Bravo's new series Dirty John, based on the hit 2017 Los Angeles Times true-crime podcast with the same name, brings the con man's story to life.
The series follows "Dirty" John Meehan as he manipulates his way around life and seduces Debra Newell to marry him in just weeks, despite her family's warnings. The story of its preceding and corresponding podcast by Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Goffard can be told "a little more satisfactorily" on television, according to Goffard.
Both the podcast and series are based on interviews with Debra Newell, Terra Newell, Jacquelyn Newell, Shad Vickers, Arlane Hart, Karen Douvillier, Tonia Bales, Donna Meehan Stewart, and other sources such as investigators and attorneys. The television series, however, takes its viewers deeper into the life of the conman as a result of the liberties TV provides that a podcast could not.
"I think it will take you some places that television ordinarily doesn't take you," Goffard said of the show.
Dirty John, which premiered Sunday, stars Eric Bana as the personable John Meehan and Connie Britton as his wife, interior designer Debra Newell, and exposes how the conman was able to commit so many crimes over decades, including lying to and robbing women.
“Many women were terrified," Goffard says in a Bravo press release. "John Meehan was a serial predator. He went from victim to victim.”
The series also allows viewers to see how Meehan looked and acted, which is hard to portray in a podcast.
“One of the lessons," Goffard continues, "is monsters don’t always look like monsters."
So who was John Meehan, the real "Dirty John?"
1. He grew up learning to manipulate.
Meehan was taught manipulative behavior by his father, who owned a casino in San Jose, early in his childhood, his sisters told Goffard in the podcast. Donna Meehan Stewart told The Los Angeles Times their dad showed young Meehan "how to lie" and "how to deceive," which he quickly picked up on.
Meehan often used his deceptive skills on girls in high school. The rising con man learned gifts were a "shortcut" to gaining women's attention and his handsome appearance certainly helped him out.
He was also known for insurance scams. Meehan would run in front of a car and intentionally get hit to collect insurance money or put glass in his food for a settlement.
2. He earned the name "Dirty John."
Meehan earned the nicknames "Dirty John" or "Filthy John" from sleeping with tons of women in college and all-out scandalous actions, nicknames Newell learned of on their wedding day.
"His debauchery spawned the nickname Dirty John, though once bestowed it seemed to describe a lot of his behavior," Goffard said. "Like the way he took money for roofing jobs he didn’t complete. Like the way he rented his housemate a deathtrap truck with no brakes and claimed not to know. Like the way he used fake names on the credit cards that filled the mailbox, a swindle he would boast about."
He certainly lived up to his name, his classmate Kevin Horan told the Los Angeles Times, adding that Meehan was "rotten top to bottom."
3. He threatened his first wife.
— Hollywood Reporter (@THR) January 29, 2018
Meehan married his first wife Tonia Sells in 1990. They were married 10 years and had two children together, but things got ugly once they divorced.
Sells found stolen surgical anesthetics that Meehan had hidden in their Ohio home later that year. When she called the police, Meehan began threatening her, telling her she should enjoy her "time left on this earth."
Meehan reportedly was fired from his job at the hospital and brought a gun into an operating room to steal medications, according to the Los Angeles Times.
4. He was in and out of jail.
— Oxygen (@oxygen) November 25, 2018
Meehan spent time behind bars on multiple occasions.
In 2002, he pleaded guilty to felony drug theft when his first wife reported stolen drugs in their home. He fled but was eventually caught and spent 17 months in prison.
He later spent time in prison for stalking an Orange County woman and possessing a firearm, as well as violating a restraining order put on him by another woman.
5. He came on strong when he met Newell.
Meehan and Newell met on a dating site in 2014 and were married within two months. The con man said "I love you" on the third date and, although Newell's children didn't trust Meehan, the pair moved in together after just weeks of dating.
Newell was drawn to the constant attention Meehan gave her and his credentials, which were lies, and over-looked the many red flags their relationship was throwing up because she was desperate for love after four divorces and her abusive ex-boyfriend. She soon began to suspect her husband was not who he said he was and started looking into his past and discovered he lied about working as an anesthesiologist in Iraq. He was really a disgraced doctor who was fired and hooked on painkillers.
The two were on and off for a while but Newell decided to leave Meehan for good in 2016. He did not take it well. Meehan sent nude photos of Newell to her nephew, threatened her, and set her car on fire.
6. He "had an answer for everything."
— Bravotv (@Bravotv) November 24, 2018
Newell once stumbled upon a stash of papers that detailed his past, including how he manipulated many women and did not hold the career title he told her he held. She confronted him, but even with all of the evidence she found, Meehan was able to convince her that he was telling the truth.
7. He tried to kill Newell's daughter — but she killed him instead.
On August 20, 2016, Meehan went after his wife's daughter, Terra Newell, armed with what police call a "kidnap kit" — backpack, duct tape, cable ties, injectable testosterone, kitchen knives, and a passport. He attacked her in a parking lot in her apartment complex and tried to stab her.
"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."
Terra fought back and eventually took the knife from Meehan. She stabbed him 13 times. Exhausted and wounded, phoned her mother to tell her what had happened.
“I’m really, really sorry,” she said. “I think I killed your husband.”
He died at age 57 on Aug. 4, 2016, four days after he was fatally stabbed by Terra in a parking lot.