LOS ANGELES — He had lavished her with compliments, and now he savaged her looks. He had entered the marriage broke, and now he demanded half her wealth. He had been gentleness itself, and now he threatened her with “long-lost relatives” in the mob.
“Enough,” Debra Newell texted him. “You are evil.”
“Divide up the stuff and I never see you again,” John Meehan texted back. “Your choice.”
In March 2015, as Debra Newell studied the paperwork detailing her husband’s long record of women terrorized and laws broken, she learned that he had a nickname. It went back decades, to his brief time in law school at the University of Dayton.
Dirty John, classmates called him. Sometimes it was Filthy John Meehan, or just Filthy. But mostly Dirty John.
Ask John Meehan’s sisters how he became the man who conned his way into Debra Newell’s life — ask them where his story begins — and they point to their father.
Their Brooklyn-raised dad ran the Diamond Wheel Casino in San Jose, and imparted to John a series of illicit skills, like how to pull off bogus lawsuits and insurance scams. “How to lie,” said one sister, Donna Meehan Stewart. “How to deceive.”
Coupled with that was a cold-eyed ethos of leaving no slight unpunished. “If anybody did anything to John, my dad would tell us, ‘You go there with a stick and take care of it,’” said Karen Douvillier, his other sister. “It’s the Brooklyn mentality of you fight, you get even. If you want to get back at somebody, you don’t get back at them, you get back at their family.”
At Prospect High School in Saratoga, Calif., in the mid-1970s, John was a great-looking athlete, charismatic, a magnet for girls, an A student who swaggered with a sense of his superior intelligence. He learned that his gifts provided shortcuts.
“I think John thought he was smarter than everybody else, because everybody told him he was, but he had no common sense,” Karen said. “He was taught to manipulate at a very early age.
“That’s the fault of my parents, especially my dad. Because that’s all my dad knew.”
In family lore, the Meehans are related to Albert Anastasia, the 1950s-era New York mobster who ran Murder Inc. and was infamous for eliminating potential witnesses. Proof is elusive, but John enjoyed the dark glamour conferred by this supposed bloodline.
John Meehan’s parents separated while he was in high school, and it was then, his sisters said, that rage and bitterness began to consume him. Mom had had an affair; Dad tried to win her back with violence; John became a child she’d had with a man she now loathed. He came to hate both parents.
John Meehan modeled himself after Sean Connery’s James Bond, suave and beyond the law, and had a customized license plate that read “MEE 007.” He liked the ladies, fast cars and easy money. “He was a hustler,” Karen said. “Whatever he had to do to get money, he would do.”
To win legal settlements, he jumped in front of a Corvette and sprinkled broken glass in his Taco Bell order. Busted for selling cocaine, his sisters said, he testified against a friend and was forced to leave California as part of a plea deal.
He received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Arizona in 1988, then moved east to attend the University of Dayton’s law school that fall.
Kevin Horan, a classmate who lived with him in a house by the cemetery, said John did not stand out as a law student. He made an impression in other ways — for his laid-back, California-guy persona, and for the women he brought back to the house in unreasonable numbers.
His debauchery spawned the nickname “Dirty John,” though once bestowed it seemed to describe a lot of his behavior. 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 was basically this strange, lone-wolf guy that did all kinds of scandalous-type things, and it wasn’t just with women,” Horan said. “I’m like, ‘That guy, you can’t trust him for nothing. He’s rotten top to bottom.’”
In the second year of law school, he disappeared. “Everyone’s like, ‘What happened to Dirty John?’” Horan said. They got an answer when his report card arrived. They held the envelope up to the light: Ds and Fs.
For his next con, John Meehan got married.
Tonia Sells, a nurse, was 25. He was 31, though he led her to believe he was 26, just as he led her to believe his name was Johnathan, not just John. He had shaved five years off his age and added five letters to his name.
“He would tell you story after story about, you know, that he just comes from this family that’s just not him,” Tonia said. “That he was able to escape them because other people stepped up into his life and helped make him a great person.”
They were wed in November 1990 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dayton, her family church.
None of John’s family had shown up, but he had an explanation: His dad was an alcoholic, his mom a pill-popper, and he didn’t want them ruining the special day.
Tonia would keep a tape of the wedding that captured its strangeness. As the harpist plucked and the priest prayed, John sat in his tux fidgeting and smirking, like a boy in a grown-up’s costume enjoying some fantastic private joke.
John was still wearing that glib, devil-may-care expression as his friend Phil gave a toast so brief and generic he might have just met him. It included the line, “If you talk to any of his friends, as far as the reaction to his wedding, you’ll just find out they’re completely shocked and baffled.”
John’s friends in attendance, some of them former law school classmates, had little to offer in the way of personal anecdote. There was a blank space where the stories should have been. The stories they did have weren’t repeatable.
“Let me start by saying that John Meehan’s, John Meehan’s nickname is ‘Filthy John Meehan,’” a guest said.
“Why? Why? Remember when you first heard that nickname?”
“Yes, I do, but it cannot be divulged on camera … ”
After the wedding, watching this video, Tonia was surprised to learn the nickname of the man to whom she had just pledged her life. He laughed it off. Nothing.
Tonia was a practicing nurse anesthetist, and John followed her into the profession.
They had two daughters, and she helped put him through nursing school at Wright State in Dayton and the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia.
He struck her as a playful father and a pleasant husband, and they rarely argued. He liked movies and playing basketball and dinner at home, and he studied a lot.
Ten years into the marriage — his degrees secure, his career launched — he wanted a divorce. Maybe, she thought later, her usefulness to him was over.
In July 2000 Tonia tracked down his mother, Dolores, a call John had always forbidden. “I always knew you would call me,” she said.
Dolores told her that John’s real birthday was Feb. 3, 1959. That his birth name was John, not Johnathan. That he had a drug charge in California.
For Tonia, it was hard to make sense of any of it. She had been enmeshed in a lie the whole time she had known him. She had had a normal upbringing in a good home, and had no yardstick with which to measure this.
“My first experience with evil,” she called it.
Tonia searched the house they had shared in Springboro, Ohio, and found a hidden box containing the powerful surgical anesthetics Versed and Fentanyl.
He had become hooked on drugs he was supposed to be giving patients; she knew there was no legitimate reason to have them. She felt guilty that she’d helped John get into her profession. She thought he was a danger to their kids and to patients. She informed police, who began an investigation. It was September 2000.
As suspicions of his drug theft circulated, John lost his job at Good Samaritan Hospital in Michigan and found work in Warsaw, Ind., but fell under suspicion there too. He became convinced that Tonia had notified the state nursing board there, and she secretly recorded his increasingly menacing calls. He was furious that she had called his mother.
“Do you know why I have this big smile on my face?” he told her.
“Because, trust me, just trust me. That’s why.”
“Trust you what?”
“Just trust me.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It don’t have to. You’ll understand it all.”
“What, the Mafia’s coming after me again? Or what?”
“When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, OK?”
“Remember what, John?”
“Keep that in mind. It was me.”
“Keep what in mind, John?”
He told her he would buy her a Cadillac if he was wrong. He wouldn’t say what he might be wrong about.
“Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, OK? Because that’s what it’s gonna come down to.”
Tonia sounded relatively calm, as his remarks grew more frightening. Inside she was not.
“I got a big smile on my face,” he said. “You know why? Because it’s gonna get done.”
“What’s gonna get done? You’re not making any sense.”
“It don’t have to. You will understand when the time comes. That’s all I gotta say.”
“Yeah, and who’s gonna take care of your children?”
“I’ll take care of them.”
He told her he would be enjoying a Cuba Libre with a 22-year-old when it happened — which she took to mean he would kill her or have her killed.
“If there’s one thing that happens on this earth, it’s gonna be you,” he told her.
The court convicted him of menacing and gave him a suspended sentence.
Dennis Luken was an investigator with the drug task force of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio. He began looking into John Meehan in January 2002.
Hospital workers reported that they had seen Meehan bring a gun into the operating room and steal Demerol from a patient he pretended to medicate with it. Of all the criminals Luken studied, hunted and arrested during a four-decade career in law enforcement, Meehan would occupy a singular place in his memory.
“The most devious, dangerous, deceptive person I ever met,” Luken, now retired, would call him — a devil-tongued con man with the cold intelligence of a spy, a void where his soul should have been, and a desperate drug addiction that he would marshal his dark talents to feed.
Luken said he found emails showing John had sent drugs to his 44-year-old brother Daniel, who died of an overdose in Santa Cruz County in September 2000. He couldn’t make a criminal case on that charge, but his investigation led to Meehan’s guilty plea in 2002 to felony drug theft.
Meehan might still have salvaged his career. Instead of surrendering himself to begin a stint at an Ohio rehab clinic, he fled the state and stole an anesthesia kit. He checked into a Comfort Inn in Saginaw, Mich., where police found him semi-conscious, surrounded by drug vials.
The ambulance was rushing him to the hospital when he unbuckled his restraints, grabbed the drug kit and jumped into the road. He fled into a nearby J.C. Penney, scrambled atop a cargo elevator and into the shaft, and kicked a cop in the face. They finally handcuffed him when he tumbled to the ground, covered in grease, and knocked himself unconscious.
Meehan spent 17 months in a Michigan prison, but Luken doubted it would be his last insult to the law. “I knew this case was going to go on until either somebody killed him or he killed somebody,” Luken said.
His house in Hamilton, Ohio, was ready for him, clean and landscaped and rescued from foreclosure, when he emerged from prison in 2004.
His sister Donna did that for him. She covered his overdue child support and got his car out of impound and handed him a credit card. “There was nothing he would have had to do except to be a better person and go get help,” Donna said.
His first night home, Donna saw him logged on to Match.com. She knew what it meant. He was looking for victims.
He followed Donna to California, where she gave him a spare bedroom at her Newport Beach house and a job at her real estate firm. She said he wouldn’t show up for work. He kept going to the hospital for drugs, complaining of his back.
“He wasn’t going to get better,” Donna said. “He was going to do to me what he was doing to everybody else and just suck them dry.”
He followed her to the Palm Springs area in 2007. He rented a house and did RV repairs. He was bitterly preoccupied by the past. He told her about visiting their hometown. The old neighborhoods. The family cemetery in Los Gatos.
“Did you go to Mom’s grave?”
Yes, he replied. He had pissed on it.
Donna remembered how much John had hated their father, too — how, in the late 1990s, when their father was being consumed by cancer in a Southern California hospice bed, she left John alone with him briefly. And when she returned, their dad was dead.
She could never shake the feeling that John might have injected him with a fatal painkiller, because his slow death was delaying the insurance payout. There was no autopsy before the cremation, no proof.
The best glimpse into how John Meehan perceived himself — the best account of how he framed a life littered with self-made disasters — might be in a letter he wrote in June 2012, asking a friend him to help him get his nursing license back.
In it, John cast himself as the brave, often-betrayed, long-suffering victim in his life’s twisted narrative. He was the victim of his parents, who used him as a pawn in their divorce and treated him coldly. Of his ex-wife, who called police on him and kept his daughters from him. Of his mother, who fed damaging information about him to his ex. Of false accusations that he supplied prescription drugs that killed his brother. Of a herniated disk, which necessitated drugs to escape his pain and depression.
“To be honest with you, I was abusing this stuff not to get high or feel good but because it allowed me to sleep,” he wrote. “My job — putting people to sleep.”
He explained that he checked into the Saginaw hotel room with the intention of killing himself, and had taken a shower with the aim of leaving “a good-looking body.” He injected himself with Versed and Fentanyl, he said, but didn’t get the fatal dose right — a farfetched claim for someone who put people to sleep for a living.
In state prison his suffering continued. “You don’t even want to know what being in a Michigan prison is like. One guy came at me thinking I was going to be easy. They found him in the shower the next morning. I did what I had to do … several times. And they finally figured out I was not worth the effort of the trip to the ER. I learn fast, and always had that ability to turn it on when needed.”
The letter had the trappings of a confession, but at heart it was a long snarl of self-justification. It was stingy with insights into what created its author.
In the end, he turned against his sister too.
When she asked him to remove his trailer from her RV lot in Cathedral City, he insisted the lot was his. He complained to the district attorney. He wrote to the Department of Real Estate.
In 2014, she got a court judgment against him for $90,000 she had lent him. “I knew I’d never see that money, but I did it to protect myself, because John left me alone after that,” Donna said. “It was all I had. To me, that was stronger than a gun.”
Debra Newell did not know all of this about her husband in March 2015. She hadn’t talked to John’s law school classmates, or his ex-wife, or the Ohio cop. Nor did she get a detailed history of his life and crimes from his sisters. But she did have a stack of documents outlining a history of arrests and restraining orders — more than enough to scare her.
His threatening texts, sent from his bed at Hoag Hospital, amplified her fear. Then, abruptly, his tone became conciliatory. Repentant.
“I still love you and simply can’t live without you. I don’t want this. I want us without anyone else,” John wrote. “I am flawed. But I’m not so easy to give up on you. When I met you it was simply you. I helped you to get back on your feet and stood up for you.”
He begged her to see him. He wanted to explain everything.
“I love and need you. Please.”
This series is based on multiple interviews with Debra Newell, Jacquelyn Newell, Terra Newell, Arlane Hart, Shad Vickers, Tonia Sells Bales, Karen Douvillier, Donna Meehan Stewart, investigators, attorneys and other sources. Christopher Goffard also reviewed thousands of pages of court documents, police reports, restraining orders and prison records, as well as text messages and emails.