Jan Stewart Memorial Wellness Lecture: My Life With Dirty John: A Story of Addiction, Deception, and Survival
Tonia Bales, CRNA, informed the audience from the start that the story she was about to tell was not a typical case of substance use disorder or addiction. She emphasized the story bears no resemblance to Jan Stewart’s story, and she does not want to glamorize what happened. Her motivation is to help CRNAs save the life of a colleague or loved one.
“So much will seem obvious,” she cautioned. “Keep an open mind, do not judge too harshly.”
Bales is the one of the ex-wives of John Meehan, disgraced CRNA. Meehan became infamous as the subject of a six-part series in the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Goffard. The series recounted his womanizing, manipulating, sociopathic, drug-filled, life and death: “Dirty John.” The articles then spawned a successful podcast, a fictionalized Bravo TV series, and a documentary.
Bales spoke of how she met Meehan in 1988, how he was a law student, she was an OR nurse, how they became involved, married in 1990, and subsequently had two children. Yet she never met his family, especially his parents, or even spoke with them. She began to notice little things that didn’t add up, but Meehan would explain them away.
She pointed out in her talk that at this point she did not own a computer, and this was in the days before Google search.
Before she met him, Bales said, Meehan had kept on the move, always changing locations so that no one knew him more than a year or two at a time.
After they had been married for a year, Meehan told Bales that he wanted to abandon law school and become a CRNA. He said he wouldn’t be happy being an attorney. He got his BSN in 1995, went to anesthesia school at Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia and graduated in October 1998. At this point they had been together for almost 10 years. They moved to Dayton, had one child, Emily, who was born in 1995, and were planning the rest of their family. Daughter Abigail came along in 1999.
Meehan began working locums as a new grad in Michigan. At that time, you couldn’t practice in Ohio without having taken your boards. You could practice in Michigan after graduation and before boards.
Meehan went on a trip to Arizona, and came back, leaving a suitcase unpacked in the bedroom. He went on another trip, and Bales was doing laundry. She unpacked the suitcase, found a syringe, it had been used, the barrel was still wet. She tucked it away, hid it. She had it tested – it was positive for benzodiazepines and opioids. Bales confronted John, who told her a plastic surgeon had told him to inject for a cyst under his eye, and then lance it. Bales never saw any evidence of a cyst.
Bales told him, “If you have a problem, I’ll help you.” He got nasty, showed a flip in personality. Bales backed down as she already knew he was lying, and didn’t press him.
They separated. She wondered, “Why is he leaving me?” and went to call his family. She called his mom – she had never met John’s mother, never spoken to her. His mom said, “I knew you’d call me one day.”
Bales snooped in John’s office. She found one woman’s photo circled with directions to a hotel in a woman’s handwriting. She also found a box of drugs: Fentanyl, versed, key fob, nail polish. She kept a watch on the narcotic box inventory. Is John leading a double life? She found out he was having an affair with an OB resident in Michigan for the past 18 months, which was prior to the time Meehan and Bales conceived their second daughter.
Bales filed for divorce in the Spring of 2000. Meehan’s brother died of a drug overdose in September 2000. His family did not want Meehan to come to the funeral. Bales reported the drugs, and death of Meehan’s brother to local police. The case was assigned to the DEA in December 2000. Bales met with two agents in Cincinnati.
She opened the hard drive of a shared computer. The hard drive revealed Meehan’s emails to his brother. Among other things, he told his brother that Versed is a drug that makes you see double, and feel single.
An investigation ensued. Meehan’s patient charts were reviewed. The physician anesthesiologist agreed there was a problem. Witnesses saw Meehan with a gun in his OR briefcase. A meeting was held with Meehan, the director of the pharmacy, and the anesthesiologist. Meehan asked the police if he could leave the room, and spoke in the hallway with the anesthesiologist. The anesthesiologist came back into the room, and said he saw no problems with Meehan or his charting. It’s believed Meehan had something on the anesthesiologist and blackmailed him.
Meehan moved to Warsaw, Ind. The board of nursing was alerted to the investigation. Meehan was referred for treatment, he didn’t go. He moved back to Ohio, and threatened to have Bales killed. Bales reported Meehan was threatening her, the local police instructed her on how to put a wire tap on her phone and record their conversations. Bales played examples of some menacing things Meehan said in their conversations.
He continued to move around. Meehan went to work in Fort Hamilton, Ohio. Fentanyl went missing his first week on job. The entire department was required to provide urine samples. Meehan did not go, he went to get coffee. Witnesses saw him taking a cold urine specimen from a Foley bag of a patient on the floor. Confronted, Meehan fled.
Bales met with Detective Luken, Warren County Drug Task Force. It had been a year and a half since Bales reported Meehan. Bales was a CRNA also, the investigators had to rule out that she might be setting him up. Meehan had taken up with a woman who spoke with the detective, saying Meehan had asked her to provide a urine sample for him. He was working in Maysville, Ky. The detective had his apartment searched. They found multiple vials of drugs and a gun. Meehan was already on probation for threats he had made to Bales. He was arrested on a probation violation.
Bales listed the things she thought she knew about Meehan:
He was born Feb. 3, 1964
His name was John Michael Meehan
Was a law student at University of Dayton
Impassioned interest in Bales
Wanted marriage and children
Strained relationship with dysfunctional family
Escaped dysfunction by being taken under wing of basketball coaches
Here’s what she found out by July 2000:
Born Feb. 3, 1959
His name is John Michael Meehan
Drug use/cocaine trafficking and arrest in 1980
Turned state’s evidence against best friend to get himself off
Telling family he is an anesthesiologist
Life of deceit
History of “staging accidents” for lawsuits
Has been mailing Versed and Fentanyl to his brother in California
Another hospital, more drugs missing. This time the hospital refused to report it.
In April 2002, Meehan’s drug theft hit the newspapers: “Drug Theft Nurse Still Licensed.”
Detective Luken interviewed Meehan briefly in jail. He bragged he could show the detective 400 ways to remove drugs from hospital. He was found guilty on one felony count. He got six months in jail.
Meehan requested 24 hours before he had to report to jail. He was a no show. Detective told Bales to get kids and hide. Meehan drove to Michigan, got drugs, was found unconscious in a hotel. First responders gave him Narcan, he jumped out of the ambulance, grabbed drugs as he fled. He ran into a mall, into the JC Penney’s store. Vials were falling out of his pockets. He scuffled with police. Was sentenced to serve 17-60 months in a Michigan jail. He served the minimum, 17 months, due to overcrowding. He requested joint custody of his two daughters with Bales, moved to California. After a psychiatric evaluation, it was determined he was a flight risk with the two kids.
Over the next decade, Meehan hospital- and doctor-shopped to feed his addictions. He also shopped women, with more exploits of manipulation and coercion. He would often obtain nude photos of the women, or a secret, and then extort money.
As LA Times writer Christopher Goffard said, “Monsters don’t always look like monsters.”
Meehan found a very wealthy, divorced writer from Brazil and convinced her to transfer money to him. He convinced her to transfer $39 million! In 2013, Meehan was again arrested, this time in Palm Desert for felony burglary and more. A search warrant was issued – they found guns, cable ties, binoculars, flashlight, cyanide – all in the refrigerator.
From jail, Meehan tried to hire a hit man. His targets were two female cops, Bales, and two other women from his past. He offered $10,000 per body. A fellow prisoner reported him.
The Last Wife
He was finally released in October 2014. Within two days he had set up an account on OurTime.com, a dating site. In another two days, he made contact with Debra Newell, who had a $9 million model home and clubhouse design firm.
He passed himself off as a doctor. He had prescriptions because of PTSD and back problems. His car and belongings had been stolen, he said, while he was in Iraq.
Five weeks later, Newell rents a house for them to live together. She paid for a year in advance. She lends him a car, a Tesla. Eight weeks later, they are married.
Newell’s two daughters are highly suspicious. Meehan doesn’t want them to be around. The daughters, Jaquelyn and Terra, put a GPS tracker on the Tesla, and discovered Meehan was not going to work, as he said. He would leave, and come back a half hour later after Newell had left, and played video games all day.
Troubles began, they separated. Newell took him back, then began divorce proceedings, went into hiding. He sent nude photos to her clients.
Bales showed a receipt from Walmart in Nevada, dated August 9, 2016. Among other things, he bought a butcher block of knives – and "they were not in his dishwasher." On August 20, 2016, 5 p.m., Newell’s daughter Terra arrived at her home with her dog, Cash. She didn’t notice the truck parked next to her with the trunk open. Meehan attacked her. “Do you remember me?” he said. He stabbed her. Terra is 5 feet, 2 inches tall; Meehan is 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
Terra’s dog bites Meehan around the feet and ankles. Terra manages to knock the knife out of his hand, and it falls near her hand. She stabs him 13 times. The final blow goes through his left eye into the brain. He was still alive.
Later it was found that Meehan had had a “kidnap/kill” kit in his trunk. His intentions were not clear other than he meant harm. He had removed the truck's license plate.
There were good Samaritans on the scene, Meehan had been seizing and apneic on the scene. They provided CPR.
On August 24, 2016, Meehan was declared brain dead, and his sister removed life support.
Multiple prescriptions by multiple doctors were found at Meehan’s residence. Also acetone and bleach, which can combine to form chloroform.
Terra was stabbed in the upper stomach and forearm, but was otherwise physically unharmed.
As stabbings in Newport Beach are rare, writer Christopher Goffard wrote the series of articles about the Newell portion of Meehan’s story in the LA Times.
Session moderators Bridget Petrillo, MSN, CRNA, and Linda Stone, DNP, CRNA, then followed Bales' presentation with their questions about resources she felt had been available to her. Bales spoke about not having a lot of education in her anesthesia program about substance use disorder (SUD), and that she hadn't known about AANA's resources. She thought that if she had known about them, she might have called. All three advocated for "If you see something, say something, do something." Bales felt it was a responsibility to keep patients and co-workers safe, and that she must report what she saw. She reported to the local police, rather than the board of nursing, as she felt the police had the authority to take it forward.
Bales felt that Meehan was abusing their profession and she had an obligation to help him lose his license. She went on to say that she wanted to be a "model for my kids. Life is going to send you some really bad stuff. With integrity, and the support of loved ones, you can make it to the other side. Live a joyful life."
Read the LA Times series here:
Part 1: The Real Thing
Part 2: Newlyweds
Part 3: Filthy
Part 4: Forgiveness
Part 5: Escape
Part 6: Terra