Content note: This post contains mild spoilers for the podcast Dirty John.
At 59 years old Debra Newell thought she had finally met the perfect man.
John Meehan was 55 years old, six foot two and he had the kind of all-American good looks you’d associate with an old-school Hollywood heart throb.
He was also a master manipulator who had conned and defrauded countless women over four decades.
Debra and John’s relationship – and what happened next – is now the subject of the world’s most popular podcast Dirty John.
But Debra’s story begins decades earlier with the senseless murder of her older sister, Cindi.
Debra and Cindi grew up in a strict religious household with parents who preached about forgiveness.
Cindi was still a teenager when she met and fell in love with a man called Billy Vickers. Billy proposed, they married young, and before long he was a part of the Hart family.
Listen: Jessie Stephens gives a rundown of Dirty John on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues after audio.
Everyone loved Billy, he seemed like the perfect doting husband, and the whole family believed Cindi had found her perfect match.
But behind closed doors Billy was possessive and controlling. He closely monitored what Cindi was wearing and who she was seeing.
After 14 years of marriage and three kids together, Cindi finally worked up the courage to leave Billy.
But her family was anything but supportive. Her mother Arlane actually let Billy move in with her and appeared to be taking his side in the separation.
On March 8, 1984, not long after the separation, Billy went over to the house he used to share with Cindi. He walked up behind his estranged wife, to where she was sitting at the kitchen table with her back towards him, he put a gun to the back of her head and he fired one shot.
He then turned the gun on himself before calling the police and telling them, “I’ve shot myself”.
Cindi was killed instantly but Billy survived the incident.
But it’s what happened next that’s so surprising and disturbing.
Arlane immediately decided to forgive Billy for killing her daughter. She then went on to advocate on his behalf.
Arlane had always adored Billy, and when he called her from his hospital bed to apologise for taking his daughter’s life, she said she still loved him.
“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,” she told Christopher Goffard, the host of Dirty John.
With Billy facing life in jail for the heinous crime, Arlane called his defence lawyer and said she wanted to testify on his behalf.
In court she told the 12 person jury that Cindi had mistreated Billy. The jury sobbed as Arlane preached forgiveness on the stand for five hours straight.
Thomas Avdeef, the prosecutor on the case, had never seen anything like it.
“They threw [Cindi] under the bus,” Avdeef told the LA Times. “I don’t know the dynamics of the family. I could never understand that. Why say bad things about the victim?”
In a shocking decision the jury acquitted Billy of first-degree murder. He then pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was given a sentence of only five years for Cindi's death.
But Arlane's testimony, good behaviour, and time already served meant Billy would only spend two years behind bars, while Cindi went to her grave knowing her family had turned against her.
Arlane then traveled around the world giving talks and preaching forgiveness.
In 2004, she gave a talk at the Orange Coast Christian Outreach Week called “Forgiveness Beyond Understanding: When murder strikes close to home”.
This was the environment Debra grew up in. This was all she knew.
When John Meehan walked into Debra's life, Arlane had been preaching forgiveness at her for 59 years, and she had been defending her eldest daughter's killer for almost 30 years.
So it's not hard to see why Debra was an easy target for John. She was a sitting duck, a woman who had been brought up to believe her worth was less than the man's she was with, a daughter who believed forgiveness was always the best option.
The tragic story of Debra and John started 30 years before they even met.
You can listen to all six episodes of Dirty John here.
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