Debra Newell's romance-gone-wrong with John Meehan is the true-life inspiration for Bravo's hit series Dirty John

By Jeff Truesdell
December 12, 2018 12:30 PM

Even now, Debra Newell recalls her first dinner date with John Meehan, after they connected on a website for over-50 singles, as holding great promise.

But there was a blemish to the handsome Meehan, who said he was an anesthesiologist who’d just returned to Southern California after a year in war-torn Iraq as a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders. After walking Newell to her door that evening in 2014, he proceeded inside “and sort of jumped on the bed,” she tells PEOPLE. “I said, ‘No, no, this isn’t going to happen.’ ”

Before he apologized by phone the next day, “I thought, ‘I don’t want to hear from this guy, but wow, that was such a great date.’ ”

Newell, a wealthy and successful interior designer, then told him: “I’ll give you another chance.”

That crack in her trust led to a two-month romance and wedding — and, too late, the realization that Meehan was a dangerous con man. The true-life saga inspired Bravo’s hit scripted series Dirty John, starring Connie Britton (as Newell) and Eric Bana (as Meehan)

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“I was worried that John was going to kill me to try to get the money ’cause I’d married him,” Newell says in an exclusive clip (above) from an upcoming Oxygen documentary about her story, Dirty John: The Dirty Truth, airing Jan. 14 as a companion to the Bravo series.

In this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Newell says her short-term marital bliss imploded after her four suspicious kids hired a private investigator, who uncovered a long line of secrets and deceptions in Meehan’s past — among them, that he’d swindled and terrorized multiple women he’d met online.

Those revelations and the aftermath fueled a six-part Los Angeles Times investigative series and a wildly popular podcast also named Dirty John, later adapted by Bravo.

From left: John Meehan and Debra Newell
Courtesy Debra Newell
From left: John Meehan and Debra Newell
Courtesy Debra Newell

“Everything came to a head,” Newell says in the Oxygen clip. “John was not who I married whatsoever. I scrambled, grabbed all my stuff and moved away.”

“I realized I need to end this marriage, so I get this lawyer to be able to file an annulment,” she says. “We decide he’s dangerous, and we also change my will and make sure that he knows that my kids are getting my money.”

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Meehan’s defensive explanations brought about a short reconciliation — until Newell went into hiding, and Meehan’s response took a violent and tragic turn.

Dirty John airs Sundays (10 p.m. ET) on Bravo. The documentary Dirty John: The Dirty Truth premieres Jan. 14 (8 p.m. ET) on Oxygen.