Everything Dirty John Changed or Left out From the Crazy True Story

Bravo finished telling the story of John Meehan and Debra Newell on Sunday night, revealing the bloody ending to the real-life story that was first introduced via a true crime podcast

By Tierney Bricker Jan 14, 2019 7:29 PMTags
Watch: "Dirty John's" Real-Life Victim Speaks Out

The long con is over. 

Bravo's hit series Dirty John ended its eight-episode run on Sunday night, depicting John Meehan's (Eric Bana) violent demise at the unlikely hands of Debra Newell's (Connie Britton) youngest daughter, Terra (Julia Garner). 

Based on the hit podcast from Wondery and the L.A. Times and the six-part L.A. Times article written by Christopher Goffard (who also penned an installment of the show), Dirty John has become one of Bravo's most successful shows ever, breaking ratings records for the network. 

Given the too-crazy-to-be-made-up storyline—a sociopath cons a businesswoman he met online, mayhem ensues—it's easy to think that the show had to have embellished or made up certain parts of the story to ramp up the drama for TV. But fans of the podcast know all too well that when it came to John Meehan, anything was possible. 

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Despite being a pretty damn faithful retelling of the real-life story, which came to an end with Meehan's death in 2016, there were a few changes—a few major—Bravo made in Dirty John:

Some of the biggest and simplest changes had to do with the make-up of Debra's family. In real-life, the divorced interior designer had four children, not three. (Two other real-life people not depicted on-screen are one of John's two sisters and his brother, who died of a drug overdose in 2000.)

Her oldest daughter was not included in any media retelling of their family's trauma, while Debra's second child's name was changed from Jacquelyn, who participated in the podcast, to Veronica (played to perfection to Juno Temple). Her beloved nephew's name was changed from Shad Vickers in real-life to Toby (Kevin Zegers) on the show, though the forty-something single father of three daughters also gave interviews for the podcast. 


"Right from the jump, the studio had gotten Debra's and Terra's life rights. At that point, we did not have the life rights of Debra's other daughter or her nephew," showrunner Alexandra Cunningham explained to Huffington Post. "Because they participated in the podcast, their stories could be told, but we also wanted them to be involved in the story, and they were hesitant. Ultimately, they spent a lot of time talking to our non-writing executive producer, Richard [Suckle], who brought them on board officially and legally with their life rights."

As for the name changes, it was done to be "respectful. I let it be known that I would do whatever Debra's other daughter wanted me to do, and she did want us to change her first name. It was all about being respectful to their experience."

Temple did get to meet Jacquelyn, and confirmed one fun fact when they spoke at the November premiere. 

"I saw her at the premiere and she said that the safe was bigger in real life," Temple told Cosmopolitan of Veronica's purse-filled safe. 


Other changes include the nature of their quickie wedding in Las Vegas. In real-life, John often begged Debra to marry him. She held off for a while, but when he joined her on a work tripe to Sin City, they made it official. 

But the biggest edit from the original story was John's rehabilitation, with Debra helping him detox (or so she thought) after his drug addiction was revealed to her. Rather than walk away, she decided to keep with the whole "for better or for worse" part of their vows even after learning of all of the horrible things he's done in the past. 

Britton publicly admitted she struggled with the introduction of this storyline in an interview with Variety.

"I struggled with this," she said, "mostly because I really wanted to explore why Debra took him back without the additional rehab component, because that actual choice on her part is where for me the most challenging pieces of her psychology live."

And Newell made it clear in a Forbes interview that she had no idea John was using heroin.

"When John and I were together I didn't ever see any signs of any heroin drug use," she said. "I only saw prescription drugs and since he'd just had back surgery, I thought they were for that."

Of course, given the story's bloody ending, John's POV is left out of both the L.A. Times article and the podcast. So the showrunners decided to give a bit more insight into the con-man, but wanted to avoid offering viewers any chance to feel sympathy. 


"Because John is dead, there is no perspective for him in the podcast," Cunningham told Variety. "But I had an opportunity to present John from his own perspective in a scripted show—the way he must have been with the people he wanted things from, the charm and the humor and the handsomeness, and the scary things."

The show did this with its third episode, which focused on John's first marriage and the fallout his ex-wife, Tonia Bales, was left to deal with.

"We tell the story of the only woman other [than Debra who] John ever chose to marry. And she's an incredibly intelligent, successful, articulate woman who has nothing in common with Debra, other than being an intelligent, articulate, successful woman. The way they were brought up is totally different," Cunningham explained to HuffPo. "Their milieu is totally different. The things they find interesting are totally different. And John devastated both of them. A large part of the storytelling going forward is the effect that John had on so many people who made the mistake of caring about him."

She continued, "I don't know whether John would have chosen to talk to Chris if he was in prison instead of gone. But, of course, he can't do that. So, that was a real opportunity for both me and Eric. Eric obviously was fascinated by the "Dirty John" podcast, but coming at it from inside John, that was definitely a thing that we both wanted to explore."

The show also delved into John's childhood, including his con-artist of a father teaching him the tricks of the trade.

In real-life, John's parents separated when he was in high school, after his mother, Dolores, had an affair, with his sisters saying John was left angered and filled with rage after that. 

After their divorce, Tonia finally contacted Dolores for the first time, who told her, "I always knew you would call me." 


Following their mother's death, John claimed to his sister Donna that he pissed on Dolores' grave when he visited their hometown. In real-life Donna did actually get a court judgment against John for the money she had lent him, claiming she did it to "protect" herself.

"It was all I had," she said. "To me, that was stronger than a gun."

As for another wealthy woman who unfortunately encountered John, he black-mailed her after they started dating, sending intimate photos to her family and requesting she transfer money into his account. "You're in way over your head on this one," he wrote to her. "Make it happen and I walk away. If not, I will be your nightmare."

And for listeners of the podcast and readers of the article, one major question mark was finally answered by the show: Who the hell was that woman who broke into Debra and John's Balboa Island property? 

The woman who appeared in their apartment was actually there when Debra arrived home from church. She has just used the shower and was sipping Ovaltine while holding a bible. On the show, she was soaking wet and approached Debra while she was in the closet before John grabbed her and called the police. 

While the woman never publicly came forward, the show decided to answer the question.

"They took her away after the incident. It's possible to hypothesize what happened," Cunningham told Forbes. "We had to fill in the blanks, but we came to a theory based on how John tended to do things and his methods of using people. It'll be fun for the audience to discover how we answer this question."

Dirty John revealed the woman to be a drug addict John had a casual relationship with that he asked to break into the home in order to have a reason to install security cameras (which he also installed at her office in real-life). 


Some other minor details left out of the show included Debra buying a whole new wardrobe for her beau, as he told her, "Dress me. I want to please you." They went to Brooks Brothers after he claimed his clothes had been stolen during his time in Irag. 

On the show, part of John's nice-guy routine included making Debra a new smoothie every morning and running errands for her, which he also did in real-life. He's always haver her coffee ready, he'd make her doctor's appointments for her, pay the bills, get the groceries, carried her purse often and made a point to gift her with her favorite flowers, peonies.

After the major rift between Debra and her kids happened because of her relationship with John, he would send text messages to them from Debra's phone and would take money out of her wallet, so she started taking $2,000 from every paycheck and giving to to a daughter or a friend for safe keeping. And when he found out that Debra had been paying for Jacquelyn's real-estate classes, he contacted the school to try and malign her. 

While it may seem traumatizing for Debra, Terra and the rest of the Newells to see the ordeal play out on-screen, Debra chose to focus on the positive impact sharing their story could have.

"Overall, seeing my family's story out there has been a good one because the good people won!" she told Forbes. "I believe we went through this for a reason and that's to help others."


But that doesn't mean they are still over it, as Terra still suffers from PTSD following her violent final encounter with John. Thanks to her obsession with the TV show The Walking Dead, Terra zombie-killing knowledge ended up saving her life when John attacked her in a parking lot, leading to his death.

"Terra was an amazing resource for us in putting together and shooting the final confrontation," Cunningham told HuffPo. "Terra actually said to us that her therapist has said that it's good for her to talk about the experience as much as possible. So she sat down with our director and she talked about the events of that day in great detail, much more so than on the podcast. Then she worked with our stunt coordinator to help him really put together a more accurate picture for Eric and Julia Garner of what happened on that day."

She added, "Our stunt coordinator could not have been more impressed by her. He emerged from that meeting and was like, 'I know so many Special Forces guys and Navy Seals guys and other guys who are trained to use knife work and defend themselves and be aggressive for a living, and they spend days and weeks and months and years preparing for a moment like that. And then it happens and they die. All Terra did was plan in her head what would happen if there was a zombie apocalypse, and she survived.'"

Oxygen's two hour documentary Dirty John, The Dirty Truth airs Monday, Jan. 14 at 8 p.m.

Dirty John will return for a second season on Bravo. 

(E! and Bravo are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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