The first time I met John Meehan, a.k.a. “Dirty John” of the now infamous podcast presented by Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard, was in 2011 at the Chateau Marmont, where he was on a date with my friend.
Like Debra Newell, my friend, who I’ll call “Kate,” was a beautiful and successful woman in her 50s when she met John on a dating website.
We were both living in Los Angeles. She had carved out a lucrative career in PR, and I was working as a journalist while also putting in countless hours at a private-investigation firm to get my own PI license.
John told Kate that he was a globe-trotting anesthesiologist who volunteered his services in Iraq and, like Debra, after a few dates Kate became convinced that she had found the perfect man.
When I heard Debra Newell and John’s twisted love story, I was shocked by the similarities I’d noticed in his relationship with Kate.
He claimed to be super successful … but never seemed to have any money
At that first dinner, John sat directly across from me, and I quizzed him politely about his work. His responses were strange: He went into exhausting detail about the ratio of gases to liquids during procedures as if he was quoted a medical textbook. I thought it was odd — as someone whose entire family works in the medical field, I know that most doctors do not go into detail about their graphic surgeries at dinner.
When I asked questions about his education, he claimed that he had gotten a medical degree in the Philippines — from a school that I “never would have heard of.”
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” he said. It was supposed to be a joke, but his tone was cold and the comment clearly wasn’t a compliment.
The flash of anger passed quickly, but left a lasting impression on me. I knew that for someone with a psychopathic personality, the role of your partner is just another gig — and they try hard to stay in character.
When the check came, John seemed strangely panicked. Rather than simply splitting the check, he made Kate go through the entire receipt by candlelight, circling everything that she had ordered.
When his car, a beat-up Ford Explorer, pulled up, I wrote down the license-plate number so that it would be easier to follow him later.
“I think his story is bullshit,” I told my boyfriend at the time after we left dinner. “He’s trying too hard. It’s like that Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can, when he’s pretending to be a doctor and walks around in the white coat looking really serious and saying ‘I concur’ all the time.”
When I later listened to the Dirty John podcast, it came as no surprise that John continued his charade for years. In fact, by the time he met Debra, he had upped his game and was wearing surgical scrubs everywhere.
He was her “Insta-Soulmate”
Like Debra, Kate was divorced. She had wonderful friends, a beautiful home, and disposable income — everything she wanted except a partner.
John declared his love for her by the second date and started pushing for a commitment. Kate was unsure at first, but felt flattered by the fact that such a “catch” put her on a pedestal.
Like Debra’s daughters Jacqueline and Terra, I noticed red flags right away. Kate’s description of him playing videogames all day and constantly catering to her every need were completely at odds with every surgeon I had ever known.
Over coffee, I challenged her when she told me about all of the sweet things he did. “Don’t you think he seems a little too good to be true?” I asked her.
She seemed upset, and I felt guilty: Would she think that I was trying to say that it was implausible that such a catch, a wealthy surgeon who owned multiple homes, could not fall in love with her at first sight? That she herself wasn’t a great catch?
Friends and family tried to warn her
The day after we met for coffee, I checked the California State Board website and found no record of a Dr. John Meehan.
I mentioned this to Kate, and when she questioned him about it, he texted her photos of his medical degrees. She forwarded them to me, but the print was too small to read.
She felt reassured, but I had the sinking feeling that he had purposely sent her unreadable documents. He later berated her and told her that her “nosy” friend was just jealous.
Another night, he rented a room for him and Kate at the Sunset Marquis. Again we were at odds: Where she saw romance, I saw a red flag — why wasn’t he inviting her back to his place?
Over the next few weeks, his behavior began to get even more weird. He broke a couple of dates, and claimed that he had been sleeping all day after a “marathon surgery.” When he did answer the phone, according to Kate, he sounded stoned.
He claimed to be groggy from the long surgery, but his bizarre behavior was more reminiscent of a drug dealer than a dedicated professional.
That’s when I started doing an official background check, and a few hours later, I fallen down the rabbit hole. I told Kate that I saw that John had aliases, at least five social-security numbers, and no proof that he had ever owned a home.
I also found evidence that while John had worked as a nurse anesthetist, he had never been a doctor.
But when she asked him about the discrepencies, he turned on the charm again and told her that he adored her so much that he’d lied in order to impress her. He couldn’t imagine, he said, that someone as successful as her could love someone like him.
The next day, I found something more disturbing: An old article in the Enquirer detailing John’s criminal past. According to the article, he pleaded guilty in 2002 to drug theft and did 17 months in a Michigan prison.
He was arrested after kicking a state trooper who was trying to force him from a hiding place above an elevator in a Saginaw mall. He had allegedly stolen drugs from terminally ill patients, and been banned from working in the medical field in several states.
I looked up the address Kate had sent me for him and — without telling her what I was doing — decided to start surveillance.
I parked outside the house where he claimed to live with his sister for several hours. Eventually John came home, but the woman he went into the house with embraced him in a way that would only fit the definition of family in a V. C. Andrews novel.
I later met Kate for happy hour drinks — and brought her boyfriend’s mug shot with me. Fortunately, she listened to what I had to say, and ended her relationship with John that night.
She wanted to confront him with the information I’d found, but I encouraged her not to. “Whatever you do, don’t break up with him while you’re alone with him,” I told her, “because that’s the most dangerous time for a woman in a relationship with a psycho.”
Kate thought I was overreacting, but she did take my advice. John seemed to accept the breakup — but she later had to insist that he return her house key, and ended up changing the locks anyway because she was so freaked out by the brief flashes of his anger she had seen.
Though she only dated John for a few weeks, she later admitted that he had begun talking about his medical problems, and dropping some serious hints that he may need to borrow money for kidney treatment.
She admitted that she was embarrassed by the fact that he had conned her. But as with Debra and many of the other women who posted stories about dating John on WomanSavers.com, John exploited Kate’s weakness — the fact that she was looking for love.
Goffard told Stuff magazine that the podcast Dirty John is “a cautionary tale about the ways that a sociopath, like a predator, can find the victim and tell these victims exactly what they want to hear.”
After John and Kate broke up, I tried to keep track of him. Part of me wanted to warn other women that he was dangerous, but I told myself that I was being paranoid. I had no proof, and I doubted that they would listen to me anyway. Also, John had a tendency to blame “psycho” exes or “meddling” friends — anyone but himself — for relationship problems.
I later found out that he had some choice words to say about Kate’s “nosy” friend when he found out that I had run a background check on him. But Debra’s family suffered a far worse fate.
On August 20, 2016, Meehan was carrying a knife in a Del Taco bag when he grabbed Debra’s daughter Terra in a parking lot. Although he slashed her several times, she managed to grab the knife and struck back, stabbing Meehan and killing him in self-defense.
When I read about the attack, I got a chill and couldn’t help remembering what happened after I showed my girlfriend John’s mug shot.
“Thank you,” she said. “You saved me a lot of time.”
“That guy is a real creep,” I told her. “Someday you may end up telling me I saved your life.”