“I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of stories about very bad people,” says Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard, host of the newspaper’s first podcast, Dirty John. “I’ve been a reporter for 20 years … but there’s something about this guy, John Meehan, that chills me, that gets under my skin in a way that nobody else has.”
Those are strong words coming from the 11-year Times veteran, whose experiences – like reporting on the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang – have set a “very high” bar for what he finds interesting. “At a certain point, [it feels] like you’ve written every conceivable permutation of every type of story and it becomes hard to get excited,” Goffard tells Rolling Stone.
John Meehan first appeared on Goffard’s radar almost a year ago exactly, when he learned that police were investigating a possible murder in the sleepy nearby enclave of Newport Beach – coincidentally, the same Orange County suburb where Goffard got his start as a reporter for The Daily Pilot. The story piqued Goffard’s interest because, as he notes at the start of Dirty John, Newport Beach is not a city where a lot of murders happen. The early details were scant but strange; intrigued, Goffard began asking questions, and soon found himself unraveling a bizarre tale of deceit so compelling, it was quickly deemed “a natural candidate for our first really ambitious podcast.”
Goffard spent seven months reporting the story, and then another three months writing and recording with the podcast network Wondery, and writing an accompanying print feature for the Times. “It’s reinvigorated my love of storytelling in ways that I could not have expected,” Goffard says. “I think the structure of Dirty John owes a lot more the stuff to the stuff I absorbed as a kid – like old time radio suspense dramas and anything with Orson Welles – than any of the current podcasts I enjoy.”
What began as an intriguing crime story “grew and grew,” Goffard says, to an “all-consuming” deep dive. “One success begets another, you know? One person opens up and that opens another door and that opens another door.” And with each open door, the more fascinating and disturbing Meehan became.
“I think it has to do with the complete concentrated malice that this guy exhibited, and the way that he seemed to have no pleasure in life other than to hurt people,” Goffard says about the podcast’s titular character. “It was as if he was finding victims and feeding them into the void where his soul ought to be, like a sacrifice to the volcano god, you know?”
Dirty John is structured a bit like a mystery, told mostly in chronological order and builds to a climactic finish. The story begins in 2014, and is primarily told by a 59-year old single mom named Debra Newell, and her 20-something daughters, Jacquelyn and Terra. Newell is a successful interior designer, with a deep faith in God, a closet full of designer clothes and a personality that Goffard describes as “trusting” and “open-hearted.” But it’s evident from her history that Newell’s yearning for romantic companionship is her Achilles heel – by the time Newell met Meehan through an online dating site, she had already been married and divorced four times.
Meehan was a Christian and had been married as well, but it was the 55-year-old’s ruggedly handsome, “all-American quarterback” good looks that first captured her attention. He had an impressive career as a anaesthesiologist, owned multiple houses and had “riveting” stories to tell about the year he spent in Iraq working with Doctors Without Borders. But what charmed Newell most of all was how riveted Meehan seemed to be by her, showing a keen interest in her work and family. But their otherwise perfect first date was not without glaring red flags – like how, after Newell invited him into her home for a nightcap, Meehan became sexually aggressive and she had to repeatedly ask him to leave. Yet Meehan worked his way back into her good graces, and after a two-month courtship, they were married – but in secret, as Newell’s daughters had become suspicious that there was more to Meehan than their mother realized.
Dirty John has been described as a “true crime” podcast, but the L.A. Times doesn’t categorize it as such, and Goffard says he is “uneasy” about the label because it “limits people’s expectations.” It’s interesting, then, that Dirty John‘s first episode begins with a classic true-crime setup – a coroner detailing various stab wounds sustained by an unnamed victim. The story that unfolds, however, is anything but typical of the genre, and episode by episode, the murder suggested in those first few minutes goes unmentioned. A red herring, perhaps? Or a sign of what’s to come? Dirty John approach to true-crime storytelling doesn’t limit expectations – it keeps them on their toes.
Unlike many other true crime podcasts, Goffard also stuck closely to his role as narrator, rather than centreing his emotional reactions to the material. “I wanted to tell this story in the way that I have always told my stories in the newspaper, which is stay out of it and let the people that it’s about tell the story.”
Much of the weight falls on Newell, her daughters and her nephew Shad Vickers. And while Meehan is without a doubt Dirty John‘s central Machiavellian villain, Newell and her family have not escaped critique. But while Jacquelyn and Terra have mostly just been criticised for the way they speak – with an Orange-County uptalk made famous by the cast of Laguna Beach – it’s their mother who catches the most heat for ignoring the red flags that were apparent from the onset of her relationship with Meehan; for ignoring her daughters’ warnings and concerns; and for repeatedly accepting Meehan’s excuses as his story starts to unravel. Some listeners have struggled to sympathise with Debra, wondering how she could be so blind. On a recent episode of the podcast, Crime Writers On, host Kevin Flynn complained about the amount of time being spent parsing her motivations, “The podcast is called Dirty John, not Stupid Debra!”
“Imagine some of the letters that I’m getting now, some of the e-mails,” Goffard says. “I’ve got to say they distress me because some of them are mean-spirited and vitriolic. I feel kind of protective of Debra, having gotten to know her these many months, and I feel like, yes, her behaviour is difficult to explain, but a good part of the story is my quest to understand it. By Episode Four, where you learn a little bit about her past and this atmosphere of extreme forgiveness that she was raised in, my hope is that you’ll understand a little better what otherwise seems inexplicable.”
Nor is Newell the first woman Meehan has conned. The podcast goes deep into “Dirty” John’s past, including how he got the nickname, but since the show was released, Goffard has learned even more.
“I’ve been contacted by a handful [of women] since this series ran,” Goffard says. “They all say, ‘I dated that guy for years and it was the worst experience of my life.’ I’ve got e-mails that he sent [to another woman] where he says, basically, ‘ruining your life will be my masterpiece.’ Think about that – that’s a guy who takes pleasure in a certain craft.”
“You wonder what his end game was though,” Goffard continues. “I was never really able to really figure that out. Maybe the infliction of pain was his quest, I don’t know, but he was just as dark a person as I’ve ever written about or interviewed.”