Dirty Johns: con artists and their victims of love

Debra Newell was 59 years old and had been married four times when she met John Meehan. She was successful, she ran her own design firm and she was well off. Meehan looked like he was homeless, but said he was a doctor. He said he had been to Iraq. 

Within two months, they were married. Newell might have been convinced it was true love, but her family had their suspicions and  they were right. They discovered that not only was Meehan not a doctor and had never been to Iraq, but he was also a convicted criminal and drug addict. He had stolen money from jobs he never completed, committed credit card fraud and staged insurance scams—orchestrating accidents for pay-outs. He had also conned and abused numerous women before Newell (leading to an array of restraining orders against him), which is exactly what he did to Newell when she finally cut it off. He set fire to her car, he posted naked photos of her online and eventually, he came at one of her daughters with a knife.

Newell’s story seems incredible— and it is: it’s the basis of a hit podcast, Dirty John and a Netflix adaptation, after all. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only one like it. For starters, there’s the whole list of Meehan’s other victims. Then there are the people who were also taken in by con artists who used romance as a means of getting closer. Like Newell, a lot of them met their johns through dating websites. 

Dating scams reached new heights in the UK in 2016, alongside the number of people using dating websites.

Alicia Grant met Michael Middleton in New Hampshire. Or rather, that’s where they got married in 2013, after meeting online. Grant said that Middleton appeared at first as the perfect man: attentive and considerate. He just happened to have a habit of asking her to buy things for him, like computers, clothes and cars (she later found out he returned many of her gifts and kept the cash). Their relationship ended when he hit her. He was arrested for domestic violence, but then disappeared.  It was only when she was trying to track him down so she could have the marriage annulled that she found out the full truth about Middleton: she wasn’t the only woman he had conned. The ‘Cupid of Chaos’ was a bigamist who had managed to convince at least three other women in different states to marry him, before swindling them out of their money, too. Grant says he conned her out of $20,000.

Similar to Meehan, Derek Allred posed as a doctor (as well as a pilot, fire fighter, banker, lawyer and war veteran) to get women to open up (and more importantly, release funds) to him. His tactics were similar: pretend to be the perfect man. The 49-year-old travelled across America, seducing and deceiving women. It’s thought he could have had almost 30 victims, from whom he took $1.8 million. He’s now serving a prison sentence for 24 years. 

Recently, New York Times journalist Abby Ellin released a book about her own experiences with a con man. Duped details how she was, well, duped into believing her fiancé was a physician who was in the Navy, worked with the CIA, had received a Purple Heart and oh, planned the raid on bin Laden— nothing special. Unlike the other victims, she met him when he provided an expert comment for an article she was writing. Like the others, he fast-forwarded their courtship and proposed after just a few months. Their relationship lasted for a year before Ellin left him and started investigating his claims, which she realised were patently false. This was news to his two ex-wives and girlfriend, too. 

We’re not immune in the UK from these kinds of cons, either. Dating scams reached new heights in the UK in 2016, alongside the number of people using dating websites. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau estimated that there were 3,889 victims that year alone in fraudulent ‘relationships’ that cost them £39 million. The reasons given for requesting money could be anything from medical bills, food and rent, to building projects in Malaysia—whatever, as long as it seems plausible and necessary. They follow the same MO.

Tosin Femi Olasemo was a Nigerian student living in the UK. To the women he met online, though, he was the American war hero Captain Morgan Travis, living at a remote base in Afghanistan (it’s pretty hard to meet up IRL when you’re on a military base, after all). He found women on Match.com, convinced them they were in a relationship with him (or rather, Captain Travis), then stole hundreds of thousands of pounds from them. He was sent to prison and will be deported upon release.

Earlier this year, two Northern Irish women fell victim to romance fraud, as well (police issuing a warning just days before Valentine’s Day). One was fooled by someone who said he was a soldier (one of the most common types of scams) who was being held by authorities in Africa. The other said he was an American engineer who needed money for his projects. In total, the two women were scammed out of £105,000.

And before you think it’s just women that are victims of the lonely hearts club, men are included in those numbers. One 67-year-old man from Doncaster lost almost £100,000 to what he thought was an American woman named Donna. He then got a new American girlfriend, Sherry. He sent her money, too.

Why do people fall for these scams, sometimes over and over again? Ask Ellin, who said she had seen the red flags but had stayed anyway. Why? The usual reasons: loneliness and the promise of love. As we all know from documentaries like Dirty John and Catfish, you can pretend to be whomever you want online. Once you have your target’s trust and even love, abusing it becomes the next step. The victims aren’t stupid; they’re usually just lonely and looking for love, willing to take a bet on their new relationship.