This Is The True Story That Inspired Netflix’s Dirty John

Image: California Department of Corrections via People/Bravo Networks via IMDb

Dirty John tells the chilling story of John Meehan and his whirlwind relationship with Debra Newell. The show – based on true events – has gripped both Bravo and Netflix audiences, who can’t seem to get enough of the disturbing drama. But no matter how creepy the on-screen John may be, in real life he was far more sinister.

Image: Facebook/Dirty John

The story of “Dirty John” is one that has fascinated audiences in recent years. John Meehan’s life was first chronicled in a 2017 podcast, which was presented by journalist Christopher Goffard and made by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with the podcast network Wonderly. And the series proved so popular that it was downloaded more than 10 million times in less than two months.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Eyewitness News

Goffard first became aware of Meehan’s story during a murder investigation in California’s Newport Beach. As the journalist began to research the story, he uncovered a shocking web of lies and evidence of abuse. And the narrative was so compelling that it was published in six parts in the Los Angeles Times as well as being detailed in the Dirty John podcast.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Facebook/Dirty John, The Dirty Truth

In fact, Goffard became so engrossed with the sinister story that he spent a full year covering it. But it was the horrifying nature of the case’s protagonist that truly fascinated the journalist. “Something about Meehan chilled me in a way nobody else has,” Goffard would later explain. And as the success of Goffard’s podcast would attest, he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Image: Bravo Networks via IMDb

The popularity of the Dirty John podcast didn’t go unnoticed by Bravo, either. And in January 2018 the network announced its own TV series of the same name. The show aired in November that year before dropping on Netflix in February 2019. Then Dirty John soon became the sensation on everybody’s lips.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

Bravo’s Dirty John is the true crime story of John Meehan, a seemingly charming man who is hiding a dark secret. The title of the show comes from a nickname that was apparently given to Meehan during his Dayton University days. The exact meaning of the moniker, though, is not really known. But as audiences were to discover, when it comes to the shifty character, nothing is out of the question.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

As Goffard revealed on his podcast, “[Meehan’s] debauchery spawned the nickname Dirty John, though once bestowed, it seemed to describe a lot of his behavior. Like the way he took money for roofing jobs he didn’t complete. Like the way he rented his housemate a deathtrap truck with no brakes and claimed not to know. Like the way he used fake names on the credit cards that filled the mailbox – a swindle he would boast about.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

The frightening story that Bravo’s Dirty John chronicles begins with Debra Newell – played by Connie Britton – a wealthy woman who appears to have it all. But despite her success as an interior designer, the divorced mom feels that something is missing from her life: romance. And as a result, she’s on a mission to find love following four disastrous marriages.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

Through an online dating website, Debra finally encounters a man who seems like the ideal catch. Portrayed by Eric Bana on the show, John is handsome, charming and apparently enjoying a successful career as an anesthesiologist. All is not as it seems, however. That’s because in reality, John is a master manipulator. And he has a track record of using his charisma to deceive members of the opposite sex.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

With Debra ignorant of John’s past, however, the couple embark on a passionate and fast-moving romance. But John’s dark side soon begins to reveal itself. Beneath his charming veneer, you see, he proves himself to be a habitual liar with a worrying habit of flying off the handle. And as a result, Debra’s daughters, Terra and Veronica, grow suspicious of the new man in their mom’s life.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bravo Networks via IDMb

Eager to expose John for the monster that the sisters believe he is, the Newell family start an investigation into his past. And as they dig deeper, they find themselves in disturbing territory, discovering a series of terrible secrets that the man has been hiding. Terra and Veronica’s attempts to wake Debra up to John’s lies, though, threaten to tear their entire family apart.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Given the gripping nature of Dirty John’s plotline, the show became a cult favorite among viewers. The series also attracted some critical acclaim, going on to receive a number of nods at prestigious award ceremonies. These included Best Actress nominations for Britton at the Critics’ Choice Television Awards and the Golden Globes.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Thanks to the shocking twists and turns of the Dirty John storyline, it would be easy to assume that the truth has been exaggerated to make the show more enthralling. However, much of the series is based on solid fact, which makes the chilling events that unfold even more astonishing. And the story in real life – as in its TV counterpart – all started with a simple date.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

The actual Newell had been on a slew of boring dates prior to meeting Meehan in October 2014. The pair came into contact through an online dating site for people over 50. And they agreed to meet face-to-face for a candlelit dinner. During the evening, the interior designer was impressed when her date mentioned that he’d recently returned from Iraq. While there, he claimed, he’d been working as an anesthesiologist with Doctors Without Borders.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Recalling the fateful meeting during a 2017 interview, Newell revealed that Meehan seemed to tick a lot of her boxes. She told Fox5 News, “He tended to have everything on my checklist that I was looking for… I liked that he was a doctor – that he had been successful helping people.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Plus, on top of claiming to be in the medical field, Meehan also stated that he owned several properties and said that family was one of his major priorities. Clearly bedazzled by this stranger’s credentials, Newell soon developed feelings for him. “It moved very quickly, and I was sort of, how do I put it? Swept off my feet,” she confessed to Fox5 News.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

However, even at this early stage, there were aspects of Meehan’s behavior that could have been considered odd. The man wore his hospital uniform all the time, for example – even once to a formal dinner. And yet somehow, the doctor always seemed to be broke. He told Newell, however, that all of his salary went to his children. But while she bought this bizarre excuse, her kids did not.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Fact does part with fiction slightly, however, when it comes to the composition of Newell’s family. In reality, the mom has four children, but in the show Debra only has three. And her older daughter, Jacquelyn, doesn’t appear in Dirty John at all, in fact. For the Bravo adaptation, she was represented by the character Veronica, who is portrayed by Juno Temple.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

In the Dirty John podcast, Jacquelyn admitted that she thought her mom’s new man was a “creep.” Outspoken, she even threatened to move out of Newell’s home if Meehan came to live with them. But more shocking than Jacquelyn’s reaction to the man was her younger sister Terra’s open disapproval of him.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Apparently, Terra was usually more amenable than her older sister, but it’s said that she took an immediate disliking to Meehan. Despite Newell’s daughters’ suspicions, however, she remained head over heels with her new beau. And after just a month of dating, the couple moved into a property together in the Balboa Island area of Newport Beach. The house cost $6,500 per month, and the interior designer took out the lease under just her name – at her partner’s request.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

At first, Newell tried to hide the fact that she was living with Meehan from her children. But Terra worked it out just before Thanksgiving and decided to question her mom about it. And it was then, Goffard explained in the Dirty John podcast, that the con man flew into a “rage.” He accused the young woman of “snooping through his stuff” and claimed that she was trying to “steal [Newell] from him.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Understandably, the incident shocked Terra. She felt betrayed by her mom, too, whom she believed had chosen Meehan over her own daughter. But little did the young woman know that things were about to get a whole lot worse. That’s because she would soon discover that Newell had married her boyfriend – after just two months of dating. And at this point, reality again differs slightly from the events portrayed in Bravo’s Dirty John.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

On the show, Debra agrees to a spontaneous ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada. Yet in real life she had been much more reluctant to tie the knot. In fact, it was only when Meehan accompanied the interior designer on a business trip to the so-called Sin City did she finally agree to marry him. The wedding was held at a courthouse, and no friends or family joined them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Shortly after the ceremony, Terra reportedly broke down about Meehan during a Christmas get-together. According to Goffard, she told her family, “There’s just something wrong about him. I don’t like him.” However, Meehan apparently explained to Newell that her kids were simply “jealous.” And he persuaded his wife to distance herself from her daughters, too, in order to create some boundaries between them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Despite the commitment that Meehan had made to Newell, her daughters remained suspicious. And so, they reportedly sought the help of a private investigator, who did some digging into the man’s past. It was then that they became aware of Meehan’s dark history, which it seems involved restraining orders, signs of drug dependency and prison stints. Shockingly, his latest period behind bars had ended just two days before he had met Newell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Even more alarmingly, there was also apparent proof that Meehan wasn’t actually a doctor as he had claimed. And he’d certainly never worked as one in Iraq, either. Rather, he had been a nurse anesthetist, although it’s thought that his career had fallen apart after he had allegedly become addicted to surgical painkillers. With no real income, then, the disgraced medical worker established himself as a con man, seemingly seducing and swindling a string of women – all the while pretending to have an M.D.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

Faced with such shocking truths, Terra, Jacqueline and their cousin, Shad Vickers – renamed Toby (Kevin Zegers) in Bravo’s Dirty John – raised the alarm to Newell. But by this point, she too had grown suspicious of the man with whom she was sharing her life. Newell, you see, had become concerned after uncovering some disturbing evidence of her own, which pertained to her new husband’s habit of hoodwinking other women and harassing them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Inside Edition

Newell claims that she came across pages from a website used by women to share information concerning the dangerous men that they’d encountered. And there, the mom had discovered a number of unsettling comments about Meehan. One user simply warned, “Do not let this man into your life.” Another commenter, meanwhile, labeled Meehan as a “classic psychopath.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

It’s hardly a surprise that Newell was frightened by this unsettling discovery. And so, in March 2015 she apparently decided to pack her bags and leave home while Meehan was in hospital for surgery on his back. But a few months later, in June, the couple reunited after Meehan pleaded with his wife to give him another chance. And ultimately, Newell fell for the con man’s excuses once more.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Newell later told the Dirty John podcast, “[Meehan] always had a story. He told me that he lied because he thought he’d lose me, that he feels so lucky that I’m such a forgiving person, I’m the love of this life, that I’ve made him a better person.” And so, despite Meehan’s ominous past and web of deceit, the mom decided to forgive him. The pair even moved into a new property in Irvine, California.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Inside Edition

However, Newell and Meehan’s story was not about to have a happy ending. Even after a fresh start, the designer’s suspicions didn’t dissipate. If anything, in fact, Newell’s worries only increased with her husband’s worsening behaviour. And the mom was growing tired of the wedge that Meehan had created between her and her family, too. So, in March 2016 Newell decided to call time on their relationship for good. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/ABC News

What’s more, the tensions between Meehan and Jacquelyn had also increased. It seems that as the months passed, Meehan had tried harder and harder to prevent Newell from seeing her children – especially Jacquelyn. It was she who had made her feelings for him the clearest, after all. Then, when Meehan caught Newell meeting with her daughter in secret one day, he threatened to “throw Jacquelyn in the ocean if it happened again,” according to Goffard.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Inside Edition

Newell finally decided enough was enough in April 2016 and filed for an annulment. By this time, Meehan had moved to Nevada. And it’s said that he proceeded to taunt his wife with a series of frightening messages, insisting that she hand over cash or face consequences. Presumably terrified, Newell sought a restraining order. Her request was apparently denied, though, after a judge ruled that she wasn’t in immediate danger.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/TODAY

Consequently, all Newell could do was shut Meehan out of her life. She ignored his threats and refused his allegedly harassing calls. However, her estranged husband was seemingly not the sort of problem that would simply go away. And in one scary incident in June 2016, Meehan reportedly hijacked his wife’s car and set it on fire. But this was just the start of the con man’s reign of terror.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Inside Edition

A couple of months later, in August 2016, Jacquelyn claims to have spotted Meehan waiting outside her Irvine apartment complex. Frightened, she called her younger sister to give her a head’s up that their mom’s estranged partner was hanging around. But despite Jacquelyn’s warning, nothing could have prepared the Newells for what would happen next. That’s because when Terra got home from work that night, Meehan was lying in wait.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/TODAY

Terrifyingly, it’s believed that Meehan launched at Terra with a knife in a parking lot near her home. Terra has claimed that during the assault, Meehan tried to bundle her into a car. But despite the notable differences in the pair’s physical stature, she was somehow able to put up a struggle. And against all the odds, the young woman says she managed to kick the blade from his hand. That’s when Terra fought back. She apparently reached for the weapon herself and thrust it into her attacker 13 times, on one occasion piercing him in the eye.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/TODAY

Terra later told Fox5 News that she believed she had been fighting for her life. “I just started stabbing him,” she said. “I started to push him off of me, and then I got him right here [on the shoulder], and I also got the last one in his eye. And the last one I kind of did give a second thought. I was like, ‘I don’t want him to get back up. I don’t want him to try to hurt me again. If he gets back up, he’s gonna kill me.’”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/TODAY

Following the attack, a neighbor came to Terra’s aid, wrapping a towel around her injuries. According to Fox5 News, Terra then called Newell, saying, “I’m really, really sorry. I think I killed your husband.” Little did she know, however, that Meehan was still alive – but not for much longer. The man died in hospital four days later, ending the nightmare.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/TODAY

Following the ordeal that Meehan had inflicted upon Newell and her family, the mother was, understandably, wracked with guilt. And the feeling was only amplified upon seeing the injuries that Terra had sustained in the attack. “She had been stabbed in the chest, in the arm and a little bit of a fracture here [above her eye], where he missed, thank God,” she explained to Fox5 News. “I had more guilt than you know what to do with. I just thought, ‘I caused this.’”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: YouTube/Inside Edition

However, Newell has since been able to channel her traumatic experience into something more positive. How? By becoming an advocate for domestic abuse survivors. “There are women [who] are probably scared to death to leave. [They] don’t see any other way of getting out of the relationship, and I want to have a voice for them,” she later explained to Fox5 News. And as for Meehan? Well, Newell is glad to have put the past behind her. She added, “I’m happy that he’s gone and not able to hurt anyone else.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT