Woman whose real-life story is depicted in ‘Dirty John’ says it ‘could happen to anyone’
Debra Newell’s chilling tale of blind love and deceit captured the attention of millions who listened to the podcast “Dirty John.”
Now the story of her marriage to a con man John Meehan, who duped her as their whirlwind romance turned into a tragedy, is now both a scripted drama “Dirty John,” a Bravo TV series and an upcoming documentary on Oxygen.
“I got conned. Big time,” Newell told ABC News’ Marci Gonzalez for “Nightline.” “And we’re finding out it could happen to just about anyone.”
When people ask her how she could let this happen, Newell said, “I tell them you weren’t in my shoes.”
Watch the full story on “Nightline” tonight at 12:35 a.m. ET
“Everyone is going to have a different opinion and I’m tough because I know who I am and I know the real story,” Newell said.
In 2014, a then-59-year-old Newell had a successful interior design business, beautiful children and a pristine life on the coast of Orange County, California.
“I decided that I had it all,” Newell said. “Except love.”
She met Meehan online in the belief that he was an anesthesiologist, and the pair met for their first date at Houston’s, a restaurant in Irvine, California.
“I liked what he had on his profile,” Newell said. “He had his daughters, he had animals that he was the anesthesiologist.” She said that their relationship moved “very quickly.”
“John started calling every day and we would meet after work and either walk or go to dinner,” she said.
But Newell said the man who had been “single for 16 years” at the time constantly told her he was in love with her. “I was the soul mate he’s been waiting for me,” she recalled him telling her.
“And he said everything right,” she added. “I ate it up. He was moving much faster than I was but he was very convincing. So pretty soon you’re saying ‘I love you.'”
They only knew each other for two months when Newell agreed to marry Meehan on a trip to Las Vegas. Although it was her fifth marriage, she said he seemed like the man of her dreams.
“We would take walks at the end of the day and you want to hear all about my day,” Newell said. “He would make me breakfast or he would go get me a Starbucks. He would take my dry cleaning in, take my mail to the mailbox. Anything that I needed to do that I had no time for” he would do.
The newlywed couple moved into a waterfront home on Balboa Island, a beautiful harbor side island in Newport Beach.
Newell overlooked multiple red flags, some that even her adult children raised from the start.
“The thing about my kids is they [never] liked anyone,” she said. “So I just thought ‘OK here we go again. They’ll get through this. They’ll eventually like them.'”
They pointed out that he was driving one of Newell’s cars because he didn’t have one of his own.
“But he told me his car … when he was in Iraq, his things got stolen,” she thought.
Meehan had allegedly told Newell he served in Iraq, but that later turned out to be false.
“Almost everything he told me was a lie,” Newell explained. “He told me he was an anesthesiologist. He was not an anesthesiologist. He said he had one sister and she was dead. He has two alive sisters — there was no reason for a lot of the lies I didn’t understand.”
Their story has since captivated audiences in the wildly popular podcast.
“Dirty John” has since been made into a show on Bravo starring Connie Britton as Newell and Eric Bana as Meehan. Britton was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.
“They do such a great job playing us that when I met Eric I said, ‘you know Eric, I can’t decide whether I want to slap you or kiss you,'” Newell said.
The Oxygen documentary, “Dirty John, The Dirty Truth,” which will air on Jan. 14, includes an interview with Meehan’s ex-wife Tonia Bales, as well as new details of Meehan’s charm and his well-rehearsed manipulation.
Bales shares hair-raising moments from their marriage, like when she discovered drugs Meehan had stolen from the hospital where he worked as a nurse anesthetist.
“I found on a very top shelf pushed all the way to back [with] anesthesia drugs,” Bales says in the documentary. “Fentanyl and Versa. So at this point I’m married almost 10 years and I realize everything I’ve lived to this point is a lie.”
Bales also shares a series of recorded phone calls, in which Meehan can be heard threatening her. In one call he told her to “enjoy your time left on this Earth because that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
For years, Bales said, she and their two daughters lived in fear for their safety.
Meehan continued to terrorize other women, like Det. Julia Bowman, who has since learned of at least 50 victims from the time of her initial investigation into extortion and stalking accusations made against him in 2013.
“He was such a serial stalker and he was so professional in how he did this that he recognized what that person needed for them to immediately fall for him,” Bowman told ABC News. “Someone that he has latched on to is never free of him.”
After she found what she called “pretty much a complete killing, kidnapping kit” of cyanide capsules, zip ties, duct tape, a gun and ammunition he had stashed, Bowman made an arrest.
“[It] kind of heightened my fear that something was — if we had not arrested him — that something horrible would have happened to our victim,” she explained.
While Meehan was behind bars Bowman said she continued to receive threats.
“I get a call that he’s trying to put a hit out on me,” Bowman said.
Meehan met Newell just two days after he was released from jail in October 2014.
And it wasn’t “until we were married” that Newell said she realized something might be off.
Newell became fed up with his drug abuse, deception and tension with her children, but took him back because she said he had an answer for everything and gave him another chance.
But when she did finally walk away she told him, “I’m leaving you, I want a divorce.”
“He said ‘hit me.’ And he was yelling at me and it was pushing me. He was doing this and I go, ‘I’m not going to hit you,'” she recalled. “He said ‘hit me.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to hit you.’ And I said, ‘Just let me go.’ And he says, ‘if you hit me you’ll never get up again.'”
Newell then hid for months but Meehan stalked her and even located and set fire to her car.
“I got a forensic psychiatrist, a private investigator, and they sort of led me through the steps of what to do,” Newell said.
“They said when he set my car on fire it became a new game,” she added.
She feared for her life but said “I never thought he’d go after my children. What did [he] have to gain?”
Fans and listeners of the popular podcast know how Meehan’s reign of terror ended, but fans of the TV show will have to wait to see the violent, dramatic end to this saga.
Newell said she hopes that the widespread visibility of her story will help others.
“If I could be helping people that’s what counts right now,” she said.
She added that she wants other women to learn the lessons she has and “do the background — really try to figure out who this person is.”
“Meet their friends,” she said. “Never allow them to come to your home until you really know who they are. Take your time.”
“I let my heart lead instead of my head,” she said.
For now, Newell said she’s not ready to date again.
“Let’s put it this way,” she concluded. “I will do everything differently and trusting the right person — Because there [are] good guys out there too.”