If only Debra Newell (Connie Britton in Dirty John) had found those files in John Meehan's (Eric Bana) drawer before she married him in an impromptu Las Vegas ceremony. Rifling through that stack of carefully guarded papers, Debra landed on letters from prison and criminal records. This was tangible proof indicating her daughters' instincts were correct: John was really a criminal. Though knowing Debra, she would've drank a smoothie, pretended she never saw the papers, and married him anyway.
In each episode of Dirty John, another layer of John's menacing personality is revealed. Instead of intimations at a criminal history, this episode finally gave us specifics. At last, the details of John's past encounters with law enforcement and struggles with addiction are revealed. Like most of Dirty John, this is entirely based on the facts of Meehan's life.
In 2002, Meehan was arrested following an 18-month investigation.
The story begins in 2000, back when Meehan was still with his first wife, Tonia Sells (who now goes by Tonia Bales). They had married in 1990. Sells, a nurse anesthetist herself, helped Meehan become a nurse anesthetist, too. During their 10 years of marriage, Meehan forbade Sells from contacting his mother and sisters. When Meehan asked for a divorce suddenly, Sells began looking into Meehan's past. After all these years, she contacted his mother and sisters — and that's when she found out about his history of drug abuse. His sisters told Sells of Meehan's history with drug use and his prior cocaine arrest.
After searching their Ohio house, lo and behold, Sells found a box of Versed and Fentanyl, which Meehan had stolen from the hospital with the intention of getting high. Sells turned the box into the police. Meehan lost his job, but he was allowed to roam free. Still, the police were on him: Sells' actions spurred an 18-month police investigation that would culminate in 2002.
According to police reports, Meehan went on to steal drugs from hospitals in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. His behavior throughout these hospitals drew attention from coworkers, especially when he brought a gun into a Dayton, OH operating room in February 2002, or when he stole Demerol from a patient.
Later on in 2002, Meehan's employers at Ohio's Fort Hamilton Hospital called the police after Meehan was found submitting a patient's urine sample as his own in order to pass a drug test. At that point, Meehan agreed to cooperate with authorities and plead guilty.
But on the day he was supposed to turn himself in in Ohio, Meehan was busy being arrested in Michigan. The Dayton Daily News reports that after overdosing from drugs, Meehan was found in a semi-conscious state in a Saginaw, MI hotel. He was found and put on an ambulance headed to a hospital. Naturally, Meehan escaped from a moving ambulance (with narcotics in hand, of course) and ran into a shopping center where he took refuge above an elevator shaft. Police were able to track his location. Meehan kicked the state trooper trying to forcibly remove him from his hiding place, and then was arrested.
Meehan served 17 months in prison in Michigan.
As this episode shows, Meehan also had a history of menacing.
Tonia Sells' relationship with Meehan deteriorated after the shocking 2000 revelations. Meehan lost his job at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Michigan, where he had worked. He blamed Sells for all his problems at ensuing hospitals. Despite getting divorced in 2001, Meehan continued to contact Sells — usually with menacing messages.
Take this message that Sells had recorded, then played for the Dirty John podcast, as an example: “When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, okay?...Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, okay? Because that’s what it’s gonna come down to.” Sells took Meehan to court, where he was convicted of menacing and given a suspended sentence.
Meehan used online dating sites to find victims.
After getting out of prison, Meehan moved in with his sister, Donna. His first night home, Meehan went on Match.com. Donna knew what that meant: He was fishing for targets. In the podcast Dirty John, Christopher Goffard explains Meehan's methods succinctly.
"From 2005 to 2014 — from about the time he got out of prison in Michigan for drug theft to the time he met Debra Newell in California — he had seduced, swindled, and terrorized multiple women, many of whom he had met on dating sites while posing as a doctor, court records showed," Goffard said.
The website Datingpsychos.com had a page devoted to warning other about Meehan. Women on the site wrote things like, "He conned me out of money. He is very persuasive. Emotionally needy, slick liar…" and, "He is a parasite, a leech, an infection that festers on anyone he comes in contact with."
In 2014, Meehan went back to prison.
Meehan struck up a relationship with a woman he met in a Laguna Beach, CA hospital. Or, more specifically, Meehan was standing over the woman's bed when she woke up from brain surgery, claiming to be her anesthesiologist — and then struck up a relationship with her.
When the romantic aspect of the relationship soured, Meehan took to extortion. He asked her to transfer money to his account. When she refused, he retaliated by sending intimate photos to her family members. As Goffard reports in the L.A. Times, Meehan wrote to the woman, “You’re in way over your head on this one. Make it happen and I walk away. If not, I will be your nightmare.”
The woman called the police, who found weapons in Meehan's storage unit, including guns and cyanide powder. Meehan was arrested. In February 2014, he pled guilty to stalking and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was released that summer, but then jailed again for violating his restraining order the Laguna Beach woman had filed.
Meehan was released from prison October 8, 2014, and met Debra Newell on October 10. They were married in December 2014.
Meehan's behavior gravely impacted many women.
By the time Meehan and Newell married in December 2014, three women in Southern California had taken out restraining orders against him. Three more women requested restraining orders. Their accounts, detailed anonymously in the podcast Dirty John, are harrowing: “He threatened to leak nude pictures of me if I did not give him money," said one woman. “He told me once he was obsessed with me. And I am VERY afraid of him,” said another.
This episode of Dirty John ties together the strands of Meehan's criminal history: Stealing drugs, menacing women, and extortion.