The Untold Truth Of Dirty John

Ever wondered what you've got to do to get a made-for-TV movie about your life? One starring somebody awesome like Eric Bana? In the case of John Meehan, it required being rotten to the core. Filthy rotten. Or, rather "dirty," as many of his college friends called him. And the word "friends" gets used loosely here because Dirty John had no loyalties when it came to living, breathing human beings.

A narcissistic psychopath, he conned women out of countless thousands by acting the part of the perfect beau, per the Los Angeles Times. An imitation Adonis with the six-pack to prove it. Beyond the boyish handsomeness, he had the singular ability to make a woman feel listened to, appreciated, and utterly captivated. But the façade only lasted as long as it served him. In the case of his first wife, Tonia Sells, his ardent passion for her turned cold after a decade. The overnight death of a "happy" marriage coincided with the moment she finished helping him get on his feet. Convenient? She thought so.

As for other victims like Debra Newell? He doted on her until the narcissist's mask slipped. Then, Dirty John transformed into a no-holds-barred monster. Psychology's "dark triad" exploded to the surface. Gentleness transformed into psychopathy. Charm morphed into Machiavellianism as he derived pleasure from bending her to his will. And narcissism? It suffocated all other facets of his personality. In other words, John Meehan went from "dirty" to dangerous on a dime.

A family business of con artistry

It's always tempting to blame a wayward adult's misbehavior on their parents. After all, sometimes enough damage gets done in the formative years to produce a monster. According to Karen Douvillier and Donna Meehan Stewart's interviews with the Los Angeles Times, such proved the case with their brother, John Meehan.

They claim their father, William Meehan, created Dirty John. William Meehan ran the Diamond Wheel Casino in San Jose, California, as reported by The Famous People. As Douvillier and Stewart reminisce, William Meehan mentored his son in criminality. Daily lessons in deceit included con artistry, from insurance scams to trumped-up lawsuits and other fraud. But the most dangerous lesson John Meehan's father taught him? Ruthless retaliation.

A born and bred Brooklynite, William Meehan instilled in his son a calculating mentality to destroy those who wronged you. Douviller puts her father's ethos succinctly and savagely, "If you want to get back at somebody, you don't get back at them, you get back at their family." Unfortunately, the damage didn't stop there. William also filled his son's head with grandiose family legends about their possible relation to Albert Anastasia. According to the Mob Museum, the infamous mafia boss had alleged ties to "Lucky" Luciano's Murder Incorporated crew. What's more, Anastasia's two most notorious nicknames spoke volumes about him: the Mad Hatter and Lord High Executioner. John Meehan soaked up his father's lessons in nefariousness like a sponge, making deviants and murderers his role models.

"Dirty John" was a college nickname

While John Meehan attended high school, his parents separated, igniting rage in the young man, per the Los Angeles Times. Yet, Meehan kept up appearances. At Prospect High School in Saratoga, California, he received A's, played sports, and had no trouble in the lady department. At the University of Arizona, he received a bachelor's degree in 1988, per The Famous People. He also honed the skill of fraudulent lawsuits, jumping in front of moving cars and putting glass in his fast-food order. He dabbled in a cocaine entrepreneurship, got arrested, and snitched on a friend for a plea deal.

People started calling him "Dirty John" or "Filthy John" at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio (via The Tab). Why? Meehan bragged about luring women to his college apartment. And no one proved safe from his cons. New credit cards bearing pseudonyms filled his mailbox. And Meehan rented his roommate a brakeless vehicle. 

Meehan cultivated grandiose dreams, slapping a "MEE 007" license plate on his car. The James Bond complex proved ironic since Meehan was the bad guy. As his sister, Karen Douvillier, reflects, "He was a hustler. Whatever he had to do to get money, he would do." And Kevin Horan, his roommate, describes him as a "strange lone-wolf guy that did all kinds of scandalous-type things ... You [couldn't] trust him for nothing. He [was] rotten top to bottom." In his second year, Meehan dropped out of law school.

John Meehan had two daughters from a previous marriage

What happened to John Meehan after his law school disappearance? By 1990, he resurfaced in Ohio with a next-level con, marriage. Meehan's victim was a 25-year-old nurse anesthetist named Tonia Sells (via The Tab). The ceremony took place at Sells' family church, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio. Unbeknownst to Sells, Meehan lied about everything.

He went by Johnathan rather than John and lied about his age, claiming to be 26 rather than 31 (via the Los Angeles Times). He described his parents as addicts who would ruin their wedding if invited. Why all the lies? To keep Sells from digging into her new husband's criminal past. 

But Meehan couldn't keep every skeleton in the closet. A handful of law school classmates attended the nuptials, and the nickname "Dirty John" slipped out. According to the Los Angeles Times, when asked to elaborate about it, they offered the same response: "It cannot be divulged on camera ... " Later, Meehan shrugged it off to Sells. But, surprisingly, he didn't shirk on familial duties. Sells remembers their relationship as pleasant with few fights. Per Bustle, the couple had two daughters, Emily and Abby, and he played the role of devoted dad with gusto. In other words, she had no reason to question their reality. 

Dirty John's first wife put him through nursing school

If John Meehan and Tonia Sells appeared so happy for a decade, then what was the con? She received the answer when, out of the blue, he demanded a divorce. With no explanation and little history of tension in the relationship, Sells came to one conclusion: She had outserved her usefulness. In the 12 years they were together, 10 of which married, Sells put her husband through nursing school (via Mama Mia).

He attended Wright State in Dayton, per the Los Angeles Times. From there, he enrolled in the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia, enjoying Sells' backing and encouragement every step of the way. She even urged him to go into her area of specialization, anesthesiology, an act she would come to regret for multiple reasons. Once Meehan completed his education and gained a firm career footing, he excised Sells and their daughters from his life with calculating precision, destroying the image of a blissful domestic life.

Just 5 years old when her parents split, Emily Meehan retains some memories of her father (via Bustle). But by the time she received news of his death, nearly a dozen years had gone by without contact. As for Abby Meehan, she was an infant during the divorce. Both women have shown surprising candor when discussing their father and the play-by-play of his worst exploits. 

His first wife and colleagues reported him to the cops

Blindsided by the divorce, Tonia Sells wanted answers (via the Los Angeles Times). In July 2000, she called her mother-in-law, Dolores Meehan, for the first time. The conversation began with Dolores Meehan's eerily prescient comment, "I always knew you would call me."

As her mother-in-law rattled on about John Meehan's actual age, name, and criminal history, the nickname finally clicked. Dirty John, indeed. Shaken to the core, Sells realized the last 12 years of her life sat on a crumbling bedrock of lies. After hanging up, Sells scoured their Colonial Way home in Springboro, per the Dayton Daily News. On her husband's side of the closet, an innocuous-looking wooden box and a white basket revealed vials of Fentanyl and Versed, high-powered prescriptions stolen from vulnerable patients.

Sickened by the thought she enabled him, Sells dialed the cops setting off a chain of events that got uglier by the minute. Her report launched a full investigation resulting in John Meehan's termination from Good Samaritan Hospital. In retaliation, he left threatening messages on Sells' phone. She recorded the most ominous one for authorities: "When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, OK? [...] Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, OK? Because that's what it's gonna come down to" (per Mama Mia). After turning the recording over to authorities, John Meehan received a suspended sentence for menacing, finally leaving her alone.

John Meehan sent drugs to his brother who overdosed

Drug task force investigator Dennis Luken of the Warren County Sheriff's Department looked into rumored drug thefts by the nurse anesthetist at hospitals stretching from Michigan to Ohio, Kentucky to Indiana, per the Dayton Daily News. Over the next year and a half, authorities stockpiled evidence against John Meehan, including accusations of drug theft from anesthesiologists in Butler County. Colleague Randy Klotz also turned Meehan in for bringing a firearm into an operating room at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Police officers seized a loaded handgun and 45 empty medicine bottles from Meehan's house (via Harper's Bazaar). Luken even stumbled across email exchanges between John Meehan and his brother, Daniel Meehan. In the messages, John discussed sending various drugs to his brother and provided detailed instructions on how to use them.

Daniel Meehan died from a drug overdose on September 4, 2000, in Santa Cruz County, California, at 44. The coroner ruled his cause of death "medication intoxication," resulting from a fatal mixture of prescription drugs and cocaine (via Bustle). Luken didn't have enough evidence for a criminal conviction related to Daniel Meehan's death. But by 2002, he charged John with felony drug theft, pressuring the con man into a guilty plea, per the Los Angeles Times. The disgraced nurse anesthetist got stripped of his medical licenses in each state where he worked.

Dirty John escaped police custody and resisted arrest

Despite his many transgressions, John Meehan still had a chance to make things right and maybe even preserve his career, according to Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times. Instead, he chose a well-worn path, that of greatest resistance and maximum self-destruction. Rather than turning himself in to authorities, he made a run for it, as reported by Bustle.

But Meehan couldn't outrun his desperate dependence on narcotics. Police apprehended him in a Michigan hotel room, semi-conscious with a stolen anesthesia kit scattered around him. While getting rushed to the hospital by ambulance, Meehan jumped from the moving vehicle. He disappeared into a nearby department store, stolen drugs from the ambulance in hand. Squeezing into a cargo elevator shaft, he attempted to disappear like a cockroach exposed to the light. After a tense search, officers spotted his footprint on the roof of the elevator, as reported by the Dayton Daily News. Things got uglier from there.

While attempting to handcuff him, a police officer got kicked in the face by the fleeing criminal. But agents eventually managed to pull him from the cargo elevator. In the process, Meehan knocked himself unconscious, tumbling to the ground covered in elevator grease. Meehan spent 17 months in a Michigan clinker. As reported by Oprah Daily, Meehan's incarceration gave Dennis Luken little sense of peace: "I knew this case was going to go on until either somebody killed him or he killed somebody."

Dirty John's sister tried to save him

After leaving prison in 2004, John Meehan's sister, Donna Meehan Stewart, offered him a leg up (via the Los Angeles Times). She paid off his child support debt and saved his house from foreclosure. She got the yard landscaped and the interior cleaned. She even put a shiny new credit card in his hands. 

But as the saying goes, old dogs can't learn new tricks, and Dirty John proved set in his ways. Stewart caught her brother victim-browsing within 24 hours of his release. Positive transformation never crossed his mind. The last piece of the puzzle for his next big con, anonymity, arrived when Meehan followed Stewart to Newport Beach. There, Stewart gave him a job at her real estate agency, but the perpetual mooch rarely bothered to show up at the office.

Stewart told Christopher Goffard, "He wasn't going to get better. He was going to do to me what he was doing to everybody else and just suck [me] dry." Before parting ways, things got vicious. Meehan lived at her Cathedral City RV lot. When she asked him to leave, he refused, claiming he owned the spot. Meehan hired a lawyer to go after Stewart and even threatened to kill her, per Refinery 29. In a desperate effort to escape her brother, Stewart went to court, securing a monetary court judgment and a restraining order. Thankfully, it did the trick. No good deed went unpunished with Meehan.

Dirty John loathed his parents and acted out against them

Before burning the bridge with Donna Meehan Stewart, she remembers her brother feeling triggered by the return to California, according to the Los Angeles Times. Consumed by memories, he talked incessantly about past deeds and perceived wrongs against him. He kept a lengthy laundry list, tweaking the narrative to ensure perpetual victimhood. John Meehan didn't do personal responsibility.

He confided in his sister that he'd visited their hometown, and he bragged about making a special trip to the family cemetery in Los Gatos to sully his mother's grave. Meehan's inability to let go of the past and his intense feelings of familial hatred didn't end there. Per Refinery 29, they took a much darker path in 1997 when his father, William Meehan, lay dying of cancer in a Southern California hospice. William Meehan lingered for weeks, his son growing more impatient by the minute. According to Stewart, Meehan wanted an insurance payout.

The first time she briefly left her father alone with her brother, it proved his last. Dead within moments, Stewart had a sneaking suspicion her brother had something to do with it. She hypothesizes that he injected a fatal dose of morphine into William Meehan's IV line. Nevertheless, Stewart could never prove it. Immediately following his death, the family had William Meehan's body cremated without an autopsy.

The long, frightening list of Dirty John's victims

John Meehan had a long list of victims, according to Bustle. The Los Angeles Times reports that when Meehan met his next wife, Debra Newell, three ex-girlfriends had standing restraining orders against him. In addition, three more had requests in. Why? Death threats and stalking. 

He told one Porter Ranch, California, woman, "You are my project for years to come," threatening to send explicit photos of her to family. Another victim, Marileide Andersen, recalls how Meehan posed as her anesthesiologist, looming over her hospital bed as she awakened groggily from brain surgery (via Oxygen). Coercing her into a relationship, he played the charming suitor role to a tee. Until he suggested she deposit money into his bank account. His excuse? Per Bustle, to protect her assets from an estranged husband. Andersen initially fell for it. But after starting the transfer, panic gripped her. She canceled it, and that's when Dirty John turned filthy.

He sent compromising photos of the woman to her loved ones. But his long-term objectives appeared far more sinister. Officers investigating charges of harassment and stalking seized ammunition, a gun, a pocket saw, cable ties, cyanide capsules, and binoculars from his house. Let your imagination do the work. Luckily for Andersen, Meehan pled guilty to possession of a firearm as a felon and stalking and extortion charges. He headed briefly to prison in 2013.

Dirty John could make an impression

John Meehan left many terrified victims in his wake. According to Oxygen, Marileide Andersen sought to flee the country for fear Meehan would kill her. Debra Newell even changed her will, terrified of murder at his hands. But victims weren't the only ones Meehan made a strong impression on.

Based on his investigation of Meehan, Dennis Luken calls him "the most devious, dangerous, deceptive person" he's ever met, per the Los Angeles Times. And that's saying something considering Luken's line of work as a sheriff's investigator. After Newell and Meehan sought out an attorney for legal advice, lawyer John Dzialo echoed the same sentiment. Based on a tangle with Dirty John, Dzialo describes him as the "scariest man" he's ever met (via the Los Angeles Times).

As Meehan's behavior grew increasingly menacing, desperate, and unpredictable, he lashed out at anyone in striking range. By 2013, while serving time in prison, he went after the female detective handling his case, Julia Bowman of Orange County, California. In an interview with People, Bowman recalled, "He put [a] hit out on me. Once he knew my name and recognized me as one of his targets, I never felt safe." The reward? A whopping $10,000 to kill Bowman and another female officer that had crossed his path.

Dirty John saw himself as the victim

Trying to sort out what motivated John Meehan proves both fascinating and terrifying. In June 2012, he crafted a letter to a friend. The correspondence provides fascinating insights into the mind of a master criminal, per the Los Angeles Times. Meehan excused his past indiscretions, shared experiences in prison to garner sympathy, and urged his friend to help him regain his nursing license. 

Throughout the letter, Meehan argues he is the victim of everything that's happened to him, an astonishing claim for a man who exploited, manipulated, and damaged so many lives. This skewed perspective screams narcissistic personality disorder. According to Psych Central, "people high in narcissism may see themselves as victims of interpersonal transgressions more often than people not living with the disorder."

Meehan's long diatribe proves disturbingly incongruent with his documented exploits. Clearly, he knew how to use the victim card, had a convenient excuse for everything, and kept a long list of grievances. Meehan changed little over the next handful of years, although he became hardened by the revolving doors of prison. When he met Debra Newell in October 2014, he'd been out of prison for just two days. But he immediately reverted to old ways (via Oprah Daily). 

Dirty John's last con

With a new and affluent victim in his sights, John Meehan moved in for what would prove to be his final con, per the Los Angeles Times. He met Debra Newell, a successful SoCal interior decorator, via an online dating site. Claiming to be an anesthesiologist with Doctors Without Borders, Meehan transformed into Newell's perfect lover, executing perfect coercive control. Laura Richards, a criminal behavioral analyst, notes, "You're talking about a grown adult female that is being almost undone psychologically so that they lose their sense of self, what they love, what they like doing, their very essence of being" (via Oxygen). 

A whirlwind romance, a quickie marriage, and the terror truly began. Meehan made learning the psychological ins and outs of his new wife paramount, filing away her vulnerabilities for future use. Newell eventually became suspicious of Meehan and decided to leave "after she learned that Meehan had not been the victim like he claimed." According to Richards, "She knew that if he found her, he would probably kill her."

Reflecting back, Newell now realizes Meehan was "too good to be true," and she recognizes that his constant acts of devotion provided a way to "create codependency" and control her. What helped her come to this realization? Thinking back to the 1984 murder of her sister, Cindi Vickers, by her husband, Billy Vickers. Newell noticed similarities between Meehan's increasingly controlling behavior and that of her former brother-in-law. The thought of ending up like her sister proved too much for Newell, and after more than a year together, she decided to escape.

The "Walking Dead" helped Terra Newell survive Dirty John

Losing control of Debra Newell pushed John Meehan over the edge. He attempted to kidnap his stepdaughter, Terra Newell, at knifepoint. But Newell fought back as he ambushed her from behind, biting his hand, and struggling free. Meehan stabbed her multiple times with a knife hidden in a Del Taco bag. Fortunately, Newell's obsession with the "Walking Dead" kicked in (via eOnline).

After tumbling to the ground, Newell kicked him repeatedly with thick rainboots until the knife slipped out of his hand. Remarkably, it landed just inches from her. Grabbing the weapon, she transformed into a zombie killer, stabbing Dirty John 13 times. In an interview with ABC News, she explains, "The last one was in the eye because that's the softest point of entry so I wanted to kill his brain ... like a zombie, essentially."

Newell later helped the stunt coordinator reenact the scene for the Bravo TV series. She still suffers from PTSD, but her heroic actions stopped a malevolent madman. In an interview with Bravo, Richard Suckle, executive producer of the show, stated, "I did ask Debra, and I asked Terra and Chris Goffard what they felt; they felt that he was probably going to kidnap Terra and then use that to bring Debra to wherever Terra was and he was probably going to kill both of them." Fortunately, Dirty John finally met his match.