Meet the Real People at the Center of Dirty John

Debra and Terra Newell tell their story

By Chris Harnick Nov 20, 2018 7:41 PMTags
Watch: "Dirty John's" Real-Life Victim Speaks Out

There's Connie Britton and Eric Bana, intrigue, lies, sex and danger, but at the heart of Dirty John there's also real people. Bravo's new limited series is based on the podcast and Los Angeles Times articles of the same name by Christopher Goffard, and it tells the harrowing true story of Debra Newell's saga with the titular character, John Meehan, played by Bana.

What started out as a date turned into a nightmare for Debra, who is played by Britton in the series, and her family, including daughters Jacquelyn and Terra Newell.  

"He was a doctor, so I thought, ‘OK, he's got a career.' His charm—I'm learning a lot about charming people though—his looks, his interest, he said all the right things, and he had a family," Debra, a successful interior designer, told E! News' Justin Sylvester about what attracted her to John. "I thought he had it all that I was looking for."

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Yet her daughters were wary of John. In fact, they were wary of everyone Debra dated, Terra said on Dateline, admitting they could get a bit judgmental.

John would show up everywhere wearing surgical scrubs, he claimed he was a doctor, but his attire—and the dirtiness of his fingernails—tipped off Debra's daughters. Terra said John was always standoffish and would answer questions by revealing as little information as possible. Again, it raised red flags.

"He didn't want to look us in the eyes…his social skills were a little off with me and my sisters," Terra, who was working at a dog kennel during the events of the podcast, said on Today.

Debra said the fact that John wanted to get married as of date two was a red flag, as was his obsession with her bed. "Little did I know he had been in prison, that's why the bed felt so good," Debra told us. She had the gut feeling that something was off with him, but she pushed it aside "because there were too many good things happening that night. I was just excited about who I thought he was."

Is Debra just a hopeless romantic? "A little bit," Terra told us with a laugh. "I feel like it's human nature to want someone there…you want to have companionship…Just to have someone there, it's so nice."

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After eloping, yep, they did that, Debra said she started feeling like John was isolating her from her friends and family, but still John was saying all the right things to her to gain her trust and commitment. Still, her family knew something was up and they hired a private investigator to uncover the truth about John, which included multiple stints in prison, drug abuse and mysterious holdings, and basically a kidnap kit. There were also marriages and a trail of broken lives he left in his wake.


Debra was the perfect mark for John. She has owned her own interior design business for more than 35 years. Her kids are adults and she was looking for the fairytale romance. When confronted with the information the family found on John, Debra went to John with it. But John had an answer for every single accusation and finding. Eventually, and "eventually" is bypassing all sorts of sordid details that will be covered in the TV series, Debra left John and went into hiding as she fully prepared to get out of the marriage. Years earlier, Debra's sister Cindi was murdered by her husband after trying to escape the bad marriage. Debra thought this would be her fate as well. The story did end in death, but not Debra's.

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The saga ended during a violent confrontation between Terra and John in 2016. John attacked her and her dog Cash, in an attempted kidnapping. Terra fought back, despite being stabbed repeatedly by John. Terra is an admitted fan of The Walking Dead and Criminal Minds, and wrestled the knife away from him and took her chance, stabbing him in the face.

"I just thought it's him or me," she said. "The last one was to the head, and I think, ‘Oh, that's the zombie kill.'"

In the TV series, Julia Garner takes on the role of Terra, with Jacquelyn now named Veronica and played by Juno Temple. Jean Smart of Fargo and Designing Women fame plays Arlane Hart, Debra's mother, and the cast also includes Kevin Zegers and Gilmore Girls' Keiko Agnea.

See how it unfolds on the TV series when Dirty John premieres Sunday, Nov. 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Click play on the video up top to hear more from Debra and Terra.

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