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Crime News Crimes of Passion

What Happened To "Dirty John" Meehan's First Wife, Tonia Sells?

Tonia Sells Bales spent years living in fear of her ex-husband, John Meehan. Her story ended very differently than Debra Newell's.

By Jill Sederstrom
Dirty John, The Dirty Truth is Coming this January

For more than a decade, Tonia Sells and John Meehan seemed like a perfect pair. The couple were both hard-working nurse anesthetists with two young daughters at home.

But after Meehan's double life was exposed, including a secret drug addiction and an out-of-state affair, their nine-year-long marriage crumbled. Sells, who now goes by Tonia Sells Bales, began to see a much darker side to the man she once called her husband.

"I felt a danger and a fear once things flipped in our relationship," Bales said in an episode of a podcast called Murderish.

Meehan began to threaten her with menacing phones calls saying things like, "Enjoy your time left on this earth," and, "It's gonna get done," after Bales found powerful surgical anesthetics among Meehan's things and reported it to police.

The recorded calls were played on the Dirty John podcast, a series hosted by Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times that explored Meehan's sordid past. Meehan's crimes and marriage to Debra Newell are also chronicled in the Bravo limited series "Dirty John" starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, which is based on the true story that is the subject of the Dirty John podcast and related LA Times article.

While much of the "Dirty John" story focuses on Meehan and the terror he inflicted on his second wife, Meehan's devious deeds can be traced back much further to his first marriage.

Even years after the two had divorced, Meehan was reportedly trying to find someone to kill his one-time wife, as well as two police detectives and other potential witnesses while waiting in an Orange County Jail in 2013 after threatening yet another woman, according to the Los Angeles Times.

This menacing, violent man was a stark contrast from the man Bales thought she knew.

Their romance would begin after the two met one night while out at a bar. Bales was already working as a nurse anesthetist and had gone out with friends when she struck up a conversation with Meehan, who was standing near the bar's bathrooms.

The law school student was charming and friendly, and they soon began to see each other regularly.

"He has a way of being so interested in you and attracted to you," she'd later recall in Murderish, calling the attention he'd give as almost addictive.

The pair got married in November 1990 at a Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio, and would begin a seemingly pleasant life with one another. Bales helped support her new husband while he went to school to become a nurse anesthetist after dropping out of law school.

The pair had two daughters and Meehan was a playful, loving father, according to the Los Angeles Times.

There were no signs of anger or violence among the couple, who rarely argued with one another.

"He was mostly always enjoyable to be around," Bales told Murderish.

That is until one day,  when Meehan asked for a divorce.

His wife was shocked by the seemingly abrupt declaration, but she'd soon discover an affair he'd been having with an obstetrics and gynecology resident in Michigan in addition to a massive drug addiction he had been hiding from her.

She wanted answers, so she decided to reach out to Meehan's mother, Dolores, who she had never met before. Meehan had always told her he came from a dysfunctional family and she had never questioned their absence in his life until he wanted a divorce.

" I told her that he had always forbidden me from talking to anyone in the family, but 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,"  Bales said in the Dirty John podcast, reading from her journal.

Her mother-in-law would tell her that not only had Meehan lied about his age, pretending to be five years younger than he actually was, but he'd also had an earlier drug charge in California he'd been hiding.

As Bales' knowledge of the man she had married grew, so did Meehan's anger toward her, especially after she reported finding the surgical drugs Versed and Fentanyl hidden in their home to police.  

Police started an investigation in 2000, but the two continued to share custody while they were going through a divorce.

"It was awful," she said, telling Murderish host Jami Rice that her greatest fear was that Meehan was planning to steal their children and take off with them.

Meehan began verbally threatening Bales in the phone calls she recorded. Thanks to this evidence, he was convicted of menacing and given a suspended sentence, according to the LA Times.

Bales said she also got a protective order against Meehan that lasted for five years, adding further space between the two. 

Meehan was granted supervised visitation with his children, but after just a few visits Bales said Meehan decided to stay in California and lost contact with the family in 2005.

They had little contact in the years that followed, but Bales kept up with Meehan's activities through regular reports from Dennis Luken, an investigator with the drug task force at the Warren County Sheriff's Office in Ohio.

"I always knew when John wasn't bothering me he was on somebody else," Bales would say in the Murderish podcast. "That always bothered me because I would have wanted nothing more than to warn that other woman, but to do so would have put my life in danger and he would have been right back at me."

She focused on healing by reading self-help books and going to counseling with her young daughters.

"I've got a good sense of humor. I've got a great support system," she said on Murderish. "I've also kind of made it my mission that John took a lot of me, he took a lot of years of my life, and I just decided I am not going to let him have anything else."

Happily, she'd find love again, marrying another nurse anesthetist.

"He helped me raise my two girls and he's been an amazing father and role model for them and a protector for all of us," Bales said of her second husband.

Although she was always worried Meehan could be "lurking" around a corner, she said she's had a relatively calm and peaceful life in the years since the divorce.

Attention! Spoilers Ahead:

In fact, Bales hadn't spoken to Meehan in years — although he'd tried to reach out to their daughter on Twitter in 2015 — when she learned he was in the hospital with serious injuries after he had attacked Newell's youngest daughter, Terra, in August 2016. Terra had miraculously gotten the upper hand and snatched the knife when it fell from Meehan's hand, and began stabbing him repeatedly in self-defense. Although he died at the scene, he was revived by emergency medical responders and would remain on life support for four days before he died, the Los Angeles Times reports.

By the time Bales learned of the attack, Meehan was being taken off life support. She never went to say goodbye or see the body, but she realized that there were many things she'd never get to say to her ex-husband.  

She decided to write him a letter after his death that said many of the things she had wanted to say over the years.

"It was like, 'You hurt no one but yourself,'" she said in the Murderish podcast. "'You have two beautiful children, who love God, who have beautiful lives and we're going to be fine," she said.

She sent the letter to Meehan's sister and asked her to place it with his body.

As the story has been thrust into the spotlight first in the Dirty John podcast and again in the dramatized version based on the story airing on Bravo, Bales said there are important lessons that can be taken away from her story.

"Listen to yourself. Don't let somebody talk you out of those clues you might be getting about somebody. I trusted him more than I trusted myself, and that kind of blew up in my face," she said in an interview last month with Extra at the series premiere.

[Photo: Emily Meehan, Tonia Bales and Abigail Meehan attend the after party for Bravo's anthology series 'Dirty John' world premiere at NeueHouse Los Angeles on November 13, 2018 in Hollywood, California.]