is based on, was 11; the Vickers also have a second unnamed son. Billy shot Cindi in the back of the neck at point-blank range, killing her instantly. The prosecutor for the case, Thomas Avdeef, viewed the crime as a “cold-blooded execution.” Billy also shot himself, but eventually recovered.
Prior to Cindi’s death, the Vickers’ 13-year marriage had already been in distress for some time. Cindi complained to her mom Arlane Hart, played by Jean Smart in Bravo’s Dirty John adaptation, that her husband had become possessive. Cindi, who wed at just 18, wasn’t able to wear a bikini or go shopping alone, according to Christopher Goffard’s Dirty John podcast reporting. Eventually, the Vickers separated, as a 1985 L.A. Times article confirms, and Cindi began seeing a football player who would send limos for her.
Soon enough, the Vickers sold their Garden Grove, CA home. Cindi began living about 30 miles away in Laguna Niguel and opened her own bank account on March 7. On March 8, one day after the bank account was opened, Cindi returned to the Garden Grove house to tidy up for the buyers who were about to move in. That was the day Billy shot and killed Cindi.
The prosecution argued Billy, a bald 31-year-old, was “jealous” of his wife’s new life without him, the L.A. Times reported at the time of his 1985 trial. Despite all the evidence against Billy — who acquired his friend’s gun two whole weeks prior to Cindi’s death — he was acquitted of first and second degree murder. Billy pleaded guilty to manslaughter and spent less than three years in jail for killing his wife with a single bullet to the neck.
Cindi’s mother, and therefore Debra Newell’s mother, is a major player in Billy’s lenient punishment. Alarane Hart visited Billy following Cindi’s death and told her son-in-law she still loved him. “He said, ‘How could you love me? How could you?,’” Hart told Dirty John the podcast. “And I said, ‘God has given that love to us for you. We love you, and we forgive you.’ And he just sobbed and he cried.”
Then Hart called Billy’s attorney James Riddet, and said she wanted to testify on behalf of the man who killed her child. Her reason: she loved Billy and forgave him. “They threw her under the bus,” prosecutor Avdeef told Dirty John. “I could never understand that. Why say bad things about the victim?”
Self-less forgiveness, especially for men who commit the worst types of trespasses, seems to be exist at the very bedrock of Hart and Newell women’s personalities. If we’re going to survive all the coming drama of Dirty John season 1, that’s a truth we’re all going to need to accept.