Spoilers ahead for Bravo’s Dirty John and the podcast. Debra Newell has lived a tumultuous life, as Bravo’s Dirty John illustrates, but it didn’t necessarily all start with her romance with John Meehan. Although the story is explained in the beginning of the podcast, the TV adaptation is slowly unraveling why Debra Newell’s ex-brother-in-law isn’t anyone she wants to have contact with. Closer viewers will notice that in episode 2 of the Bravo series, John and Debra attend church with her mother. After the service, her mom goes over to talk to a man who Debra refers to as her "ex-brother-in-law." John is initially confused about why she wouldn't want to say hello, but listeners of the podcast already know why.
According to the LA Times "Dirty John" series on which the Bravo show is based, Cindi Vickers, Debra’s older sister, was shot and killed by her husband in 1984. The two were in the process of separating when her husband borrowed a gun from a friend and shot her as she sat at their table writing checks, another Dirty John chapter reports. The husband, later identified by the article as Billy Vickers, went to jail. Debra subsequently became close with Shad, her nephew who was now essentially parentless, and who would eventually come caught up in her relationship with John. In the Bravo series, Shad is called Toby.
“She had a huge impact on my life,” Shad told the Dirty John podcast, available to stream at the links above, of Debra. “Basically raising me along with my grandparents. She financed family vacations, sporting events, just was always there for me throughout my life.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that the real-life Debra worried about meeting the same fate as Cindi when things with John started to get worse. Cindi married Billy when she was still a teenager, and he quickly became controlling and possessive of her, the paper states. When their marriage was past the point of no return and Cindi had met someone else, Billy committed the horrifying crime.
After the murder, Billy apologized to his mother-in-law, Arlane Hart, for what he'd done to Cindi, and Arlane told him she “still loved him,” per the same piece. She said her forgiveness was God’s will, and she went so far as to testify in Billy’s defense after he was faced with the possibility of life in prison. She said during her testimony that Billy hadn’t been thinking clearly when he shot Cindi, and that she loved him, the LA Times continues.
After Arlane’s testimony, the defense attorney made the argument that Billy had acted “in a state of temporary unconsciousness,” and he was acquitted of murder. Billy pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and received a five-year sentence, but got credit for the time he’d already served as well as good behavior, the above report continues. All in all, he spent two years, nine months, and nine days in jail for killing Cindi, according to a 1985 Los Angeles Times report.
And so, because Billy stayed local, Debra was in a position where she might run into the man who killed her sister at church or at sporting events, understandably never wanting to spend much time around him, much like viewers see happen in the series. “Forgiveness might have brought her mother peace... But she was never able to do it herself," the LA Times article states. "Her inability to do so made her wonder if something was wrong with her, so deep did the idea run."
That worry might help explain why Debra is so keen to give John multiple chances — she was apparently raised in a home that valued forgiveness in a capacity far more than most people can probably imagine. It’s hard to fathom experiencing such a loss and decades later feeling like you’re on a path to repeating history, and there's still so much the show hasn't touched yet.
Dirty John may delve further into Cindi and Billy’s history as things with Debra and John deteriorate down the line. But regardless, as those who’ve heard the full story know, it gets even more explosive from here.