As a successful interior designer in her 50s, Debra Newell was ready to find love.
But the seemingly perfect man she met online turned out to be a nightmare — and her brush with the cunning conman would lead to deadly consequences.
“It’s an unforgettable tale. A beautiful business woman falls for a dashing doctor, but her daughters have doubts,” reporter Keith Morrison said on Oxygen’s Dateline: Unforgettable. “Here in real life was deceit that ran as deep as any I’d ever seen, deceit with serious intent which in the end, was deadly.”
The shocking tale of lies and violence would inspire the successful podcast Dirty John and lead to a dramatized television show of the same name.
But just where did the story begin?
How did Debra Newell meet John Meehan?
Debra Newell was living in Orange County, California and was the owner of a thriving interior design firm, moving company, and silk flower business. But the mom of four had been unlucky in love.
Now in her 50s with her children grown, Debra decided to give love another shot and joined an online dating platform in 2014.
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It was there she met John Meehan, a man who presented himself as a successful anesthesiologist, just back from a year in Iraq with Doctors Without Borders.
“He was the total package,” Debra recalled. “A doctor. Very intelligent, family man, loved his kids.”
She was impressed by his old-fashioned manners, charm, good looks, and attentive nature.
“He swept me off my feet, said everything right, took me everywhere that I wanted to go,” Debra said. “I fell in love.”
But not everyone was as excited about the new romance. Debra’s two adult daughters took an immediate dislike to Meehan, especially after he moved into her pricey Balboa Island home shortly after the courtship began.
“I told her it looks fishy, I don’t get it,” daughter Terra Newell said. “She told me I needed to mind my own business.”
As the mother and daughter were hashing it out, Meehan came up behind them and accused Terra of “just trying to get your mom all to yourself.”
“I started screaming back at him, ‘No, John, that’s what you are trying to do,'" Terra recalled.
After the emotional fight, Debra asked her daughters not to attend Thanksgiving dinner and the tension remained high through the holidays.
But just before Christmas, Debra and John secretly got married in Las Vegas.
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“I felt very adored and very loved and I thought well, if he’s the love of my life, I’m ready,” Debra explained of the whirlwind courtship.
Terra Newell’s Suspicions Grow About John Meehan
Debra’s adult children had no idea she’d tied the knot with her new beau, but as time went on they only got more suspicious of the new man in their mother’s life.
They had questions about his back story and wondered why he didn’t have his own car if he was a successful doctor. Although Meehan often wore scrubs, it seemed more like a “costume” than legitimate attire. They wondered where he went each day and bought a tracker to put on their mother’s Tesla, which he often borrowed.
They discovered that each day, John was visiting lots of doctors' offices, although he only stayed at each one for a short period of time. They began to suspect that he may be trying to score drugs, but their mother dismissed their concerns.
The kids hired a private investigator, who discovered not only was Meehan not a doctor, but he had served time in the Orange County jail. While snooping through his belongings, they also found a list of aliases he used along with social security numbers, police reports for stalking other women, and paperwork for restraining orders filed against him.
When confronted with the information, Meehan told Debra some of the information was connected to another John Meehan and claimed that in other instances he had been framed.
“He said, ‘I was set up,’ and I said, "But you lied to me,’” Debra recalled. “He goes, ‘Because I knew you would never date me if you knew the truth,’ and I said, ‘You’re right. I wouldn’t have.’”
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But Meehan also began crying, begged for forgiveness, and pledged his love. Debra was determined to honor her marital commitment and decided to give him another shot.
Who was John Meehan’s first wife, Tonia Bales?
While diving deeper into his past, Debra’s daughters learned that Meehan had been married once before to a woman named Tonia Bales.
Bales, a nurse anesthetist, met Meehan in the late 1980s and quickly fell for his “playful” and “engaging” personality. The couple got married in 1990 and she helped put him through nursing school, where he also became a nurse anesthetist.
They welcomed two daughters, but the union began to unravel when Bales learned that Meehan was having an affair. Unnerved by her husband’s behavior, she decided to reach out to his mother, even though Meehan had been estranged from his family throughout their marriage.
She learned that Meehan — who’d been known by the nickname “Dirty John” — had been convicted in the past of cocaine trafficking and had lied about his age, telling her he was five years younger than he really was.
While snooping through his belongings, she uncovered a cedar box filled with fentanyl and Versed, drugs he’d likely stolen from the hospital. She made the difficult decision to report what she found to authorities.
“He had to be stopped, he was going to hurt patients,” she told Morrison.
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But when she turned him in, Bales said Meehan “flipped like a switch” and began to threaten her. Terrified, she began to record their phone conversations.
“Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, OK? Because that’s what it's going to come down to,” he told her in one ominous call.
Meehan went on to serve prison time for stealing the drugs, but when he was released he perfected a new con: pretending to be a successful doctor on dating sites to lure wealthy women.
“He was a true conman. He would take their money and when they would find out about him, John would threaten them, he would terrorize them,” Detective Dennis Luken said. “John was the most dangerous, treacherous, manipulative deceitful criminal that I’d investigated in 40 years of law enforcement.”
How did John Meehan die?
As Debra's daughters learned more terrifying details about Meehan’s past — including an arrest just two years before in Laguna Beach for stalking a woman — Debra finally took notice and decided to leave John.
Debra once told Oxygen.com she finally made the decision to leave after seeing through all his lies.
Meehan was furious she left him and set out to ruin her reputation by sending inappropriate emails to her clients and colleagues, sharing nude photos, posting negative reviews about her businesses, and even stealing her car and setting it on fire.
Debra spent six terrified months wearing disguises and hiding out in hotels before moving in with one of her daughters in the summer of 2016.
The ordeal came to a shocking end on Aug. 20, 2016 when Meehan tracked down Debra’s daughter Terra in a Newport apartment complex parking lot and attacked her with a knife.
“He said, 'Do you remember me?' He looked me right in the eyes,” Terra said. “He was trying to push me into the car. He actually had the trunk wide open.”
Terra fought back, drawing from her days watching The Walking Dead. Down on her back, she used her feet to pedal kick him, while her dog Cash bit Meehan in the ankle. When she managed to kick the knife free from his hand, she grabbed it herself and stabbed him twice in the head, just like the “zombie kill” from the popular television show.
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As the police arrived, Terra was helped away from the scene and placed a heartbreaking call to her mother.
“I think I might’ve killed him. I’m sorry,” she said through sobs, according to police footage.“I knew this was gonna happen. Did I not tell you he was gonna try to hurt us?”
Meehan died four days later from his injuries at a local hospital. Investigators would later find a bag in his trunk with more knives, zip ties, his passport, and duct tape.
“It took some organization. It took thinking. He’s planned this out. This was a revenge killing,” said Matt Murphy, then the Orange County Deputy District Attorney.
To Debra, who has gone on to share her story in the hopes of helping others, her daughter is the hero in the terrifying saga.
“I feel very lucky,” she said. “I believe Terra saved many lives, saved my life, saved many other victims.”
Today, Terra has used her trauma to help others, becoming a trauma life coach and launching several podcasts.