The Filthy Truth About Dirty John

Gayle Kurtzer-Meyers

John Meehan was a nurse anesthetist and con man.

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Photo: Michigan Department of Corrections

You may have heard the story of Dirty John, thanks to the popular show airing on Bravo and later on Netflix, the detailed articles, podcasts, etc. However, few people know Dirty John's true story or the heinous nature of his crime, which some people quickly forget when watching a show online.

Keep reading to find out the true story of Dirty John beyond the shows and TV series.

Early Life

John Michael Meehan was born on February 3, 1959, and it seemed crime and evil was already a part of his childhood. He was part of the perfect American family, with two sons and two daughters. John's father ran the Diamond Wheel Casino in San Jose, where John and his siblings cleaned for money.

From the very beginning, John was surrounded by crime and deceit as his father himself carried out various illegal activities, filing bogus lawsuits and pulling off insurance scams. Growing up, John learned all of these illicit skills and honed them to perfection during his life. The fact that John was brilliant also helped.

In school, he was a straight-A student. Moreover, he was also quite active in sports and garnering women's attention around him. Along with his charismatic nature, these traits gave him all the tools he needed to learn how to manipulate people. John's father also often boasted of their supposed mafia connections, and therefore, John also had a mafia mentality ingrained into him from an early age.

According to John's sisters, things started to go very wrong in John's life when their parents divorced. The rough divorce had a significant impact on John, who, after graduating high school, spent the rest of his days working as an orderly in hospitals and dealing drugs. He even got into Santa Clara University, but his illegal activities always got him into trouble. He was more used to running scams and side hustles and manipulating women into doing what he wanted.

He would go to any lengths to get what he wanted. For instance, once he picked up some glass, put it in his taco, and proceeded to bite into it so that he could sue the company. Similarly, he would jump in front of cars to sue the drivers for hitting him, even if it meant sustaining severe injuries. In the 1980s, John was caught for drug dealing and turned in his best friend as part of the plea bargain.

Later on, he left California and, in 1988, got a degree in Bachelor of Arts from the University of Arizona. Soon after, he even enrolled at the University of Dayton's law school but never completed his studies. It was also around this time that John got his famous name, Dirty John. His friends would also call him Filthy John, or just Filthy. John got this nickname because of all his heinous activities.

During his time at Dayton, his classmate discovered that John had been running various scams and cons. John had credit cards under fake names. He had taken money for a roofing job that he never completed. Along with this, John was also always befriending different women, and it was around this time that he met his first wife.

John Marries Tonia Sells

A failed law student, John met Tonia, a young nurse about to graduate from anesthesia school, and charmed her into thinking that he was this intelligent and put-together law student. While he had stopped attending university, John was still in the area because he planned to marry Tonia. In November 1990, John and Tonia got married in a catholic church without John's family.

According to Tonia, John told her that his parents were addicts and didn’t want them to ruin his day. Their marriage lasted ten years, during which the couple had two daughters, and Tonia put John through nursing school. Around the mid of 2000, Tonia started to catch on to John’s lies and manipulations after John'sfiling for divorce.

She tracked and got in touch with John's mother, who told her about John's real name, real age, and drug charges, all of which John hid from her. Tonia also found a stash of surgical drugs at their house, which prompted her to report John to the police. In September 2000, they started investigating John.

After that, John lost his job at the hospital in Ohio, and when he tried to start over in Indiana, Tonia's friends reported him to the board there as well, making him lose his job again. The reporting prompted a series of threatening and violent phone calls to Tonia. Over the next 14 years, John had several run-ins with the law. He got into many more scams, cons, relationships, and much more to make money.

John Meets Debra Newell

In 2014, John violated a restraining order against him, and the court sent him to prison. After serving his time, he got out in October, and two days later, he met 59-year-old Debra Newell, a successful businesswoman and mother of four. Debra had gone through a string of bad dates, relationships, and even marriages, and therefore, she was in a vulnerable position herself.

When she met John on a dating site for people above their 50s, she was apprehensive yet desperate for love. Right from their first date, Debra could tell that John was different from her other dates. He was more attentive, a great listener, and had terrific stories to tell. When John tried to get too physical on their first date, Debra refused and marked him off as another failed match. However, John came back with apologies and other words to woo Debra.

Eventually, the two got into a steady relationship. John told Debra many stories about his days in Iraq, the houses he owned in Palm Springs and Newport Beach, and many more convincing lies. As they spent more time with each other, John began to stay the nights at Debra's penthouse.

While Debra was entirely smitten with Dirty John, her kids were not. Her daughters Jacquelyn and Terra disapproved of John from the very first meeting. As Debra and John’s relationship flourished, her relationship with her daughter worsened. In less than two months, Debra and John decided to move in together, leasing a house on Balboa Island in Newport Beach.

In Debra’s eyes, John was the greatest man ever. He brought her flowers and groceries, got her car washed, and did all sorts of little things. Because of all this, Debra was quickly able to overlook some of John's odd behaviors. For instance, he always wore his faded blue scrubs everywhere, how he had no clothes because 'someone stole all of them,' and how he never had money because all of it was going to his daughters.

Debra's daughters were not as quick to dismiss these idiosyncrasies. Just before Thanksgiving, when Terra, Debra's youngest daughter, discovered that John and Debra had moved in together, she confronted her mom, which lead to a heated argument between Terra, John, and Debra. The next month, Debra and John decided to get married in Vegas while on a business trip. No guests invited.

Debra Discovers the Truth About John

In March 2015, Debra started learning the truth about John when her nephew, Shad, raised some concerns. He revealed to her about John's time spent in jail and that he wasn’t an anesthesiologist. While Debra acted like there were no problems, she started digging through John's stuff at their house.

Eventually, she found evidence of all his heinous crimes amongst his papers. Between 2005 and 2014, Dirty John had seduced dozens of women after meeting them on dating sites. After that, he had proceeded to trick them out of their money and even terrorize them afterward. By 2014, John had three restraining orders against him from three different women, and a further three women had requested the restraining order as well.

Debra also discovered evidence from other sites, where dozens of women had warnings against John, citing him as a con artist and even a psychopath. During this time, John had gone for back surgery, which was going to last three weeks. Debra took advantage of his absence to quietly move out of their house.

Over the next few months, John continued to try and reconcile with Debra. He had a story and justification for each charge that Debra found. Eventually, John convinced Debra, and the two moved in together again into a new apartment. However, this time, Debra had her suspicions.

The End of John and Debra’s Relationship

By March 2016, Debra had grown increasingly uncomfortable with her marriage with John and her estrangement with her daughters. John's behavior had also gotten worse. Eventually, Debra reached a breaking point when John made violent threats against Jacquelyn when he caught Debra trying to meet her daughter.

Following that event, Debra filed to annul the marriage. In response, John, who lived in Nevada, started terrorizing Debra through constant calls and messages. She even requested a restraining order against him, but the court denied it because he was in another state. In June 2016, John stole Debra's car from outside her workplace and attempted to light it on fire.

In August 2016, Jacquelyn saw John waiting outside her apartment and subsequently warned Terra as well. On the 20th, Terra got back from work, got out of her car in the parking lot when John attacked with a knife. In the scuffle that ensued, Terra was able to get a hold of the blade from John and proceeded to stab him 13 times, the last time in his eye. Surprisingly, John did not die at that point. The paramedics were able to get his heart beating again. However, later on, Dirty John was declared brain dead. He died on August 24, 2016, after his sister took him off life support.

Final Thoughts

While Dirty John's story may seem unbelievable, unfortunately, many women go through similar abusive and manipulative relationships throughout their life. The abuser’s words and actions can make it hard to escape such relationships. That’s why it is essential to seek help from those around you and other professionals.

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I am a Licensed Community Association Manager for the State of Florida and a published author. My top articles are about Florida RE, property management, and the many beautiful venues and activities available in the Sunshine State. Thank you for reading my work and joining me on the journey.

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