I have a confession to make: I’m a true crime addict. It started with me binging on plenty of ID and Oxygen shows, and it’s graduated with my ever-growing list of true crime podcast subscriptions. That’s how I found the “Dirty John” podcast and Los Angeles Times print series last year.
I just finished watching the Bravo show that’s based on the real story, and it has me thinking: Why are we letting this happen, and what can we do to change this? Now that we’ve read, heard, and seen “Dirty John”, it’s time for us to see what’s all around us… And see how we can stop this cycle of abuse.
Spoiler Alert: We’ll be discussing various details of the “Dirty John” story, so stop here and save this article for later if you prefer to finish watching/reading/listening to the series first.
In October 2017, the Los Angeles Times rolled out its print series and podcast. I missed its initial debut, as all of us in the Las Vegas Valley were suffering our own horrific tragedy with the 1 October Shooting and its immediate aftermath. But last summer and fall, I caught up in anticipation of the Bravo scripted series.
Like many other fans, I was swept off my feet when I began reading and listening. Who wouldn’t want to marry a dreamy doctor who “checks all the boxes”? Who wouldn’t want to snuggle up to this highly acclaimed anesthesiologist and war hero in a picture-perfect house on Balboa Island every night?
Yet while John Meehan was telling Debra Newell everything she wanted to hear, her children and nephew heard and saw something very different. After they hired a private investigator and did some of their own sleuthing, they learned that Meehan was not the acclaimed anesthesiologist and military veteran he claimed to be. Rather, John Meehan was a seasoned con artist and drug dealer who ended his first marriage to Tonia Sells Bales in a storm of violent threats, left a paper trail spanning throughout the country that consisted of criminal convictions and restraining orders, and embarked on his relationship with Debra Newell hot off another stint in jail following his violating one of those restraining orders.
So if “Dirty John” Meehan was such bad news, why did Debra Newell stay with him for so long?
As I was following along with the “Dirty John” narrative, I kept asking the same question that so many other fans asked. Even after her family presented Debra with the real facts on John, she stayed. After making one attempt to leave him, she returned to his arms. It wasn’t until just over a year after Debra married John when she realized the verbal and psychological abuse he was subjecting her and her family to, then she finally left him for good.
One critical lesson I’ve learned from the story is that there’s a name to this experience: coercive control. From a distance, it doesn’t look like abuse at all. But when we take a closer look, we begin to notice a very different picture. Just as the label suggests, coercive control occurs when the abuser appears to be doting on the victim, but in reality the abuser is gathering intelligence (to weaponize later) and stripping the victim of one’s independence. Eventually the victim feels trapped, completely dependent upon the abuser, and totally isolated with no one available to help.
As I dove deeper into the “Dirty John” story, I realized something: This is me! While I wasn’t brutally threatened in the way Debra Newell and Tonia Sells Bales were, I recently realized that over the course of my formative years, my own mother subjected me and my father to coercive control with her early moves to assert power over us, the “psychological terrorism” she imposed on me as a closeted teenager who feared being outed as someone other than what she wanted me to be, the violent chaos she initiated just days before my 17th birthday that resulted in my removal from her custody, and her final attempt to force me to “get right with god” just days before I began college.
And yet, despite all that, I kept trying to “make things right” with her. I did two rounds of therapy to heal myself, yet I still made multiple attempts over the years to reconcile with her. It wasn’t until she cruelly insulted my father during a phone call last November when I decided that I couldn’t take it any more. While walking along the Ko Olina beach trail in Hawaii, I hung up the phone. Kind of like how Debra Newell finally put her foot down when she realized John Meehan was extending the abuse to other family members, I finally put my foot down when I couldn’t take any more of my mother denigrating my father, the one who raised me and tried his best to protect me from the worst of her impulses.
So what will we do to stop the cycle of violence and abuse?
We as a society have generally become more aware of the horrid reality of domestic and sexual violence. But in the past year+ of #MeToo, activists have begun to break through in making clear just how severe of a problem this truly is. Whether it’s a new Supreme Court Justice who got to glide by his own filthy past, a Congressman who tried to keep his constituents in the dark on his record of abuse, or a “newspaper” that’s burying the lede on its own executives’ pattern of misconduct, we’re still reminded of all the injustice that’s occurring on our watch.
Getting back to the sordid tales of “Dirty John” Meehan, he often operated on the wrong side of the law yet faced too few consequences, whether it was the restraining orders he flouted, the guns he collected, or the violent threats he regularly issued. Even now, others like him continue to get away with their own dirty ways. Not only is coercive control still largely legal in the U.S., but Congress allowed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to expire when they allowed President Donald Trump to shut down much of the federal government last December. While Nevada has updated its gun laws to require those convicted of certain felony offenses and/or subject to restraining orders to surrender their firearms, the state has yet to begin enforcing the voter-approved initiative to close the background check loopholes that such offenders exploit to obtain firearms at gun shows or online. And even though most forms of harassment and assault are now illegal, we still see survivors being bullied into silence because the truth they tell might still be considered “politically incorrect” inconvenient truths.
It’s easy to criticize survivors like Debra Newell for their actions, but it’s much harder to take a cold, hard look at all the inaction that allowed “Dirty John” to harm so many people before Terra Newell finally put an end to him. For that matter, it’s the same pattern of inaction that cost victims like Cindi Vickers (Debra’s older sister) their lives. Instead of engaging in the same old cycle of victim-blaming and victim-shaming, why can’t we be more proactive in changing the laws and the “societal norms” that enable this violence? As I continue to come to terms with my own past, I want to use my present to help others build better futures.
If you want to know more about the real story behind the hit Bravo show, Oxygen is premiering a two-hour documentary at 8:00 PM tonight (Eastern and Pacific) and the LA Times still has its full version of the “Dirty John” series available on its site. If you know anyone who’s currently experiencing domestic and/or sexual violence, the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has a list of resources available across the state. And if you want to do more to help, check out the Nevada Coalition’s action page for ideas on getting more involved.