Dirty John Part 3: Filthy | LA Times & Wondery Podcast (Transcript)
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Dirty John Part 3: Filthy | Los Angeles Times& Wondery (Transcript)
Length: 47 mins
A listener note: This story contains adult content and language.
Christopher: In March 2015, Debra Newell realized she had married a stranger, a man whose past was a series of fabrications. John had seemed desperately in love with her. She hadn't listened when her family told her his stories didn't add up, but now she had proof... police reports, restraining orders from multiple women, jail and prison records. He was a serial con man, a master of intimidation and, according to the records, he had a nickname that went way back, Dirty John.
Debra hastily cleared her things out of the Balboa Island house they shared. She had to walk away from $50,000 she'd paid on the year-long lease. She began living out of hotels, hiding. John was stuck in the hospital after back surgery with an intestinal blockage. He began texting her accusations that she could not make sense of. That she had hit him, that she'd stolen $10,000 from his wallet. He threatened to call the police on her. He had become unrecognizable to her. He had seduced her with lavish, unending compliments about her beauty. Now he denigrated her looks, mocked her age, ridiculed her attempts to stay attractive at 59. "Five marriages and a family that hates you. You want to see how this plays out? I sure do. You want to see how bad this turns out? You hit me." "You threatened me," She replied, "Enough. You're evil."
He had come into the marriage with nothing. She ran a prosperous business. His motive was coming into focus, "Divide up the stuff and I never see you again," he wrote, "your choice." He said people he knew in the mafia had contacted him; long-lost relatives. He warned her, "Be careful here."
From the Los Angeles Times and Wondery, this is Dirty John. I'm Christopher Goffard.
Part 3: Filthy
Donna Stewart: The mob always had a presence in our home. My grandfather was a holder, is basically what he was. My dad explained to me, is he held money. I remember they would roll the $100 bills up and they'd shove them into the shower curtain. It was so funny. I was 12 years old at the time, I'm like, "Who puts money in the shower curtain rod?"
Christopher: I'm talking to Donna Meehan Stewart, one of John Meehan's sisters. They grew up in San Jose, California where their Brooklyn raised dad ran the Diamond Wheel Casino. People came to play poker, low ball, and pan. The kids cleaned the floors and the ashtrays for money. Donna says that what John and his brother absorbed from his father and the men around him was a set of illicit skills, like how to file bogus lawsuits and pull off insurance scams.
Donna: "This is how you go about doing things, dishonestly and cheating," they taught those boys that. Both my brothers were that way. They knew how to work systems, they knew how to lie.
Christopher: I'm trying to trace John Meehan's path from his childhood in San Jose to the day he lied and charmed his way into Debra Newell's life. I'm trying to find out what he wanted to hide.
Karen Douvillier: Growing up with John was hell. Maybe it was just sampling rivalry, but there was definitely issues with John.
Christopher: This is John Meehan's other sister, Karen Douvillier. She went to Prospect High School with him in Saratoga, California in the mid-1970s.
Karen: He was a very popular because of his sports and he was very good looking, so he was a chick magnet. Had a lot of women, he had a lot of charisma. He learned, at a very young age, how to work it. From as far back as I could remember, he was a straight A student. I think John thought he was smarter than everybody else because everybody told him was, but he had no common sense. He wasn't groomed to take that and be successful and to help other people and be grateful that you were blessed with these gifts. Instead, he was taught to manipulate at a very early age and that's the fault of my parents, especially my dad because that's all my dad knew.
Christopher: She says the family was related to Albert Anastasia, the east coast mobster who ran Murder Inc. This is a name you know if you have even a passing interest in mafia history. Reporters called him the Mad Hatter and The Lord High Executioner and he was famous for eliminating potential witnesses. He died in 1957, riddled with bullets, in a New York City barbershop. You might have seen the photo. John and Karen's grandmother did have the surname Anastasi, but I couldn't find a conclusive genealogical link to the mob family. What matters is that John grew up with this as the family lore and, in the way others boast about forebearers who were on the Mayflower, John bragged about this supposed mafia pedigree.
Karen: If anybody did anything to John, my dad would tell us, "You go out there with a stick and take care of it." It's the Brooklyn mentality of you fight, you get even. If you want to get back at somebody, you don't get back at them, you get back at their family. That's where that mafia mentality came in. John was really influenced by my dad and that's what John locked on to, was the glamor of a mafia family. I look at it now and it's still so weird.
Christopher: The sisters say their mother had an affair with a casino worker and their parents divorced. At the time, Karen was a high school freshman and John was a sophomore and that's when, she says, John started to go really bad.
Karen: It was a very bitter, it was a very angry divorce. We were the all American family, two boys and two girls, and literally, one night, I came home and it was gone. It was blown up and he just hated my mom for destroying the family. I think that is the beginning of John. I think, up until that point, he probably could have gotten some help if my parents would have stayed together long enough, but he got caught the wheel of dysfunction. My other brother was gone, my sister was married, and then there was me, so it was John and I that got kind of dumped.
Christopher: She says John hated his father too. His father encouraged him to join the Air Force. She says the Air Force offered John a free ride through medical school, but he didn't want to give up the years of his life.
Karen: So here he was, he graduated high school, living here and there, working in hospitals as orderlies, and wheeling and dealing, selling cocaine now.
Christopher: She says her brother was obsessed with the James Bond movies, Sean Connery's Bond, suave and beyond the law with a license to kill. That was the image of himself John favored. He had a customized license plate that said, MEE 007.
Karen: He actually went to Santa Clara University for a while but got in trouble all the time. It was just easier for John to just be 007 and to deal with women and money and cars and just hustle. He was a hustler and whatever he had to do to get money, he would do. He was in the Taco Bell and he picked up a piece of glass and put it in a taco and bit into it. The company that my dad worked for was the one who paid the claim, so I don't know if they were both in cahoots on that or what, but I know my dad was hurting for money back then.
Christopher: She tells me another story about a time John jumped in front of a Corvette and accused the driver of hitting him.
Karen: It busted his leg pretty good, but my dad was behind that one and got John a grip of cash, a settlement.
Christopher: The sisters tell me that John got busted for drug dealing, that he testified against a friend in exchange for leniency and that, as part of the deal, he had to leave California. John got a Bachelors of Arts degree from the University of Arizona in 1988 and, that fall, he enrolled in law school at the University of Dayton.
I found a man named Kevin Horan, who happens to be an FBI agent now, but in the fall of 1988, they were law school classmates.
Kevin Horan: I don't know if it was an air about him or the way he wore his clothes or the way he looked or whatever, he just had a look of a California guy. I don't know why that stuck out with me, but it did.
Christopher: He says John didn't make a strong impression as a student; he made his name in other ways.
Kevin: I was living with some buddies right there on campus and they were the ones that really got to know him and I think pretty much coined the phrase that I came to know of him; they called him Dirty John. Again, that had to do with, I think, just him having a little reputation as a ladies' man or something like that.
Christopher: Along with Dirty John, they called him a Filthy John. Sometimes they just called him Filthy. In the fall of 1989, Kevin moved into a house John was renovating out by the cemetery.
Was he secretive about his past?
Kevin: Either I never asked or he just never talked about it, but I guess it speaks volumes to the fact that I don't know anything about him. I hardly know anything at all about it him and here I'd lived with him. I want to say it probably was that semester, I was noticing he was bringing girls back to the house.
Christopher: One of them was Tonia Sells, a pretty young nurse. She seemed so nice and innocent that Kevin had to wonder how John had won her.
Tonia Sells: Here is an intelligent, articulate, decent looking guy at the University of Dayton Law School who seems to have a life together.
Christopher: This is Tonia, who now lives outside of Atlanta.
Tonia: He would tell you story after story about that he just comes from this family that's just not him and that he was able to escape them because other people stepped up into his life and helped make him a great person.
Christopher: The last semester of the second year of law school, John disappeared.
Kevin: Completely vanishes and no one‚ I was talking to everybody and everyone's like, "What happened to Dirty John?" and everyone's like, "I don't know, he just didn't come back."
Christopher: They got an answer when his report card arrived at the house.
Kevin: I remember kind of peering through the envelope, the light peering through it, I remember seeing a bunch of Ds and Fs, so we knew that he was done, that he had basically flunked out.
Christopher: Kevin says John's mail kept arriving at the house, boxes of CDs, credit cards in fictitious names. It was clear that John had been running scams. Kevin says John also took money from an older woman for a roofing job he never completed. I found another law school classmate of John's, Lance Gildner, who says John seemed proud of the credit card swindle; not sheepish about it at all. Lance thought, "This guy is committing felonies."
So the name Dirty John had started with his womanizing, but it seemed to grow and evolve and encompass a bunch of other things that he did, like the housing scams, right?
Kevin: It probably was a conglomeration of many different things that people knew about him, that he was basically this strange, lone wolf guy that did all kinds of scandalous type things and it wasn't just with women. I knew this stuff about Tonia, that he was cheating on her, that people called him Filthy and Dirty John, and he was ripping off little old ladies and stuff like that.
Christopher: John was still in the area and his latest deception was, at once, more audacious and more intimate. He was getting married to the pretty nurse. It's November 10, 1990, at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio. John Meehan, failed law student, is about to marry Tonia Sells, who is about to graduate from anesthesia school. This is the bride's family church where she was baptized and her dad was an altar boy. The officiating priest is her uncle.
Speaker: Heavenly Father, hear our prayers for Tonia and John.
Christopher: The bride is 25; the groom is 31, though she thinks he's 26. He's told her he was born in 1964. She also thinks his name is Jonathan, although his name is just John. He shaved five years off his age and added five letters to his name.
Did it strike you as strange that he didn't bring anybody to his wedding from his family?
Tonia: Okay, well, I can explain that. He told me that his dad was an alcoholic and his mom was addicted to painkillers and that they were embarrassing and that they didn't get along and that the wedding day was about him and he didn't want them ruining it.
Christopher: John fidgets and smirks in his tux through the ceremony. He looks like a boy in a grown up's costume enjoying some fantastic private joke. John wears that glib, devil-may-care expression as his friend, Phil, gives the toast.
Phil: Ya'll don't know John real well and I've known him for about three or four years now. If you talk to any of his friends, as far as the reaction to his wedding, you'll just find out that they're completely shocked and baffled and the reason why, and I think one of the reasons John and I hit it off real well and we're starting to become friends, is we're a little bit skeptical both. To see John really be in love is an inspiring thing for me and, I'm sure, for his friends too. And so, John, I wish you the best of everything and may you live happily ever after.
Christopher: Phil might be describing a guy he's just met for all we learn about him. I tracked down another of John's groomsmen and he tells me how strange the wedding felt, a Don Draper wedding, he calls it. A reference to the John Hamm character on Mad Men who is living under a fake name with a fabricated past.
Phil: John, how do you feel this evening?
John: I feel good. Thanks, Phil. Thank you very much; I appreciate the toast. You did a damn good job and I appreciate everybody being here except Lance.
Phil: So what do you got planned for the rest of the evening?
John: The rest of the evening, drink, frivolity, fun, plundering villages near and far.
Phil: Sounds good.
Speaker: I first met John about two and a half years ago.
Phil: Do you remember any particular anecdotes that happened that really come to mind?
Speaker: One of the anecdotes is‚ No.
Phil: No? We'll try somebody else.
Christopher: There's a blank space where the story should be and the stories his buddies do have aren't repeatable.
Speaker: Let me start by saying this, John Meehan's nickname is Filthy John Meehan.
Speaker: But why?
Phil: Do you remember when you first created that nickname and why?
Speaker: Yes, I do, but it cannot be divulged on camera.
Christopher: After the wedding, watching this video, Tonia is surprised to learn that this is the nickname of the man to whom she has just pledged her life. Tonia asks him about it and he laughs it off, "It's nothing."
Ten years into the marriage, Tonia made a phone call he'd always forbidden.
Tonia: She clearly was shocked to be getting the phone call, but she also said in that phone call, "I always knew you would call me. I always knew that this would happen."
Christopher: Tonia is talking about how she tracked down John's mother, Dolores, in July 2000. Tonia had helped put John through nursing school at Wright State in Dayton and then through the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia and they had two daughters, but now he was leaving her. He had been working at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton and traveling between hospitals in nearby states. He was not a doctor, but a nurse with specialized training in anesthesiology, a nurse anesthetist, and he'd been having an affair with a doctor in Michigan, though Tonia didn't know the details at this point. So Tonia called his mom. She reads to me from her journal.
Tonia: "I told her who I was and that John had left me asking me for a divorce. I told her that he had always forbidden me to talk to anyone in the family, but that now that I had nothing to lose, I wanted to know if she would talk to me and help me answer some questions that I had about John. She proceeded to tell me the following," and I just make bullet point. "John's real birthday is 2/3/59," so that's the day I get confirmation of that, "his birth name is John Michael Meehan; not Jonathan Michael Meehan. He had gotten arrested in California, late 70s," I think it actually early 80s, "for selling cocaine and turned in his best friend as a plea bargain." His mom asked me if he was still using drugs. I was like, "What?"
Christopher: She called his sister, Donna, who told her some of the same things and his sister, Karen.
Tonia: We talked for two hours. In quotes, I wrote. "Will tell women anything to get them to like him." She said he was a genius, got straight As.
Christopher: Tonia searched the house they shared in Springboro, Ohio and found a hidden box containing the powerful surgical anesthetics Versed and Fentanyl. As a nurse anesthetist herself, she knew there was no legitimate reason for him to bring these drugs home. At some point, he'd become hooked on the drugs he was supposed to be giving patients. She told police, who started an investigation. This was September 2000.
Depending on the state and the hospital you're in, when you go in for surgery, whether it's knee surgery or open heart surgery, your life is often in the hands of the nurse anesthetist on duty. They put in the breathing tube, and they monitor your vital signs while you're under, and they control the amount of pain medication you're getting. An MD, that's the anesthesiologist, may or may not be supervising them.
Tonia: Anesthesia, if you're a good anesthetist, you've got some experience, we always say the job is 99% boredom because everything's going right...fff you're doing things right, everything's right... and 1% sheer terror because, when things go bad, they go really bad and if you don't have all your faculties, how are you going to handle something when it goes bad?
Christopher: How easy is it, in that position like John was, to steal the drugs?
Tonia: Extraordinarily easy, but here's the deal. Even though it's easy, anybody can do it, once you start using, it's not so easy anymore because you need more and more and more and more and you get sloppy and sloppy and sloppy.
Christopher: At worst, anesthetists who are stealing drugs and injecting them can miss something vital and kill a patient. More commonly, they leave a patient in excruciating pain.
Tonia: It looks like the anesthetist gave the right amount of medicine and the patient wakes up hurting and in terrible pain and the blood pressure's high and the heart rate is high, and then that's usually how the anesthetist starts getting looked at. Do they have a series of patients who are coming out, it seems like they should be comfortable and they're not?
I supported him when he went to nursing school, I supported him while he went to anesthesia school, and this is what he‚ Put a black mark on my profession and I helped him get there. I had guilt about that. And so that, guilt about that, having him not hurt patients, and protecting my children were my driving force for going to the police and doing what I did to make sure that he was stopped.
Christopher: John's career was unraveling. He lost his job at the Ohio and Michigan hospitals where he'd been working and tried to start over in Warsaw, Indiana. Tonia's friends notified the nursing board there.
Tonia: I don't know any of those details, but he was asked to get treatment. But he accused me of being the one to call the Indiana board to report him, which I had not, and he was threatening me with these phone calls because he thought that I was ruining his life, his career.
Christopher: Police told her to get the threats on tape. She plays them for me.
John: Let me ask you question. Think you can answer me a question honestly?
Tonia: I'm the most honest person that you know.
John: Who called the Indiana State Board of Nursing?
Tonia: Why am I going to tell you that? John, I'm not going to tell you who called. Why would I do that? You're the most vindictive person I know. I don't intend to‚
John: Any of the things you've done haven't hurt me and you haven't done it purposely to hurt me?
John: What were you doing it for, for kicks?
Tonia: No, to protect my children.
John: Yeah, that's a whole different story. I spoke to my mom at great length and she's ever going to talk to you again.
Tonia: John, why do you think that bothers me?
John: Because we had a good long talk, Tonia, and all this stuff you've been telling me is nothing but a bunch of lies, the fact that me getting half of your retirement isn't it bothering you. You spoke to her at great length about how it's bothered you.
Tonia: I think it's wrong, but if you can sleep taking it and you can live with that, then go ahead. That's what I told you from the very beginning. You know that it's wrong. You know that it's wrong.
John: No, it's not wrong.
Tonia: In your heart, you know that it's wrong.
John: No, I know that‚
Tonia: And that's why, from the very beginning, you were going to let me keep it.
John: Yeah, but had you just done things the way I asked you to. But, no, you wanted to cause all this trouble.
Tonia: I'm not trying to cause trouble. I'm trying to find out the truth so I can protect my children. Your family‚
John: The children are the last thing.
Tonia: Your family told‚ Yeah.
John: They are.
Tonia: Your family told me some very horrible things about the person that you really are.
John: Call my mom now and let's see how honest and upfront these horrible things were. None of them were true.
Tonia: So your mom, your sisters, they all told‚
John: My mom was upset. Go ahead and call her now.
Tonia: Well, if you threatened her and made her feel bad for telling me, then, of course, she's going to change her‚
John: I did not threaten my mom, Tonia.
Christopher: Amid the acrimony, they arrange for John to pick up the kids for a visitation. What compounds the awkwardness is that he's been living at Good Samaritan Hospital.
John: I'll pick them up at 10 o'clock.
Tonia: Okay, but I have a question. What about Abby's nap? Do you want to bring her back after a couple hours and then just go out with Em so that she can sleep? You're not going to have any place to lay her down.
John: Yeah, I'll try. Who am I picking her up from?
Tonia: My house. I don't work Sundays anymore.
John: Okay. I'll pick them up at 10 o'clock at your house.
Tonia: Okay, and don't forget a diaper bag and stuff.
John: I won't.
Christopher: John's anger escalates and so do his threats. Tonia plays me more calls.
John: Why the hell don't you just get rid of my last name? I can't stand you using it. One other thing, I have it on excellent, excellent authority, you're the one who's been making the phone calls. Sleep well.
Tonia: What is your problem now?
John: What is my problem?
Tonia: Why are you calling me and leaving me these messages? I don't care what your excellent authority is; I didn't make the phone call. I know who did.
John: Do you know why I have this big smile on my face?
Tonia: Why, John?
John: Because trust me, just trust me.
Tonia: Trust you what?
John: Just trust me.
Tonia: That doesn't make any sense.
John: It don't have to. You'll understand it all.
Tonia: What, the Mafia's coming after me again or what?
John: When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, okay?
Tonia: Remember what, John?
John: Keep that in mind, it was me.
Tonia: Keep what in mind, John?
John: Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, okay? Because that's what it's going to come down to.
Tonia: And who's going to take care of your children?
John: And if I'm wrong, Tonia, I'll buy you a fucking Cadillac, okay?
Tonia: What do you mean "if you're wrong"? What does that mean?
John: If I'm wrong, I'll buy you a Cadillac.
Tonia: If you're wrong about what?
John: Keep that in mind.
Tonia: If you're wrong about what? You're not making any sense.
John: Listen, sweetheart.
Tonia: I'm listening.
John: I've got a big smile on my face and you know why? Because it's going to get done.
Tonia: What's going to get done? You're not making any sense.
John: Well, you don't have to. You will understand it when the time comes. That's all I got to say.
Tonia: Yeah, and who's going to take care of your children?
John: I'll take care of them.
John: Because I'll be in Bermuda having a big fucking Cuba Libre with a 22-year-old when it happens.
Tonia: That's nice.
John: Keep that in mind. I swear to fucking God, if there's one thing that happens on this earth, it's going to be you.
Christopher: She thinks her crime, as he saw it, was in calling his mom. It was unforgivable to pierce the veil of his past.
Tonia: That's a big deal to John Meehan. He don't want people sharing information about him behind his back because that ruins everything. That ruins his stories because none of it's true. None of what he says is true.
Christopher: I've got to say, one thing that struck me about those recorded calls, though, was he's making these threats to you and, at one point, you're like, "Come pick up the kid and don't forget the diapers," like you're‚ Even as you're terrified of this guy, you have to do the child handoff. That's kind of insane.
Tonia: Exactly. And if you don't turn your kids over, guess who goes to jail? You; not them. The reason for even bringing up those things at the end was he was living in his call room at Good Sam. He didn't have a house, he didn't have a place to visit with the children, he didn't have a place to put a child down for a nap.
Christopher: She says he never hurt her. She says he got a day of anger management classes for the threats and that's it and police couldn't seem to make a case on the drugs he'd taken.
Tonia: I didn't really know what he was necessarily capable of doing, but I was scared out of my skin. I don't know if the whole thing made me nervous or‚ It's just when you've been living a lie for 12 years and, one day or over the course of a few months, you find out that it's all been made up and it wasn't true, it really rocks the core of who you are and what you believe is true and honest and good in the world. That's something that's hard to explain to someone who maybe has never had to experience that. You can be smart in the brain and not smart in the heart or not have a lot of life experiences or street smarts to come across even characters who are 10% of what John was, people who lie to you or cheat you or steal from you. I'd had a pretty easy, normal upbringing, childhood and everything, and this was my first experience with evil.