“Dirty John”—real name: John Meehan—was a criminal, con artist and master manipulator known for preying upon women in various states who he considered easy targets. A former nurse anesthesiologist, Meehan was also accused of stealing drugs from hospitals in four states: Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky.
His pattern was to sweep his romantic partners/victims off their feet using an elaborate web of flattery and deceit, weaseling his way into women’s financial good graces and then growing increasingly abusive when they eventually threatened to leave him. A suspected sociopath, the now-deceased Meehan left a long trail of restraining orders and court filings in his wake.
Keep reading for more backstory on the infamous lothario known as Dirty John.
Who was ‘Dirty John’ Meehan?
Meehan was a drug addict, grifter and one-time law student who later became a nurse anesthesiologist. (Fun fact: He was once accused of bringing a gun into an operating room in Dayton.)
Meehan was known for his penchant for colorful revisions of his own life story. For instance, he pretended to be a doctor who had recently returned from a volunteer stint with Doctors Without Borders in order to win the heart of his last wife, Debra Newell.
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Meehan met Newell on a dating website for 50-somethings in 2014, and they started living together in a swank waterfront home Newell rented in Newport Beach for $6,500 a month within five weeks. Shortly after that, they got married without telling Newell’s family.
Where was Meehan from?
Meehan’s sisters said that John picked up at least some of his illicit ways from his father, who ran the Diamond Wheel Casino in San Jose, California. One of the top things Meehan learned? “Bogus lawsuits and insurance scams,” according to one of his sisters, Donna Meehan Stewart. Another sister, Karen Douvillier, 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… It’s the Brooklyn mentality of ‘you fight, you get even.’”
Meehan attended Prospect High School in Saratoga, California, and reportedly began having issues as a teenager when his parents split up amid cheating and violence. Meehan was widely known as a manipulative ladies’ man who thought he was smarter than the people around him.
How did Meehan get his nickname?
Meehan reportedly earned his nickname “Dirty John” (also “Filthy John” or just “Filthy”) for his notoriously slimy ways with women—and the crude terms he would allegedly use to talk about these women. The moniker may also be linked to his penchant for “dirty” misdeeds; he was a master manipulator, even going so far as to leap in front of an oncoming car and put broken glass in a fast-food order in order to win settlement money.
One former classmate and roommate described Meehan as “rotten top to bottom,” untrustworthy to his core.
What did ‘Dirty John’ do to attain his infamy?
Meehan dropped out of law school during his second year and subsequently disappeared. It turns out he was failing out, though he didn’t reveal that to anyone. In 1990, he married his first wife, Tonia Sells, a 25-year-old Dayton, Ohio nurse anesthetist. (He told her he was 26, though he was actually 31.) This is when Meehan’s pattern of preying on women by marrying them officially began.
The Los Angeles Times notes that their wedding was bizarre; none of John’s family showed up, and the speeches his friends made felt oddly generic and hollow.
After Meehan followed his wife into anesthesiology—Sells helped pay his tuition—he lost his license to work as a nurse anesthetist. Why? Because during a search of his home, police found a loaded gun, plus 45 empty containers for six medications from a hospital in Kentucky where he used to work. Ohio police had been investigating Meehan after accusations by his employer, a group of anesthesiologists, that he was stealing drugs that he should have been administering to patients. He was also caught trying to submit a patient’s urine as his own during a drug test.
After 10 years of marriage and two children, Meehan and Sells split up in 2000 and officially divorced in 2001. Following the split, Meehan harassed and threatened Sells until she took him to court, where he was convicted of menacing and received a suspended sentence.
In 2002 he spent 17 months in a Michigan prison after pleading guilty to drug-theft charges.
He went on to marry Debra Newell, a successful Orange County, California interior designer whose kids detested their mom’s new paramour, who had begun to “isolate” his new wife.
In an August 2021 interview with A&E True Crime Newell says that Meehan used “love bombing” (manipulation by overwhelming someone with loving words, actions and behavior) and what she later realized was coercive control, or micromanaging someone’s life in an effort to create dependency and dominate them.
Fearing their mom had rushed into the relationship, Newell’s kids begged her to get away from him. One of Newell’s daughters, Terra, said, “There’s just something wrong about him. I don’t like him.” (Terra reportedly questioned why Meehan, who claimed to be a doctor, wore his scrubs absolutely everywhere and had dirty fingernails.)
Who did John Meehan kill?
Meehan had an extensive criminal past, but he didn’t serve any time for murder. He did, however, seem to view killing as an appropriate option for handling his failed relationship with Debra Newell. In fact, Meehan threatened Newell’s nephew as well as her four children, eventually turning violent against one of them.
Who killed ‘Dirty John’?
When Debra Newell finally began to see John’s true colors, with the help of her kids’ digging into his past, she opted to annul their marriage. It was then that Meehan went after her daughter, Terra.
In August 2016, Meehan attacked Terra Newell in her Newport Beach, California parking lot, where he had been waiting for her with a “kidnap kit” in his car (the kit included duct tape, cable ties and knives). Though he injured her, Terra was able to wrangle the knife away, subsequently stabbing Meehan numerous times in the head, arms and chest. “I’m really, really sorry,” she reportedly told her mother on the phone after the vicious incident. “I think I killed your husband.”
Meehan, then 57, died at a hospital of his injuries. Terra never faced charged because it was determined she stabbed him in self-defense.
Since his death, additional women have come forward with grim stories of Meehan’s manipulation and predation. (He reportedly sent an email to one woman that said, “ruining your life will be my masterpiece.”)
How Debra Newell Survived an Abusive Marriage to ‘Dirty John’ Meehan