Woman who killed real-life 'Dirty John' channeled 'Walking Dead' when he attacked, how she's doing today

Terra Newell said she fought back in self-defense when her step-father attacked.

January 31, 2019, 9:08 PM

Terra Newell had just gotten out of her car in the parking garage of her apartment building and opened the door for her dog to hop out on Aug. 20, 2016, when suddenly she found herself in a fight for her life.

“He grabs me by the waist and he looks me in the eyes and says, ‘Do you remember me,’” Newell told ABC News' Marci Gonzalez in an interview for "Nightline."

Her hulking assailant was her mother’s estranged husband, 57-year-old John Meehan, now infamously known as "Dirty John," a man who had conned, terrorized and stalked their family.

As Newell, 25 years old at the time, and Meehan struggled, she said he began stabbing her with a knife.

“But I am not aware that he's stabbing me because the knife is in a Del Taco bag,” she said. “So I think he's punching me and he keeps on trying to grab me, put his hand over my mouth. I bite as hard as I can. And I just keep trying to get away from him.”

As she tried to fight him off, Newell said she fell on her back and began “pedal-kicking” Meehan’s forearms as he tried to come down on top of her with the knife.

“My dog's attacking his ankles at this point too,” she said.

“I pick [the knife] up and I just start wailing back on him," Terra Newell told "Nightline."
“I pick [the knife] up and I just start wailing back on him," Terra Newell told "Nightline."
ABC News

Newell, who had been stabbed near her rib cage and had an inch-deep stab wound in her arm, said she managed to kick the knife out of Meehan’s hand.

“The knife lands into that ice pick position,” she said. “I pick it up and I just start wailing back on him. And then he falls on top of me.”

As she tried to fend him off, Newell said her favorite show, “The Walking Dead,” flashed into her mind.

“I'm pushing him off on me but I'm holding his head because like subconsciously [from watching] 'The Walking Dead' and don't want him to bite me,” Newell said. “And so like I push him off of me with holding his head ... I thought I don't want him to wake up and just try to hurt me again because I think he'll try to kill me again.

Knife in her hand, Newell said she stabbed Meehan in the forehead and then stabbed him again.

“The last one was in the eye because that's the softest point of entry so I wanted to kill his brain for like a zombie, essentially,” she said.

At that point, Newell said she was able to push Meehan off of her. Neighbors rushed over to help and 911 was called. Newell had stabbed Meehan 13 times.

When paramedics arrived, Meehan was near death. It was the end of a nightmare that had engulfed Newell’s family for nearly two years.

The traumatic events she endured were first chronicled in the wildly popular Los Angeles Times article and podcast series, “Dirty John,” which was then adapted into a hit scripted Bravo show, starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, as well as a documentary from Oxygen called “Dirty John: The Dirty Truth.”

PHOTO: Connie Britton as Debra Newell and Eric Bana as John Meehan in "Dirty John."
Connie Britton as Debra Newell and Eric Bana as John Meehan in "Dirty John."
Frank Ockenfels/Bravo

Newell’s mother, Debra Newell, a successful interior designer in California, had met Meehan online in 2014 when she was 59 years old. She said this tall, handsome man told her he was an anesthesiologist who also had daughters.

“He said everything right,” Debra Newell told “Nightline.” “John started calling every day and we would meet after work, and he started saying he was in love with me. I was the soul mate. He's been waiting for me… I ate it up.”

Terra Newell was initially optimistic that maybe this relationship would last.

“She [my mother] had a lot of husbands that didn't work out, and a lot of relationships that didn't work out,” Terra Newell said. “We were on the phone and she was just telling me, ‘Oh I met a great guy’ ... And I was just like, ‘Oh well, I love to meet him.’”

But when she did meet Meehan, Terra Newell said she instantly got a bad feeling about him.

“The first time I met him... he's not that warm,” she said. “And then we go to California Pizza Kitchen… we were in the car and on the way back I told him, ‘Oh there's a child lock on the car. Can you let me out?’ And he pretended he didn't hear me so I asked again and he got out of the car and just went upstairs.”

They only knew each other for two months when Newell agreed to marry Meehan on a trip to Las Vegas. Although it was her fifth marriage, she said he seemed like the man of her dreams.

"We would take walks at the end of the day and you want to hear all about my day," Debra Newell said. "He would make me breakfast or he would go get me a Starbucks. He would take my dry cleaning in, take my mail to the mailbox. Anything that I needed to do that I had no time for" he would do.

Debra Newell shares the story of how she fell in love with a violent conman that has inspired a podcast, TV series and documentary.
Debra Newell shares the story of how she fell in love with a violent conman that has inspired a podcast, TV series and documentary.

The newlywed couple moved into a waterfront home on Balboa Island, a beautiful harbor side island in Newport Beach.

Newell overlooked multiple red flags, some that even her adult children raised from the start. They pointed out that he was driving one of Newell's cars because he said his car had been stolen while he was serving in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders.

“Well my sister just … telling me like ‘oh there's something not right with him’. He says he's an anesthesiologist. He's driving around my mom's car. He says that all of his stuff got stolen,” Terra Newell said. “These stories aren't really adding up right now and so I'm skeptical about him and I just want to know if he says he has money then why doesn't he have a rental car or his own car.”

It all turned out to be one fictional tale in a web of deceit Meehan had been weaving.

"Almost everything he told me was a lie," Debra Newell said. "He told me he was an anesthesiologist. He was not an anesthesiologist. He said he had one sister and she was dead. He has two alive sisters -- there was no reason for a lot of the lies I didn't understand."

Debra Newell, the woman whose real-life story is depicted in 'Dirty John,' is seen here during an interview with "Nightline."
Debra Newell, the woman whose real-life story is depicted in 'Dirty John,' is seen here during an interview with "Nightline."
ABC News

Terra Newell said Meehan tried to isolate her mother from her children in an effort to control every aspect of her life and her wealth.

“He accused me of trying to separate my mom from him saying that I wanted my mom because I wanted her money and just basically accusing me of wanting her all to myself,” Terra Newell said.

And, according to Terra Newell, Meehan would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.

“He would also send my sister text messages from my mom's phone pretending to be my mom and telling my sister that she should just kill herself. That she should jump face first off the building and all of that. So that was really hard and alarming and hurtful,” Terra Newell said. “I looked at the text messages and I was like, ‘my mom doesn't talk like this.’”

Newell said she felt like Meehan brainwashed her mother into believing everything he said. But finally, after more than a year together, Debra Newell started to realize the scope of Meehan’s vicious duplicity. She uncovered his drug addiction, arrest record and his history of tormenting dozens of other women.

Det. Julia Bowman, who had initially investigated Meehan for extortion and stalking accusations made against him in 2013, told “Nightline” that since then she has learned Meehan terrorized at least 50 women.

"He was such a serial stalker and he was so professional in how he did this that he recognized what that person needed for them to immediately fall for him," Bowman told ABC News. "Someone that he has latched on to is never free of him."

After she found what she called "pretty much a complete killing, kidnapping kit" of cyanide capsules, zip ties, duct tape, a gun and ammunition he had stashed, Bowman made an arrest.

"[It] kind of heightened my fear that something was -- if we had not arrested him -- that something horrible would have happened to our victim," she explained.

While Meehan was behind bars Bowman said she continued to receive threats.

"I get a call that he's trying to put a hit out on me," Bowman said.

Meehan met Debra Newell just two days after he was released from jail in October 2014.

When Newell decided to walk away from him, she said she told him, "I'm leaving you, I want a divorce."

"He said 'hit me.' And he was yelling at me and it was pushing me. He was doing this and I go, 'I'm not going to hit you,'" she recalled. "He said 'hit me.' And I said, 'I'm not going to hit you.' And I said, 'Just let me go.' And he says, 'if you hit me you'll never get up again.'"

Newell then hid for months but Meehan stalked her and even located and set fire to her car.

“When he set fire to my mom's car, I was just hoping he would get arrested hopefully and we might just not have to deal with him anymore. But that wasn't the case,” Terra Newell said.

Terra Newell then discovered that Meehan was stalking her too, calling the dog kennel where she worked at the time to make an appointment and used a fake French accent.

It was the next day that Newell said Meehan attacked her in the parking garage.

As the paramedics worked on Meehan, Newell said she remembered feeling angry that they were trying to resuscitate him.

“I was like, ‘this guy just tried to kill me and If he's able to survive by any chance then he is going to still try to kill us,’” she said.

Meehan was rushed to the hospital, where he died four days later.

After the attack, Terra Newell said she grappled with guilt over what had happened.

“Because I thought he could have a family he can actually have someone that cares about him. And I just don't want the people that love him to feel bad,” she said.

But Newell was reassured by Meehan’s sisters, his ex-wife Tonia Bales and Bales’ daughters, whom she said she is still good friends with now. She said Bales at one point told her “thank you.”

“She just knows that it would have been her next,” Newell said.

Today, Terra and Debra Newell say they are closer than they have ever been and they are still working through some things. Debra Newell’s interior design business is thriving and Terra Newell started a blog as a way to cope with the ongoing struggles of trauma and PTSD.

“I have really good days and then some really bad days but I'm in therapy I go to therapy once a week. I'm making strides to get better. And that's all I can do right now,” Terra Newell said.

With the wild popularity of her family’s real-life saga, Terra Newell said she’s proud to share what she survived.

“I feel like this experience has changed me in such positive ways. And it's made me such a stronger person,” she said. “There's a lot of women that message me with their stories … [and] I've encouraged them to tell their stories to other people.”

“And so they're like you taught me to like go out there and really make the most about my life,” Newell continued. “So there's just a lot of great things coming out of it.”