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Dirty John Part 6: Terra | LA Times & Wondery Podcast (Transcript)

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Source: Wonderly/Stitcher

Dirty John Part 5: Terra | Los Angeles Times& Wondery (Transcript)

Length: 41 mins

A listener note: This story contains adult content and language.

Christopher Goffard: John Michael Meehan may or may not have had some connection to organized crime. Whether to intimidate people or to impress them with his dark glamour, he bragged frequently about his underworld ties. He claimed to trace his bloodline to the prolific East Coast hitman who ran Murder Inc itself. He lied about everything, so who really knew? What unnerved people, once they got on his bad side, is how he talked about the mob’s way of doing things, with a touch of real admiration in his voice, like the mob’s tactic of getting back at enemies. They didn’t go after the enemies themselves; a dead enemy couldn’t suffer after all. You went after the loved ones. You went after their families.

Jacquelyn Newell was living with her mother, Debra, at the Carlyle Apartments in Irvine near the airport. They were afraid of Debra’s estranged husband, John. They kept waiting for police to charge him with lighting Debra’s car on fire, but two months had passed and there had been no arrest, no restraining order. Debra had cut John off from her money. She wasn’t taking his calls or texts. She and her kids were looking after John’s golden retriever, Murphy, which he’d left at a pound and Debra had the Buick Enclave he’d been using, which had been impounded after he ran it into a gate. John had been staying in Henderson, Nevada, but nobody knew for sure when he might appear here in Irvine. Jacquelyn felt he was watching them.

Jacquelyn Newell: He didn’t have a car, he didn’t have his dog, and he was just spiraling out of control. He didn’t really have much to live for. He didn’t have anything live for.

Christopher: Around 11:30 on the night of Friday, August 19, 2016, Jacquelyn was returning from dinner with a friend. They were pulling up to the front of the complex when she saw John in a car in the dark, waiting.

Jacquelyn: I could see his face from the reflection of his cellphone and instantly when I pulled in, we saw each other. We locked eyes and he ducked his head and I said, “That’s him, that’s him,” and the driver didn’t know what I was talking about for a moment, and I said, “Follow him.” John’s headlights were off and he sped past the light when he realized that we were behind him. He went straight and made a right hand turn onto the freeway.

Christopher: John had smashed or removed the lights on his rental car as if to improve his ability to move furtively in the dark. Jacquelyn thinks John was there to kill her or her mom, that he’d been hoping to catch one of them alone, an easy target, and the presence of her male friends scared John off. But now Jacquelyn feared he would go after her younger sister, Terra, who lived a few miles away in Newport Beach.

Jacquelyn: I knew that this was game time.

Christopher: From the Los Angeles Times and Wondery this is Dirty John. I’m Christopher Goffard.

Part 6: Terra

Jacquelyn told her friend to drive to the Coronados, the sprawling apartment complex in next door Newport Beach, where Terra was living. Here’s Jacquelyn.

Jacquelyn: I’d much prefer him to come back to my house because then we could… Whatever he was going to do, we would have some sort of chance of catching his psycho ass on camera.

Christopher: You were more worried that he would go to your sister?

Jacquelyn: Yes, I was.

Christopher: Because she was unprotected?

Jacquelyn: I felt like I had ruined something for him that looked like it was planned out.

Christopher: Now, why did you not call the police?

Jacquelyn: Because my mom didn’t want to call the police and that made me feel like she just felt hopeless at this point. We’d contacted the police every time something happened and they never helped us out.

Christopher: Debra tells me she was skeptical of her daughter’s account about seeing John. She thought Jacquelyn had an overactive imagination. Jacquelyn says she circled her sister’s apartment complex over and over that night. She went to check her sister’s apartment door, but she didn’t knock because she didn’t want to wake her.

Jacquelyn: She had a little cat with a jingle collar on it. I tried the lock until I heard her cat’s little bell come to the door and kind of rub his little body against the door.

Christopher: And she took reassurance from the growl of Terra’s miniature Australian shepherd, Cash.

Jacquelyn: So I was like, “Okay, cool. She’s in the home with Cash, she’s safe. I’m just tripping. I’m just tripping.” So I would be like I was kind of going through times that night where I was like, “Oh my gosh, am I going crazy? No, I’m actually not going crazy. This is really happening.”

Christopher: Jacquelyn says she was up until 4:30 AM, slept for an hour and a half and called Terra at 6:00 AM.

Jacquelyn: I said, “John’s in the area. Please be careful. I saw him last night, he had the lights off to the car, I followed him. He was in a white Camry.”

Christopher: How scared did she seem?

Jacquelyn: She was like, “Oh my gosh. Really? Okay,” but I don’t think that she took it, that day, as seriously as I did.

Christopher: But in the dark, she had misidentified the car John was driving. Terra would be watching for the wrong one. It’s one of the hypotheticals now. Would he have otherwise been able to get close to her?

Terra Newell was 25. Descriptions of her almost always included the word sweet. Her voice was so soft that waiters had to lean in and ask her to repeat her order. As a kid, she was usually the smallest one on the recess yard and so uncompetitive in softball games that she didn’t even bother swinging at pitches.

Jacquelyn: She had a huge heart for the smallest things. Yeah, that would describe her perfectly.

Christopher: So the classic wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly personality?

Jacquelyn: Yeah, she wouldn’t. Something that wasn’t causing her any harm, no way. She’s not very feisty.

Christopher: Terra was a child of affluent Orange County suburbs, but she adored country music and she liked the songs about drinking beer, having a good time, and still loving God. Like the company of dogs, music made her forget her anxiety. For years, Terra had lived with a vague sense of dread. When she was around 6, she woke up screaming, convinced someone had climbed through her bedroom window to try and snatch her. She says the intruder dropped her and disappeared out the window. Her parents didn’t call police. Her mother thought maybe it was a dream, the function of Terra’s distress over what was happening in the house. Her parents were fighting a lot and soon her dad left the house for good. Terra had frequent nightmares at that age. She’d see dark shapes and become convinced they were ghosts or aliens. Over the years, she says she wondered whether she was a little crazy. In therapy, she questioned whether the abduction memory was a real one, but became convinced it had actually happened.

When she was a teenager, a guy she’d been dating flipped out and rammed a car into her leg. She says he was on meth. She got a tattoo on her foot that said “Psalms 23, The Lord is my shepherd,” with a heart she’d seen in a Taylor Swift video. Early on, Terra sensed John was dangerous. She had sobbed uncontrollably at a Christmas gathering, saying, “There’s just something wrong about him. I don’t like him,” trying to convince people. But not everyone felt what she felt. For the longest time, her mother certainly didn’t.

Terra did not want to be alone in her Newport Beach apartment even though, as far as she knew, her stepfather did not know her address. As often as possible, she had friends over to crash at her place.

Terra Newell: Well, the gate was always broken, so he could follow me and be on the street and probably see where I parked. To be honest, I kind of feel like he was watching me for months, just off and on, so I would always look back and see if anyone was there.

Christopher: Terra had premonitions of death. She wrote out a note and put it in her drawer. If anything happened to her, it said, she wanted her ex-boyfriend to get her dog. She says she had a dream that John was attacking her and she had a knife and she had to stab him to save herself. She wasn’t a fighter and had no background in the martial arts, though she studied television violence with uncommon intensity. The Walking Dead was a reservoir of survival techniques, like biting, as demonstrated in the season 4 finale when a character escapes a tight spot by opening a bad guy’s jugular with his teeth.

Terra: And they got surrounded by this group of guys and they were trying to harass and do other stuff to them, and then Rick just bit off this guy’s neck.

Christopher: So that reminded you, “My teeth are a weapon”?

Terra: Uh-huh. You pick up stuff from watching stuff or hearing stuff. I’m more of a visual person, so like how they hold the knife, I guess I knew how to hold a knife automatically because, if you hold it the other way, it’s more easy to fall out of your hand and stuff.

Christopher: What do you mean hold it the right way?

Terra: Well, you’ve got to hold it tight so that you don’t cut yourself and then also you hold it kind of like you make a fist where, if you hold it a different way, then it’s less control over the knife and someone’s more easy to take it from you.

Christopher: And you learned all this from the show?

Terra: That show and then Dexter and all the other CSI shows.

Christopher: An important feature of zombie combat is that the enemy is undeterred unless you get it in the head.

Terra: A stab to the head or a shot to the head and then you kill a zombie.

Christopher: They’re already dead, but then they’re undead and you need to re-kill them, right?

Terra: Yeah. You need to kill their brain.

Christopher: But it sounds like you absorbed a certain mindset from the show more than any specific technique necessarily.

Terra: Yeah.

Christopher: How would you describe that mindset?

Terra: Kill or be killed.

Christopher: Terra was working in Newport Beach at Rebel Run, a dog kennel. A man called with what sounded like a French accent. The man made it sound like they had met at some point and wanted to know if she would be working tomorrow. He wanted to bring in his Rhodesian Ridgebacks for her to groom. She didn’t recognize the voice or remember having met him or think too much about the fact that most of the grooming requests came from women, not men. She told the stranger her work schedule. Yes, she would be there tomorrow till about 5:00 PM.

The next morning was Saturday, August 20, 2016, and Jacquelyn called to warn her about John being in town. It would be a good idea to keep her pocket knife handy, her sister said. That morning at the dog kennel, she greeted the labs and terriers and Dobermans and poodle mixes. She unlocked the cages. She carried the big bag of dried high protein pellets between the cages and filled the bowls. She hosed out the cages and the concrete dog runs. For this reason — and this is an important detail — she wore rain boots. The French-sounding guy who was supposed to bring in his Rhodesian Ridgebacks never showed, but she didn’t think much of it. She was distracted, preoccupied by the concert at Irvine Meadows that night. She had bought two $100 lawn seat tickets to see one of our favorite country stars, Jason Aldean, and was bringing a girlfriend. She left work in our Toyota Prius just after 5:00 PM for the 3-mile drive home. Cash, the miniature Australian shepherd was in the backseat. It was still full daylight.

Terra: There was someone backed up into a parking spot. It was a Dodge Dart, I believe, and there was a man fidgeting in the back. I saw him with a tire iron and my dog started to growl and bark at him, but I kind of thought it was a homeless man, just living in his car and going through his stuff, so I just parked into my spot and I parked face forward. We don’t have assigned parking, but I park in the same spot every single day.

Christopher: She says she carried bear mace in her car, a gift from her sister, and pepper spray in her purse and a pocket knife, but at the moment she pulled into her parking spot, the knife was up in her apartment.

John Meehan had removed the license plate from the grey, 2016 Dodge Dart he had rented from Enterprise. Inside the car, he had assembled what police would call a kidnapped kit — an Oakley backpack, camouflage duct tape, 13 cable ties useful for binding wrists and ankles, and six knives from a from a Belgique cookware set. He had a passport as if to flee the country. In his cup holder, he had a vial of injectable testosterone. He had been formidably big, 6 foot 2 and 230 pounds of steroidal muscle, a survivor of jail and prison cells in at least three states. He had lost serious weight over the months. He was down to 163 pounds, but his intended victim would still be a foot shorter and 33 pounds lighter. He would have the element of surprise. He would have the knife. It bore no resemblance to a fair fight.

Terra: And then I got out of my car. I got my dog out of my car and then I walked to the back license plate and John came up and grabbed me by the waist, put his arm around my waist, looked me in the eye, and he said, “Do you remember me?” I didn’t even respond that; I just tried to get away from him. He started grabbing me, trying to put his hand over my mouth, but I bit him. I was pushing him, trying to get away from him, he started to punch me, I thought, but it turns out he was stabbing me. One of my automatic reflexes was to put my arm up to protect my chest and I also had my purse with me, so he stabbed my purse a few times, I believe, and then he also got one in my arm that was one inch deep.

We were just kind of wrestling for seconds, but it seemed like forever; it seemed like minutes. I was just trying to run away from him, but he kept on grabbing me, kept on trying to stab me. We fell to the ground. My dog was also attacking his ankles and biting him, just going off on him. I fell onto the ground, I fell on my back, and he was on his knees with the knife just trying to stab me.

Christopher: Three floors of apartments flanked the elevated outdoor parking lot at the Coronados Apartment Complex. Overlooking the scene where John Meehan attacked Terra Newell were long rows of windows and balconies. Dozens of them, even scores, afforded a clear view. It was a clear, bright day.

Blonde, small-boned Skylar Sepulveda, 14 years old, didn’t know Terra but looked like she could have been her little sister. She had just pedaled home from junior lifeguard training at the Balboa Pier on her beach cruiser. She was in apartment T302, wearing only a T-shirt covered swimsuit when she heard the screaming and went to the window. She saw Terra struggling on her back on the far side of the parking lot a few hundred feet away and John Meehan above her.

Skylar Sepulveda: I will never get those screams out of my head. He had a knife. The knife was a long, silver blade that was shining. He was holding it over his head and that was the last thing that I saw out of the window before I started running.

Christopher: Skylar told her mom to call police and grabbed her beach towel.

Dispatcher: Newport Beach 911.

Female: There’s a man up here with a knife and a girl screaming.

Christopher: Barefoot, she bolted out the door and rushed down two flights of apartment stairs.

Female: My daughter is taking a towel to her right now because somebody yelled she’s bleeding so we’re running over there right now with a towel.

Dispatcher: Okay, […] she’s bleeding?

Female: It’s really bad.

Dispatcher: All right, I understand. We have officers on the way.

Female: Like, “Mom, somebody’s screaming, somebody’s screaming,” and then she saw this guy just raising his hand up and down, up and down.

Dispatcher: Okay, all right.

Christopher: Skylar had wrists so thin a grown man could have enclosed them with a single hand. She did not pause long enough to worry that the attacker might turn the knife on her when she got to the scene. She just knew that she would blame herself if something awful happened that she could have stopped.

Skylar: And I had a run up another long flight of stairs up to the top of the parking structure and, once I got to the top, I had to run almost diagonally to where they were and it probably took me under two minutes to run there. I thought it was incredible that people could let and witness other people being abused or even their life being possibly taken away and just watching it happen and not stepping in to try and help. I think the majority of it was just the kind of place that it was.

Christopher: By that, she means it was a big, anonymous, block-long apartment complex where it was common to overhear domestic arguments and common to ignore them.

Skylar: They thought it was just another altercation that was happening there. They just dismissed it and thought it was normal.

Christopher: The rain boots Terra wore that day were her sturdy pair, with thick tread, and it’s possible that played a role in what happened next. She was on her back, using her feet and legs to protect yourself as he stabbed at her.

Terra: And I kept on pedal kicking him and trying to block the knife. And then, seconds later, just doing this, I knocked the knife out of his hand.

Christopher: The knife flew through the air. It landed on the pavement. It landed inches from her right hand. It landed with the handle pointed toward her.

Terra: I didn’t give it a second thought and I just started wailing on him and stabbing him because I know that, if I didn’t fight back and wound him, he would continue to try to hurt me and possibly kill me.

Christopher: She connected again and again. His shoulder, his shoulder blade, his triceps, his shoulder blade, his upper back, his shoulder blade, his upper back, between his shoulder blades, his forearm, his triceps, his shoulder, his chest, his left eye and through it into his brain. She heard him gasp as he fell heavily on top of her.

Terra: The last one was in the eye.

Christopher: The very last one?

Terra: Uh-huh. And so I guess that was my zombie kill.

Female: Someone’s been stabbed and he attacked a girl. It’s a girl and her dog and then a guy is on the ground. I’m not really sure what happened. We just heard her screaming […].

Dispatcher: Do you see blood?

Female: Yes and the guy’s just on the ground.

Christopher: When she reached the scene, Skylar Sepulveda found John Meehan facedown, bleeding and convulsing. Terra was crawling away, shaking, screaming about how stalked her and tortured her family. She was terrified that John would get up and attack her again. Skylar saw the wound on Terra’s forearm and she began to wrap it with her beach towel tightly, the way they taught her in junior lifeguards.

Skylar: There was a gash where you could see blood and muscle and tissue. For sure it was the deepest cut that I’ve ever seen in real life and I knew that she just needed to calm down in order to properly get better because screaming and flailing her arms would not have helped the bleeding, so I was doing my best to try and tell her that it was okay and that he wasn’t going to hurt her anymore and that she was safe.

Terra: She started talking and she also tried to calm me down and just started asking me questions and then I realized I was just in hysterics, so she started to ask me random question about other stuff like when’s my birthday, like “Where were you going to go tonight?”

Christopher: Others had arrived to help.

Terra: And then the other guy went to go check on John and that’s when I called my dog back over to me and I ran down the hill because I couldn’t be around him. I was scared he was going to wake up and try to hurt me again and hurt this guy and just blow past him and try to get me. So I ran down to the hill with my dog and with my arm wrapped in a towel and then I asked her to get my phone. She ran and she got my phone. I called my mom and I told her, “I’m really, really sorry. I think I killed your husband,” and my mom was in hysterics and she was like, “What? I don’t understand,” and then I just kept on telling her, “I think I killed your husband. John tried to kill me and I stabbed him.” She was like, “Okay, I’m on my way.”

Dispatcher: Police, you have an emergency?

Male: Yeah, we do. We’ve got…

Female: There’s been a stabbing.

Dispatcher: Is this a woman?

Male: Come on, breathe, come on. Breathe.

Female: He said it’s a male and a female. The male’s not doing well. […] the female’s…

Dispatcher: Hold one second.

Christopher: John Meehan was not breathing when the police arrived and had no pulse, but they administered CPR and soon his pulse was back and he began to take small, short breaths on his own.

Male: Subject has moved to ICU 18.

Male: Roger, ICU 18.

Christopher: They rushed him to Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana. The paramedics tried to load Terra into the ambulance for the trip to Hoag Hospital.

Terra: I wouldn’t let them put the IV in me or anything until they gave me my dog back. And so Cash came with me and then I let them put the IV in. He rode with me in the ambulance. They were asking me questions and I just told them I really wanted to go to the Jason Aldean concert. They told me, “I don’t think you’re going to be able to go tonight,” and so they felt bad for me and then they turned on some country music to just try to calm me. I asked if he was dead, if I killed him, and they said that I did but then they revived him and he was brain dead. I was kind of upset that they’d tried to revive him and waste time and effort and medical dollars and all of that just to keep this evil man alive, but then they told me that it’s good to keep him alive so that we could possibly use his organs and help save other people so at least his life wouldn’t be completely a waste.

Christopher: It’s a testament to the impression that John made that, even now, he seemed larger than he was. Not a human being, but a horror movie villain who might spring bolt upright from his deathbed, animated by sheer rage, to attack again. Word of what happened reached Terra’s cousin, Shad Vickers. He rushed to the hospital to be sure Terra was all right.

Shad Vickers: I was like, “If he comes out of this, this is over. It’s going to be horrible.” That’s how good I thought he was is I thought he was going to get out of this coma that he was in, get out of his is criminal issues, and either strike another family or come to us.

Christopher: John’s sister, Donna, who had tried more than anyone to help him over the years, who had seen him turn viciously on her too, got the news from her lawyer. At first, she didn’t rule out the possibility of some trick. John knew every kind.

Donna Stewart: I said, “I don’t know. It could be a story. It could be John doing something.”

Christopher: Donna didn’t go to the hospital where her brother lay unconscious covered with 13 stab wounds.

Donna: I never saw John. I never did. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I had already said my goodbyes.

Christopher: John’s other sister, Karen Douvillier, was summoned to the hospital. Debra Newell did not want to be responsible for pulling the plug on her husband. She thought Douvillier should decide. Douvillier is a nurse. She looked at the brain scans and realized her brother had no chance. She gave the okay to pull him off life support. A transplant team tried to harvest his organs, but years of drug use had ravaged them. John Michael Meehan, drug addict, failed law student, disgraced nurse anesthetist, fake doctor, prolific grifter, black-hearted lothario, and terror of uncountable women, was declared dead at age 57 on August 24, four days after he attacked Terra Newell.

Debra and Karen were led to a room in a Santa Ana funeral home where his body lay in a long, plain cardboard box. They watched the lid go on the box and the box go in the oven. The door closed, he turned into black smoke, and that was all. There was no memorial service. Terra struggled with guilt. It helped to talk to Meehan’s sisters. This is Donna.

Donna: I brought her flowers and I thanked her. I said, “He could have made it a lot worse for a lot of people the rest of his life. You did a good thing. Sounds weird, but he was a bad person.” I think it helped, but I don’t know.

Christopher: Everyone who heard the story had the same question, how did she prevail? I asked Shad what sense he could make of it.

Shad: Zero. Zero makes sense and that dog is a tiny dog. Impossible. There’s no way.

Christopher: When I first met Shad, he used a sentence that’s hard to forget, “The last person on earth I’d ever think would send John to hell would be Terra.”

And so what is it that was in you that gave you the ability to survive that? Can you talk about that?

Terra: Well, I had a genuine hate for him. This guy was taking away my mom.

Christopher: It’s possible to make some educated guesses about what else contributed to the outcome. John’s body was likely weakened by his drug use and fatigue. The autopsy report reflected how much his health had deteriorated over the last year. At 163 pounds, he was 67 pounds lighter than he was listed on his driver’s license. Terra had the gift of adrenaline and she probably didn’t know what kind of fight she had in her until she needed it. Her gentle demeanor was deceptive, her size was certainly deceptive. For years, she’d worked with big, aggressive dogs. Her upper body is built like a swimmer’s, strong round shoulders.

Terra: I think of him as pure evil. I think that, if there’s a devil, then he’s probably the devil or the devil’s son. I had a dream about this moment and I would actually stab an kill him, but then I never knew it would happen and I never thought, while I’m watching the show, “Maybe this show might help save my life one day.” I just thought, “If there’s a zombie apocalypse, then I might know what to do.”

Christopher: Detectives told the prosecutor, Matt Murphy, that it looked like a clear case of self-defense.

Matt Murphy: 99 times out of 100, the nice person is the one that winds up dead. I can’t tell you how many times this guy’s on the run after this and we find this poor woman dead and duct taped in the desert or on the side of a freeway because that’s usually the way these things end. I don’t think this went according to plan for Meehan. What he expected to do, I believe, was pull out the knife and she would do, again, what we see on TV. Maybe, at worst, he’s going to muffle a scream, that he’d be able to, with the knife, get her into his vehicle and kidnap her, which is what all the stuff was doing inside the car. So he’s going to a move her from her world into his and she decided to fight and that’s that’s where things went wrong.

Christopher: I think it’s basically an illusion fostered by the movies we love and our need for comprehensible narratives governed by cause and effect that people’s personalities can never really be explained by an event or two. Still, when you’re writing a story, you’re always looking for some burning insight, some skeleton key that might unlock a person’s personality. You rarely find tidy answers and sometimes nothing resembling any answer at all. You’re not going to get the incinerated sled at the end of Citizen Kane, the convenient image that makes you say, “So that’s what warped this guy’s soul.” What made Dirty John Dirty John? The prosecutor did not seem vexed by the elusive origins of John’s consummate dirtiness.

Matt: The fact is some people are just born bad. They just are and, from everything I’ve read about Mr. Meehan, he’s one of those guys. There’s no traumatic event in his life, there’s no head injury, there’s nothing that happened, that I’m aware of, that you can look at and say, “Everything went bad for him at this point.”

Christopher: Murphy even has a phrase for it, which he picked up during his years prosecuting sex crimes. He says certain predators just have “green worms in the brain.” You can’t explain how they got there and you can’t get them out.

I talked to Debra’s family law attorney, Michael O’Neil.

Michael O’Neil: I just think he was so wrapped up in the quest, the stalking. The reason I akin it to sharks is their behavior.

Christopher: What was his endgame?

Michael: Each one of them was to get