Warning: This post contains spoilers for podcast and TV show, Dirty John.
“Dirty” John Meehan is back. The hit 2017 psychological-thriller-slash-true-crime podcast, Dirty John, by Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Goffard, has been adapted into a scripted Bravo series of the same name premiering November 25. It stars Eric Bana as handsome conman John Meehan and Connie Britton as Debra Newell, the Southern California interior designer he seduced, swindled, and strung along—until he was killed while attempting to murder her daughter.
The story can be told “a little more satisfactorily” on television, Goffard admits in a teaser video released by Bravo, and the forthcoming series will attempt to answer questions fans had after listening to the podcast, like, how exactly did Newell fall for Meehan? And how did he sneak past her defenses?
Of course, Newell wasn’t the only woman Meehan lied to and robbed over the years. “Many women were terrified,” Goffard says in a Bravo press release. “John Meehan was a serial predator. He went from victim to victim.”
“One of the lessons,” he adds, “is monsters don’t always look like monsters.”
Who exactly was Meehan and how did he get away with terrorizing so many? Here’s everything to know about the man—the “monster”—at the center of Dirty John.
He was taught how to manipulate at an early age
Meehan’s sisters told Goffard in The Los Angeles Times podcast their father, who ran a casino in San Jose, is partly to blame for his son’s behavior. He reportedly taught John at a young age how to pull off bogus lawsuits and insurance scams. In other words, he told him “how to lie” and “how to deceive,” Donna Meehan Stewart told The Los Angeles Times.
“If anybody did anything to John, my dad would tell us, ‘You go there with a stick and take care of it,’” Karen Douvillier, his other sister, added.
Meehan attended Prospect High School in Saratoga, California, where he was athletic, attractive, and personable. He was a “magnet for girls, an A student who swaggered with a sense of his superior intelligence. He learned that his gifts provided shortcuts,” according to The Los Angeles Times.
He’d jump in front of cars and put broken glass in his fast food to win legal settlements. Once, he was caught selling cocaine.
In 1988, he graduated from University of Arizona. He went on to attend the University of Dayton law school, where he earned the nickname “Dirty John” for the many women he slept with. “He was basically this strange, lone-wolf guy that did all kinds of scandalous-type things, and it wasn’t just with women,” his classmate Kevin Horan told The Los Angeles Times. “I’m like, ‘That guy, you can’t trust him for nothing. He’s rotten top to bottom.’”
Devious, dangerous, deceptive
Meehan married his first wife Tonia Sells, a practicing nurse anesthetist, in 1990. She helped him through both nursing school and the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia, according to The Los Angeles Times. But after 10 years and two children together, he filed for divorce.
That same year, Sells discovered a box of stolen surgical anesthetics in their Springboro, Ohio home. When Sells contacted the police, Meehan started calling nonstop, threatening her and telling her to enjoy her “time left on this earth.”
Meehan lost his job at a hospital and even reportedly brought a gun into the operating room and stole “Demerol from a patient he pretended to medicate with it,” according to The Los Angeles Times.
In 2002, he pled guilty to felony drug theft. But instead of surrendering himself, he fled Ohio with an anesthesia kit in hand. Police found him barely conscious and surrounded by drug vials in a Saginaw, Michigan hotel. While in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, Meehan un-cuffed his restraints and attempted to escape the vehicle. He was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
His first night out, he created a Match.com profile to troll for female victims.
Meeting Debra Newell
Debra Newell connected with Meehan online in 2014. Their first date was at Houston’s, a restaurant in Irvine, California. He said he’d been an anesthesiologist in Iraq and spent a year with Doctors Without Borders.
By their third date, he’d told her, “I love you.”
After two months together, they got married and moved into a $6,500 a month Newport Beach home. Newell’s daughters disapproved of him, and grew suspicious after discovering he’d spent time in jail. What Newell and her family didn’t know at the time was that from 2005 up until he met Newell in 2014, Meehan had “seduced, swindled and terrorized multiple women, many of whom he had met on dating sites while posing as a doctor, court records showed,” according to The Los Angeles Times.
“I realized I was his newest victim.”
After discovering the truth, Newell left him in March 2016. Predictably, Meehan didn’t take it well. He harassed and threatened her. He even sent nude images of Newell to her nephew and lit her car on fire.
“What was real and what was not real? I thought, how could this man fake it to this degree? did he love me or was this all a game?” Newell later told NBC News. “I realized I was his newest victim.”
The end of Dirty John
Five months later, Meehan attacked Newell’s daughter Terra in the parking lot of an apartment complex. He grabbed her from behind, and whispered, “Do you remember me?”
Of course she did. Meehan tried pushing her into the trunk of a car. He jabbed her with a bag containing a knife. “It felt like I was getting punched over and over again,” Terra told Today. “I put my arm up with my purse above my heart and I tried to get away from him and I was screaming. He put his hand over my mouth and I bit as hard as I could.”
She kicked the knife out of his hand and grabbed it off the ground. Her survival instincts kicked in and she stabbed him “without a second thought,” she told Today. “I thought it’s him or me, and then also the last [stab] was through the head.”
Meehan died in the hospital a few days later.
The story of “Dirty” John Meehan is of course the focus of Bravo’s new scripted series Dirty John, but it’ll also be turned into a two-hour Oxygen documentary, Dirty John, The Dirty Truth, airing in January.
Newell has previously said she hopes all the attention will help others in harmful or toxic relationships.
“This isn’t for me right now, it’s more so for others,” she told Variety of both projects. “It was really important to me to get through to other women what could happen for them, and for the ones that it has happened to, to let them know that they’re not alone.”