When it comes to most Dirty John twists, it’s easy to wonder, “This didn’t really happen, right?” Because it’s all simply too intense, too upsetting, too impossible. Yet, Debra Newell (Connie Britton) did jump head-first into a relationship with career con-man John Meehan (Eric Banna). And he was as dangerous as Bravo is making him out to look. And Debbie’s mom Arlane Hart (Jean Smart) did testify in favor of son-in-law Billy Vickers, the man who killed her daughter Cindy Vickers.
The latest can’t-believe-it turn in Dirty John arrives in Sunday night’s “Shrapnel,” when Debbie takes John back after learning about his lengthy criminal past, which hinged on ruining the lives of his romantic partners; the lives of women like Debbie. But, it did happen — and this story ends much bloodier than you expect.
The fourth episode of the Dirty John the podcast, “Forgiveness,” is arguably the most important section of the entire L.A. Times-Wondery series. Not only does it finally tell the tragic story of Cindy Vickers, it also gives Debbie Newell an internal life we aren't privy to beforehand. As we’ve seen over the first few episodes of Bravo’s Dirty John, this is a woman who is inexplicably fine with her partner “joking” about murdering one of her daughters (Juno Temple) and threatening another with assault (Julia Garner). Through “Forgiveness,” we finally understand why Newell accepts her husband’s frightening shenanigans in the first place: her blind dedication to forgiveness.
That is how Newell ended up reconciling with Meehan. Like we see in Bravo’s “Shrapnel,” the real-life Meehan “had explanations,” as Dirty John journalist Christopher Goffard puts it. While Meehan was laid up in a hospital bed, Newell did obtain about 300 documents detailing her spouse’s many shocking crimes and misdeeds, from restraining orders and disturbing threats to arrests. Although Newell originally tried to cut ties with Meehan, he lured her back into his life by promising apologies and clarity.
The manipulations were legion. Meehan admitted to being an ex-con, but he only lied about his criminal history to get Newell to like him. He admitted to not being a doctor, but, again, he only wanted to impress her. All of the terrible details from the restraining order documents and message board reviews were about a different John Meehan. His stash of cyanide pills was blamed on a previously-unheard-of multiple sclerosis diagnosis and an emergency suicide plan. Why did he have the nickname “Dirty John,” from longtime friends in the first place? Who. Knows. Every other suspicious fact was blamed on Meehan’s ex-wife, delusional fellow ex-cons, or anyone whose name wasn’t “John Meehan.”
So, Newell started to forgive him. Especially as, according to “Forgiveness,” the not-doctor assured her that he understood her money would go to her children in the case of her death. By June 2015, the couple moved into a new apartment together.
As one would suspect with half a season of Bravo’s Dirty John ahead, this is not the end of the story. In the months after Newell and Meehan reconciled, it was impossible to “banish” Newell’s fear her husband would murder her. These concerns remained after she removed Meehan from her will, diminishing any incentive he had to cause her untimely death. Soon enough Newell was not only terrified Meehan would hurt her, she was also worried her husband was cheating on her with local women.
This is why the fifth episode of Dirty John the podcast is called “Escape.” With all of these fears piling up, Newell finally decided to leave Meehan by March 2016, just over a year into her ill-fated marriage. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were squirreled away, secret homes were secured in Nevada, and multiple lawyers were spoken to. At last, Newell had cut Meehan off and started hiding from him, much to the relief of her terrified family.
Newell’s escape eventually takes a fatal turn for someone in this real-life tale, which you can read about here. Dirty John isn’t just dirty — it’s deadly.
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