Debra Newell discovered too late the deceptions of John Meehan, a serial con man she married after a 2-month courtship — inspiring Bravo's Dirty John

By Jeff Truesdell and Christine Pelisek
December 16, 2018 02:30 PM
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Nicole Wilder/Bravo

Warning: This article contains spoilers about the real-life events dramatized in Bravo’s Dirty John.

The red flags in her relationship with John Meehan went up early, but Tonia Bales was slow to see them.

His stated age and the birthdate on his driver’s license didn’t match. After a two-year courtship, he didn’t invite his family to their 1990 wedding — and in watching the wedding video by herself later, Bales overheard for the first time that his college friends called him “Filthy John.”

His dismissive explanation: “They’re just drunk. It means nothing.”

“He was charming, and he seemed very interested in me, and of course that always feels good,” Bales tells PEOPLE of their early days, when she was a nurse and Meehan was attending law school, before he abruptly opted to change careers and let Bales support him during his transition.

By the time of their 2002 divorce, after Meehan got another woman pregnant, Bales, then a mom to their two girls, had learned he was expert at hiding secrets, including his past arrest for cocaine trafficking.

She’d found his mother’s phone number and reached out. “This is Tonia. I’m married to your son John,’ ” Bales said. “She [his mom] was totally quiet. Then she said, ‘Oh Tonia, I knew you would call me one day.’ ”

“That just led to the whole conversation that he’s changed his age, he altered his name, he’s been arrested before, he’s been lying and cheating and messing around with other women his whole life,” Bales says.

But that was far from the end: Meehan’s deceptions would grow much darker — and more deadly.

From left: John Meehan and Debra Newell
Courtesy Debra Newell

A New Mark?

In 2014, Meehan found Debra Newell on an over-50 dating website, Newell tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

Their two-month courtship led first to marriage and then to tragedy, inspiring the hit scripted Bravo series DirtyJohn, itself adapted from a same-named podcast from the Los Angeles Times. A companion documentary, Dirty John: The Dirty Truth, premieres Jan. 14 on Oxygen.

Newell, a wealthy and successful interior designer looking for love after four failed marriages, “couldn’t wait to spend my evening with him,” she tells PEOPLE of their initial connection.

“He’d tell me how beautiful I was, ask me about my day and rub my back,” Newell says. “I was infatuated with him.”

• For more on the real-life romance and surprising revelations that inspired Dirty John, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

Her four adult children were not. They quickly became skeptics as Meehan, who by then claimed to be an anesthesiologist just back to Southern California after a year volunteering in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders, moved in with their mother, evaded questions about his past, started driving only her cars and then tried to distance Newell from her kids.

They hired a private investigator who validated their fears: Not only had Meehan never attended medical school, he had a felony rap sheet that revealed he’d served time in California and Michigan for stealing narcotics from hospitals where he worked as a nurse and had swindled and terrorized multiple other women he’d met online.

In fact, Meehan had only been out of prison for a few days before his first date with Newell.

“I was in shock,” she says. “And I was scared and angry.”

From left: John Meehan and Debra Newell
Courtesy Debra Newell

A Troubling History

The year before that first date in 2014, Meehan was arrested after police followed up a complaint by another woman he’d pursued and extorted for money, police investigator Julia Bowman tells PEOPLE.

The woman was a wealthy writer who had encountered Meehan in a hospital where she was recovering after surgery, and he falsely portrayed himself as her anesthesiologist. “She wakes up to see a man in scrubs at her bedside and he gives her his phone number and says, ‘If you have any issues following your surgery, give me a call,’ ” says Bowman.

“He has a type,” she explains. “He would meet as many women as possible and then find the one that is the wealthiest, and then attach to that person.”

Contact between Meehan and the writer led to a relationship and he “convinced her to wire him all of her money in two separate bank accounts that totaled almost $40 million,” Bowman says.

Before the money was in Meehan’s hands, however, the woman balked. An alarmed friend searched his name online and found “all these women who were trying to warn other women that he had extorted them and stalked them,” says Bowman.

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Meehan “was able to dismiss every allegation — ‘This was just a bad breakup’ or ‘She’s jealous of me,’ ” Bowman says. But after he learned the woman had blocked the transfer, a financial tussle broke out as Meehan spent the cash she’d already given him — $30,000 — cut her off from her family and wreaked havoc on her life with threats and demands.

When police intervened to arrest Meehan, he was driving a car apparently extorted from another woman and living in a cluttered RV that he’d conned from a third woman, according to the former investigator. (He eventually pleaded guilty in the case to stalking, burglary and being a felon in possession of a handgun.)

In the freezer of his RV police found Meehan had stashed a backpack that contained a revolver, ammunition, binoculars, duct tape, zip ties, a GPS unit and capsules of cyanide — what Bowman calls “pretty much a killing, kidnapping kit.”

“He seemed like he was someone who was very experienced in doing exactly what he was doing,” she says. “It just seemed so calculated and polished.”

Meehan succeeded thanks in part to that level of calculation and polish and expert exploitation of his targets.

“A lot of times women think they’ve put themselves in this position or that it’s their own fault that they’ve gotten into this relationship and it got messy, or that the person will eventually leave them alone, and that’s not the case,” Bowman says.

“The problem with stalking, the thing that makes it so volatile,” she says, “is that you don’t know how a stalker is going to respond.”

• Read the shocking tales of people lured into cults and controversial groups in PEOPLE’s True Crime Stories: Cults, available now on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold.

A Con Man’s Demise

In the case of Newell, her children’s discoveries made her realize she did not really know the man she had married.

She sought an annulment of their Las Vegas vows, even as Meehan tearfully told her he deserved a chance to prove he was innocent of any accusations. His pleas prompted a short reconciliation. And then Newell went into hiding, and Meehan responded with a violent turn.

He filed for divorce himself, demanding half of Newell’s income and ownership in her business. He lit her Tesla on fire, emailed nude images of her to her family and began to stalk her, repeating the same terroristic tactics he’d used before. “I lived in constant fear,” says Newell.

On Aug. 20, 2016, for reasons that remain unclear — whether out of desperation or revenge, hoping to track Newell down or punish her — Meehan waited outside the Newport Beach apartment of her daughter Terra and attacked her.

Terra, though injured, successfully fought him off — kicking his knife from his hand, then grabbing it herself and stabbing him in the chest, forehead and eyes.

Meehan died four days later.

“It’s poetic justice in the strongest degree,” Orange County prosecutor Matt Murphy tells PEOPLE. “He victimized women for so long, and at the end of the day he got bettered by a woman.”

Says Newell: “Everything was a lie. … You feel like John just thought he was the greatest guy on earth. It was like he was convinced of it, how great he was, how good-looking he was.”

“But,” she says, “that’s part of the psychopath.”

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.