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Crime News

The Dirty Past Of 'Dirty John:' Why John Meehan Went To Jail

Crimes of the heart weren't his only conviction.

By Gina Tron

John Meehan was a smooth-talking charmer who lied his way into several women’s hearts, only to wreak havoc and terror on their lives.

Debra Newell, whose relationship with Meehan was the basis for the new Bravo series “Dirty John,” met Meehan on an over-50 dating site. He seemed like the perfect match for the wealthy interior designer — but it soon came out that he was anything but. Rather than spending time serving as a doctor overseas like he claimed, he had spent time behind bars for committing numerous creepy crimes.

He earned the nicknames “Dirty John” and “Filthy John” while in school, and he did have quite a dirty past:  He was a convicted felon with a serious drug addiction habit; he had a history of stalking, harassing, and terrorizing women; and he was known to peruse dating sites like Match.com and PlentyOfFish to try to lure in victims.

So, why did John Meehan end up in prison in the first place, well before he met Newell? Well, for several reasons, and on numerous occasions.

Stealing drugs

The first time Meehan went to jail was for stealing drugs. After his first wife, Tonia Sells, became suspicious of John in September 2000, she searched their home only to find a hidden box containing surgical anesthetics like Versed and Fentanyl, which he was stealing from the hospital to use to get high. She told police, who started an investigation and John eventually lost his job, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The day he was supposed to surrender for drug charges in Ohio, Meehan was arrested in Michigan after kicking a state trooper who was trying to force him from a hiding place above an elevator inside of a mall, according to Dayton Daily News.

Why was he hiding in the mall? He had escaped from a moving ambulance while being transported to a hospital after he was found semi-conscious in a hotel room, surrounded by narcotic drugs. Police believe he stole drugs from hospitals across the country, including Indiana and Kentucky, in addition to Ohio and Michigan. He ended up losing his nursing license because of the charges, according to Dayton.com, and spent 17 months in a Michigan prison. It appears to be the lengthiest prison sentence served by Meehan.

“You don’t even want to know what being in a Michigan prison is like,” John Meehan wrote to a friend by letter, published by the LA Times. “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.”


After a decade of marriage, Meehan and his previous wife, Tonia Sells, officially divorced in 2001. Once the divorce was finalized, Meehan harassed and threatened Sells.

In one instance, he told his ex-wife he couldn’t stop smiling. She asked him why. “What, the Mafia’s coming after me again? Or what?” she questioned him,  according to the “Dirty John” podcast.

His response?

“When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, OK?” He continued,“Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, OK? Because that’s what it’s gonna come down to.”

She took him to court and he was convicted of menacing and received a suspended sentence, according to the LA Times report.

Stalking and Extortion

In 2013, Meehan met a 48-year-old Laguna Beach woman who had woken up to find Meehan standing over her hospital bed after she had brain surgery at a San Diego hospital, according to the podcast. He claimed he was her anesthesiologist. The two struck up a romance, but it didn’t end well. He suggested she transfer money into his account, and after she said no, he tried to extort her by sending intimate photos of her to her family.

“You’re in way over your head on this one,” he told her, according to the podcast. “Make it happen and I walk away. If not, I will be your nightmare.”

She called police, and when they searched his storage unit they found a Colt .38 Special, which he wasn’t supposed to have because he was a felon. They also found a  bottle of cyanide powder and eight cyanide capsules. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to stalking the Laguna Beach woman and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He went to jail for a few months but was out by the summer of 2014, according to the LA Times. Not long after he was out, he was arrested again and brought back to jail for violating a restraining order against another woman he had threatened.

He met Debra Newell just two days after being released from jail for the incident, and the rest is history.

The story is so shocking LA Times journalist Christopher Goffard spent a whole year investigating Meehan’s case for an investigative project for the LA Times called “Dirty John,” as well as a popular podcast of the same name. Bravo’s newest scripted series, "Dirty John,"  is based on these true events.

[Photo: Oxygen]