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‘Dirty John’ victim rebuilds her life in Las Vegas Valley

Customers at Ambrosia Home, the Henderson furniture and decor store, often tell its owner she looks familiar. “I know you,” they’ll say. “Where do I know you from?”

Debra Newell is polite, but she doesn’t take the time to tell them her story. After all, she figures it took her between 40 and 50 hours to share it with Christopher Goffard. The Los Angeles Times reporter then molded the tale into the newspaper’s sprawling, six-part investigative series and its accompanying true-crime podcast sensation.

Those, in turn, inspired Bravo’s limited dramatic series, debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday, in which Connie Britton stars as Newell.

All three, like the man she loved for reasons that eluded her family, are known by the same moniker.

“Dirty John.”

Warning signs

“You just sort of have to learn from your mistakes and make the best of it,” Newell says.

It’s the sort of pleasant remorse you’d expect to hear after someone dings a car in a parking lot or loses a couple of hundred dollars to an email scam.

Newell’s mistakes, though, revolved around John Meehan, the doctor she met in October 2014 on a dating site for singles age 50 and older. Within five weeks, she had leased a $6,500-a-month bayfront home for the two of them on Balboa Island in her native Orange County, California. Three weeks later, they were married in a courthouse ceremony in Las Vegas.

Newell hid the marriage — her fifth — from her children and nephew. They distrusted Meehan almost from the beginning, and he used their hatred to isolate Newell from her family.

As the months passed, she would learn that, despite the surgical scrubs he wore pretty much everywhere, even to a charity gala, Meehan wasn’t a doctor. The former nurse anesthetist was a drug-addicted ex-con who was released from jail — for having violated a restraining order filed by a woman he threatened — just two days before he connected with Newell online.

She eventually left him and changed her email addresses, phone number, bank accounts, passwords and every discernible routine. She even traded in her car before she went into hiding.

Then, on Aug. 20, 2016, Meehan waited for Newell’s youngest daughter, 25-year-old former Las Vegan Terra Newell, in the parking garage of her Newport Beach apartment complex and attacked her with a knife. Terra managed to gain control of the weapon and stabbed him 13 times, including once through the eyeball into his brain — a strategy, Goffard wrote, she remembered from her favorite TV series, “The Walking Dead.”

It took Meehan four days to die.

The long con

“It was a nightmare for my family and I,” Newell says. “We’re all healing now, but you have to think that there was a reason for it, and we’re all getting stronger because of it.”

She’s cheerful and positive in a way that suggests her life has never known tragedy — certainly not twice. In 1984, her sister, Cindi, was shot and killed by the controlling husband she was trying to leave. Newell began to think she could be headed for the same fate.

Working with a forensic psychiatrist and a private investigator to extricate herself from the relationship — a form of abuse described as coercive control — she bought a house in Henderson. Now that he was no longer pretending to be a doctor, Meehan was put in charge of finishing repairs on the property. While he was there, Newell was able to see her family back in California and experience a sense of freedom.

It was a far cry from their first trip to Las Vegas, when she finally succumbed to his near constant proposals.

“He was asking me to marry him at least 10 to 100 times a day and was telling me, ‘Please, please, please. We both want this,’ ” Newell recalls. “You know, he was very good at what he did. Unfortunately, I’m a little bit of a pleaser and extremely optimistic, and a little bit compulsive. So I jumped in.”

She was, she reveals, scared to death.

“I was nervous and excited at the same time.”

Love in all the wrong places

Newell says she was still in shock during the initial interview with Goffard. When they spoke with him, her family members were just beginning to heal.

“We thought it was going to be, like, an article on the sixth page of the LA Times. Just some small little article,” she remembers. “We had no idea it would turn into this. But hopefully it’s helping people.”

The riveting account was splashed across the newspaper front pages during the first week of October 2017, and the podcast has gone on to amass more than 30 million downloads. Seemingly everyone who read or listened to it had opinions — many of them negative when it came to Newell — and they weren’t shy about expressing them.

“How bad John was, I don’t think people understood that in the beginning. I think that I am a healthy individual that was not desperate. I was just looking for love,” she says.

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“There was a lot of victim blaming, which is really sad. A lot of people say it could never happen to them, where I know of a lot of people that are pretty healthy, happy, great individuals that it has happened to them.”

Besides, it isn’t as though she didn’t notice the warning signs. She just hit the gas and drove right past them.

“I can’t say that I never did see red flags. I saw them. I just was falling so hard that I was willing to ignore them.”

A fresh start

Around the time her story was exploding in popularity, Newell decided she was ready for a change. She’d spent her entire life in Orange County, and her interior design work brought her to Las Vegas roughly 20 times a year. She relocated to Henderson — “a car ride away” from her children and grandchildren — and last November, she launched Ambrosia Home, an offshoot of her California-based Ambrosia Interior Design.

Settled into her new life here, Newell says she’s surrounded by great people. “I trust a lot of people, but honestly, at this point in my life, they have to gain my trust.”

She loves the variety of activities the valley offers, but the one she isn’t ready to experience — for now, anyway — is the dating scene. “I think I will be open at some point. But I think I’m going to go about it so differently.” Online dating sites are a nonstarter. Background checks will be a must. She’ll make sure to meet her date’s family and friends. “And, really, know everything about them before I even have them to my house.”

Until then, she’s busy spending what she estimates is 20 percent of her time dealing with the aftermath of her relationship with Meehan. That includes helping and educating women in abusive situations.

“Sometimes you have to take something that’s tragic and try to turn it into something good,” Newell says. “One of the things that’s been really important for me, I’ve been able to reach out to other women that have gone through something similar and let them know that they’re not alone. And let them at least know where they can go for help.”

As for the relationships with her family, which she regained after finally accepting the truth about Meehan, Newell appreciates them now more than ever.

“We’re good,” she says, “but we’re still healing.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence @reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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