DIRTY JOHN

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRISTO­PHER GOFFARD

CHAP­TER SIX: TERRA

She al­ways sensed John was dan­ger­ous. Her sis­ter told her to keep her pock­etknife handy. But her mind was else­where that day, and she was on the look­out for the wrong car.

John Mee­han bragged fre­quently about his sup­posed ties to or­ga­nized crime, and claimed to trace his blood­line to the pro­lific East Coast hit man who had run Mur­der Inc. it­self. It had the ring of empty boast­ing from a man who lived by lies.

What is be­liev­able is that he ap­proved of the mob’s way of do­ing busi­ness, par­tic­u­larly when it came to deal­ing with en­e­mies. Over and over, he spoke ap­prov­ingly of a cold-blooded ethos: A dead en­emy couldn’t suf­fer, so you went af­ter their loved ones. You went af­ter their fam­i­lies.

Terra Newell was 25. Every­one de­scribed her as “sweet.” Her voice, a soft singsong, forced peo­ple to lean in. As a kid, the small­est on the team, she was so un­com­pet­i­tive in soft­ball games that she didn’t bother swing­ing at pitches.

Terra was a child of the up­scale Or­ange County sub­urbs but adored coun­try mu­sic, and she liked the songs about drink­ing beer, hav­ing a good time and lov­ing God. It had started with a high school crush on a boy from Ok­la­homa, in the same way her cur­rent ob­ses­sion with “The Walk­ing Dead” had started with her ex-boyfriend Jimmy.

Like the com­pany of dogs, mu­sic made her for­get her anx­i­ety. For years, Terra had lived with a vague sense of dread. When she was around 6, she woke up scream­ing, be­liev­ing that some­one had climbed through her bed­room win­dow to snatch her. Her par­ents didn’t call po­lice.

Her mother thought maybe it was a dream, the func­tion of Terra’s dis­tress over what was hap­pen­ing in the house. Her par­ents were fight­ing a lot, and were soon di­vorced. Terra had fre­quent night­mares at that age. She’d see dark shapes and be­come con­vinced they were ghosts or aliens.

Over the years, she said, she won­dered whether she was a lit­tle bit crazy. In ther­apy she ques­tioned whether the ab­duc­tion mem­ory was a real one, but be­came con­vinced it had ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

When she was a teenager, a guy she’d been dat­ing flipped out and rammed a car into

her leg; she said he was on meth. She got a tat­too on her foot that said “Psalms 23” — the Lord is my shep­herd — with a heart she’d seen in a Tay­lor Swift video.

Early on, even be­fore John be­came her step­fa­ther, Terra sensed he was dan­ger­ous. She had sobbed un­con­trol­lably at a Christ­mas gath­er­ing, say­ing, “There’s just some­thing wrong about him. I don’t like him.” But not every­one felt what she felt; for the long­est time, her mother cer­tainly didn’t.

She sensed that John was some­how watch­ing her. She liked to have friends crash at her New­port Beach apart­ment so she would not be alone.

Once she had a dream that John was at­tack­ing her, and she had to stab him to save her­self. She wrote out a note and put it in her drawer. If any­thing hap­pened to her, it said, she wanted Jimmy to get Cash, the minia­ture Aus­tralian shep­herd.

She was not a brawler and had no mar­tial arts back­ground ex­cept for a long-ago self-de­fense class in PE. She did, how­ever, study tele­vi­sion vi­o­lence with un­com­mon in­ten­sity.

In “The Walk­ing Dead,” she ab­sorbed the first ax­iom of com­bat with zom­bies: They will keep try­ing to kill you un­til you de­stroy the head, by blade or screw­driver, ma­chete or gun. She re­garded the show as a fount of sur­vival tricks. When a fa­vorite char­ac­ter ex­tri­cated him­self from a bad spot by bit­ing into an at­tacker’s jugu­lar, she thought, “My teeth are a weapon.”

More than tech­nique, she said, she took a cer­tain mind-set from the show:

“Kill or be killed.”

Keep your pock­etknife handy, her sis­ter Jacquelyn warned her on the morn­ing of Satur­day, Aug. 20, 2016. She had spot­ted John in town last night.

Terra ac­knowl­edged the warn­ing, but her mind was else­where. She and a girl­friend had $100 lawnseat tick­ets to see Ja­son Aldean, one of her fa­vorite coun­try acts, who would per­form that night at Irvine Mead­ows.

She put on her rain boots and drove to work at the New­port Beach dog ken­nel. She greeted the Labs and ter­ri­ers and Dober­mans and poo­dle mixes. She un­locked the cages. She car­ried the big bag of dried, high-pro­tein pel­lets to the bowls. She hosed out the cages and the con­crete dog runs. She had strong, round shoul­ders, strength­ened by years of work­ing with large, ag­gres­sive dogs.

The French-sound­ing guy who was sup­posed to bring in his Rhode­sian ridge­backs never showed, but she didn’t think much of it. She left work in her Toy­ota Prius just af­ter 5 p.m. for the three-mile drive home. Cash was in the back seat. It was still full day­light.

John Mee­han had re­moved the li­cense plate from the gray 2016 Dodge Dart he had rented.

In­side the car, he had his pass­port, a vial of in­jectable testos­terone, and what po­lice called a “kid­nap kit.” An Oak­ley back­pack. Cam­ou­flage duct tape. Ca­ble ties. A set of kitchen knives.

Terra pulled up to the Coron­a­dos, the sprawl­ing block-long com­plex where she lived. It was not New­port Beach’s choic­est ZIP Code. Peo­ple who lived there said it was com­mon to over­hear do­mes­tic fights and com­mon to look the other way.

Now she drove up the ramp and through the slid­ing gate to the el­e­vated out­door park­ing lot. She al­ways parked in the same stall, SR 423. She saw the Dodge Dart backed into a nearby stall, a man fid­get­ing in the trunk with a tire iron. She brushed it off, even when Cash growled. She was ea­ger to get to the con­cert.

She had Mace in her car, pep­per spray in her purse, a pock­etknife in her apart­ment, and no weapon in her hands when she climbed out of the car.

He had been for­mi­da­bly big, 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds of steroidal mus­cle, a sur­vivor of jail or prison cells in at least three states. He had lost se­ri­ous weight — he was down to 163 — but Terra was still a foot shorter and 33 pounds lighter. He had the el­e­ment of sur­prise. He had a long sil­ver knife, con­cealed in­side a Del Taco bag. It bore no re­sem­blance to a fair fight.

She was cross­ing be­hind her car with Cash, and sud­denly John Mee­han’s arm was en­wrap­ping her waist, his eyes cold. “Do you re­mem­ber me?” he said.

He clapped his hand over her mouth. She bit down. She screamed. Cash lunged for his an­kles.

Mee­han jabbed at Terra with the taco bag. She re­al­ized there was a knife in­side. She threw up her fore­arm to pro­tect her chest. Her arm opened. They wres­tled. They tum­bled to the pave­ment.

Blond, small-boned Sky­lar Sepul­veda, 14, who didn’t know Terra

but looked as though she could have been her lit­tle sis­ter, had just ped­aled home on her beach cruiser from ju­nior-life­guard train­ing at the Bal­boa Pier.

She was in apart­ment T302, wear­ing only a T-shirt-cov­ered swim­suit, when she heard the scream­ing and went to the win­dow that over­looked the park­ing lot. She saw Terra strug­gling on her back, and Mee­han above her, the knife raised over his head.

Sky­lar told her mom to call po­lice, grabbed her beach towel and said, “I gotta go.” Bare­foot, she rushed out the door, rushed down the apart­ment stairs, rushed to­ward the park­ing-lot stairs.

Scores of bal­conies over­looked the lot, and she saw peo­ple stand­ing on them, grown men and women, just watch­ing. She saw others walk­ing their dogs, as if the blood­cur­dling screams weren’t split­ting the air.

“Go­ing on with their daily lives,” she would re­call. She saw some peo­ple get into their cars. She felt what she called “to­tal dis­gust with peo­ple.”

Sky­lar — a girl with wrists so thin a grown man could have en­cir­cled them with one hand — did not pause long enough to worry that the at­tacker might turn the knife on her when she got to the scene. She just knew she would blame her­self if some­thing aw­ful hap­pened that she could have stopped.

Now John Mee­han’s long sil­ver knife was free of the taco bag, and he was strik­ing down­ward.

The rain boots Terra wore that day were her sturdy pair, with thick tread.

She was on her back, pedal-kick­ing, try­ing to save her­self, when she clipped his knife hand. The blade flew from his grip. It fell to the pave­ment. It fell with the han­dle pointed to­ward her.

It fell inches from her right hand.

She was right-handed. She didn’t think. She be­gan flail­ing, look­ing for tar­gets. She con­nected, again and again.

His shoul­der. His shoul­der blade. His tri­ceps. His shoul­der blade. His up­per back. His shoul­der blade. His up­per back. Be­tween his shoul­der blades. His fore­arm. His tri­ceps. His shoul­der. His chest.

His left eye — and through it — into his brain.

When she reached the top of the steps, Sky­lar Sepul­veda found John Mee­han face-down, bleed­ing and con­vuls­ing. Terra was crawl­ing away, shak­ing, scream­ing about how he had stalked her and tor­tured her fam­ily.

Sky­lar could see ex­posed mus­cle in a gash on Terra’s fore­arm, like a sur­geon’s in­ci­sion.

Sky­lar wrapped it with a beach towel and tried to calm her down. She asked her ques­tions: “What is your birth­day?” It hap­pened they had the same July birth­day. Terra was ter­ri­fied that her at­tacker would get up and come at her again. Some­one else had ar­rived and was check­ing on him.

“He can’t get up,” Sky­lar said. “He can’t hurt you.”

Terra picked up her cell­phone and called her mom. “I’m re­ally, re­ally sorry,” she said. “I think I killed your hus­band.”

John Mee­han was not breath­ing when the po­lice ar­rived, and had no pulse. They ad­min­is­tered CPR, and soon his pulse was back, and he be­gan to take small, short breaths as they rushed him away in an am­bu­lance.

In an­other am­bu­lance, Terra Newell asked if she would be done in time to get to the Ja­son Aldean con­cert, and they said no, but they turned on some coun­try mu­sic. They let Cash ride with her.

Shad Vick­ers thought of how many times John had done evil and es­caped the law, and how if any­one might rise from the dead to hurt them again, it was him. Even now, he seemed larger than he was, like a hor­ror-movie vil­lain.

Mee­han’s sis­ter Donna heard the news and didn’t rule out the pos­si­bil­ity of some trick. Her brother knew ev­ery kind.

His other sis­ter, Karen, was sum­moned to the Santa Ana hos­pi­tal where he lay un­con­scious with 13 stab wounds. She had long ago come to ac­cept that her brother would die un­nat­u­rally. Maybe of an over­dose, maybe in a con­fronta­tion. Not like this.

De­bra Newell did not want to be re­spon­si­ble for pulling the plug. She let Karen, a nurse, de­cide. Karen looked at the brain scans and gave the OK. A trans­plant team tried to har­vest his or­gans, but years of drug use had rav­aged them.

John Mee­han — drug ad­dict, failed law stu­dent, dis­graced nurse anes­thetist, fake doc­tor, pro­lific grifter, black-hearted Lothario and ter­ror of un­count­able women — was de­clared dead at age 57 on Aug. 24, 2016, four days af­ter he had at­tacked Terra Newell.

De­bra was numb. She and Karen were led to a room in a Santa Ana fu­neral home where his body lay in a long, plain card­board box. They watched the lid go on the box and the box go in the oven. The door closed, he turned into black smoke, and that was all. There was no me­mo­rial ser­vice.

News of Mee­han’s death made the lo­cal papers, with scant de­tails. “I just wanted to hear he is re­ally dead,” said an ex-girl­friend who called po­lice, then cried in re­lief.

Peo­ple were try­ing to reckon the im­prob­a­bil­ity of the out­come. “Im­pos­si­ble,” said Shad. “The last per­son on Earth I’d ever think would send John to hell would be Terra.”

De­tec­tives told the pros­e­cu­tor, Matt Mur­phy, that it looked like a clear-cut case of self-de­fense. In such sce­nar­ios, the killer usu­ally wound up on the run, the vic­tim dead, dumped off a free­way or in the desert.

Blind luck, the gift of adren­a­line, Mee­han’s drug-weak­ened con­di­tion, Terra’s in­stinc­tive re­fusal to com­ply with his script — all of them had helped to save her.

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, the nice per­son is the one that is dead,” Mur­phy said. “Ev­ery once in a while, good guys win.”

She was not go­ing to take any chances, and so her last strike had been through the eye.

“I guess that was my zom­bie kill,” Terra said. “You need to kill their brain. That’s what I did.”

Had she killed a man loved by some­one, some­where? This both­ered her. Then Donna came by with flow­ers and told her, “You did a good thing.” Her brother had hardly known his daugh­ters. He was as iso­lated a man as ever lived.

Terra went back to the dog ken­nel, but bark­ing trig­gered mem­o­ries of the at­tack, and she had to quit. Some­times she’d see a man roughly John’s age, and she’d strug­gle to breathe. For a while she smoked pot to get to sleep, but it made her para­noid and ir­ri­ta­ble. So she gave it up, but then night­mares flooded her sleep.

She found a ther­a­pist, who helped her build a place in her mind where she could go when things felt over­whelm­ing. She thought of a lake in Mon­tana where she used to go with her dad. She put drag­on­flies in the pic­ture, and, as her pro­tec­tor, her dog.

De­bra Newell still strug­gles with guilt that she brought John into her fam­ily’s life.

She’s close with her kids again. She re­cently bought her daugh­ters stun guns, pep­per spray and rape whis­tles. They talk ev­ery day, some­times just to say “I love you.” She doesn’t need a boyfriend or a hus­band, a year later, and said she has no de­sire to date. She works con­stantly.

She said she feels she’s over John. At the Ne­vada house where he’d been liv­ing, she found a clut­ter of drug vials and sy­ringes. She found some 200 women on the lap­top he used, some of them de­scribed with ref­er­ences to their anatomy. She found that he was flirt­ing on three dat­ing sites on the day they were mar­ried.

She has con­cluded that he was some kind of so­ciopath. But for months she tor­mented her­self, try­ing to fig­ure out what was real. On her side, the love was gen­uine and deep, and it was hard to imag­ine that he had been ly­ing ev­ery sec­ond, ev­ery minute, ev­ery day.

Not long af­ter the at­tack, she took out her iPad and called up footage of their Las Ve­gas wed­ding. She watched as they ex­changed rings and he smiled down at her ten­derly.

She turned away from the screen. She had a catch in her throat, and a ques­tion.

“Doesn’t he look happy?”

Christina House Los Angeles Times

TERRA NEWELL with her dog, Cash. She felt as if her step­fa­ther, John Mee­han, was some­how watch­ing her; she liked to have friends crash at her New­port Beach apart­ment so she wouldn’t be alone.

Pho­to­graphs by Christina House Los Angeles Times

THE SEC­OND-FLOOR park­ing lot at the Coron­a­dos, where Terra lived. She brushed off the pres­ence of a stranger fid­get­ing at his car, even when Cash growled.

SKY­LAR SEPUL­VEDA at her church in Costa Mesa. She lived in the same apart­ment com­plex as Terra, and when she heard scream­ing she went to the win­dow that over­looked the park­ing lot.

TERRA and Cash on the Bal­boa Pier. She wrote out a note and put it in her drawer. If any­thing hap­pened to her, it said, she wanted her ex-boyfriend to get the minia­ture Aus­tralian shep­herd.

TERRA re­cov­er­ing af­ter the at­tack. Her sturdy thick-tread rain boots, which she had worn to work that day at the dog ken­nel, may have helped save her life. “I’m re­ally, re­ally sorry,” she told her mom. “I think I killed your hus­band.” Po­lice called it...

JOHN WAS kept alive for four days af­ter Terra stabbed him 13 times. One of his sis­ters told her: “You did a good thing.”

THE KITCHEN knife that John used to at­tack Terra had been wrapped in a taco bag.

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