Like many people across the country, I was completely absorbed in the Los Angeles Times’ podcast “Dirty John,” which was released last month. It tells the true story of a successful interior designer in California who fell in love with a charming doctor named John Michael Meehan, only to discover he was not the great catch he initially seemed to be.

Successful people – like this interior designer, Debra Newell – need to be aware that they could be the target for someone looking to scam others. For our private clients at Hillard Heintze, we often look into the backgrounds of potential business partners, new members of household staffs and other associates to reduce the risk of them falling victim to theft and other crimes.

What Public Records Research Can Reveal

In the case of “Dirty John,” much of Meehan’s checkered past that is detailed in the podcast would be found in a typical public records background investigation:

  • Meehan was connected to numerous Social Security numbers and a large number of addresses, one of which was the address of the Orange County Jail.
  • Meehan was a licensed nurse anesthetist, not a doctor as he claimed. He held nursing licenses in multiple states, but all were suspended or revoked. According to the minutes of a February 2002 Indiana State Board of Nursing meeting, a witness testified that “there were drugs missing from facilities in which Mr. Meehan was employed” and Meehan “was sending drugs through the U.S. mail to his brother in California, who subsequently died of a drug overdose.” Meehan was “currently incarcerated in Dayton, Ohio for one (1) count of diversion.”
  • Meehan filed for bankruptcy in 2005, demonstrating a history of financial problems. He reported in his bankruptcy petition that he had just $4,160 in assets, $354,454 in liabilities and made just $6,197 in income in 2004.
  • Meehan was a convicted felon who spent time in prison. He had been convicted of menacing, drug theft, stalking and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
  • Court records showed Meehan “had seduced, swindled and terrorized multiple women, many of whom he had met on dating sites while posing as a doctor,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Multiple women had filed restraining orders against Meehan, and he was released from jail for violating one of these orders just two days before he met Newell online.

Don’t Ignore the Warning Signs

Eventually, Newell discovered many disturbing facts about Meehan’s past. Some of her children even hired a private investigator to dig into his background. But she was married and in love, and she stayed with him longer than she should have.

As investigators, we cannot control how our clients react to the information we give them. But as this story reinforced to me, conducting public records research early on can often prevent making huge mistakes down the road.


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