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Much of the story surrounding "Dirty John" Meehan—a conman and convicted criminal who spent most of his life manipulating and terrorizing women—focuses on who he was as a romantic partner, but it sheds little insight into who Meehan was as a father.
The role of dad was one he played sparingly to the two daughters he had with his first wife, Tonia Sells Bales, but Emily Meehan's few memories of her father paint a picture of a man who once tried to gain his children's love with lavish gifts before eventually cutting off all ties with his young daughters.
Emily, 22, John's oldest daughter, spoke with Oxygen.com to discuss her memories of her father, her reaction to the podcast and the Bravo "Dirty John" television show that was inspired by her father's devious deeds, and the unique bond she's formed with Debra Newell and Newell's daughters since the story took a deadly turn.
"Dirty John," starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, just aired it’s finale on Bravo, but the story first gained attention in the "Dirty John" podcast hosted by Christopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times.
The podcast revealed Meehan’s sordid past including a lifetime of cons, drug addiction, threats against women and his marriage to Debra Newell, a successful interior designer, who fell under the convicted criminal's spell and believed his lies.
But many years before Meehan met Newell, he was living as an Ohio family man, working as a nurse anesthetist with a wife and two small children at home.
The decade-long marriage to Bales would come to a sudden end after John announced he wanted a divorce, while carrying on an out-of-state affair. Before long, John's secret drug addiction would also come to light, leaving his one-time family reeling from his deceptions.
"Dirty John" The Dad
Emily was just five years old when her dad left the house and her parents got divorced. Her younger sister, Abby, was only a baby.
"Most of my memories are from when we had our few scheduled visitations and that was very weird for me because they had to be supervised and they were very spread apart because he was in and out of jail or he just wouldn't show up," Emily told Oxygen.com.
Shortly after John and Bales got divorced, he pleaded guilty to felony drug theft after being caught stealing powerful anesthetics from his job as a nurse anesthetist and served 17 months in a Michigan prison, according to a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times that ran as a companion to the "Dirty John" podcast.
When Meehan did show up for his scheduled visits, Emily remembers he "acted like a dad," but said he was always trying to buy his daughters love with gifts.
"Of course as a little girl, that was so fun to me," she said.
As she got older, the contact between them continued to be sporadic and Emily said she began to learn more about how Meehan had treated her mother.
"My mom never hid anything from me. She was honest but she never trash talked him, which I think was important," she said, adding that she was able to determine her own opinion of her father.
For a while, Bales had a five-year protection order against her former husband because he called and threatened her life after discovering she had reported his drug use to police.
The series of calls, which she had recorded for police, were played on the podcast. In them, Meehan can be heard telling her to "enjoy your time left on this earth."
Emily had only known her father as a fun-loving dad, but as she grew, the truth about her father began to emerge.
According to Emily, the family would eventually relocate to Georgia, with the court's permission, to be closer to other family members.
Her father had given her a cell phone to keep in contact with her and her sister when they were apart. By this time, Emily said she was becoming a "sassy teenager" and decided to confront her father about his past behavior after he had asked her to call him.
She texted him, "I know who you are. I know what you've done to my mom."
Emily said the text enraged Meehan.
She said he "flipped" on her like switch, shutting off her phone and never speaking to her again — except for than one cryptic tweet years later.
"It was very abrupt. I had nothing to offer him anymore and he was done, and I was 12," she said.
But despite the fractured relationship with her biological father, Emily said she and her sister always grew up in a loving home. Her mother soon got remarried and both girls became close with their step-father, Augie Bales.
"He picked up almost right away and raised me and my sister and we never really grew up with a broken family," she said. "I've always had a stable family for the most part."
For many "peaceful" years, Emily said her family moved on with their lives and tried to put Meehan in the rearview mirror.
Then in 2015, he unexpectedly sent his oldest daughter a tweet with a picture of the two of them together. He told her he needed to talk to her and that he was proud of her, a comment Emily found "odd."
She and her mom thought the compliment may have been "bait" for Emily to let him back into her life.
"I don't know why he would want to talk to me, it's not like I had anything to offer him, neither money nor affection," she said.
She decided not to respond, but admits that it was tempting.
"I think at a young age, I craved his attention just because it was very rare, and I think it came back to me that oh, after all of these years, he wants to talk to me," she said. "I kind of had a glimpse of that feeling and thankfully I didn't fall for it because nothing good would have come out of it."
On an episode of the Murderish podcast, Emily told host Jami Rice that despite the lack of contact between the two, John continued to use photos of his daughter at his home and even used a shot of himself with his daughter as his profile picture on Match.com to portray himself as a doting dad.
"He used me and Abby and his father figure as a way to attract women," she said.
Lingering Unanswered Questions
The lone series of text messages in 2015 was the last communication Emily would ever have with her father, she told Oxygen.com. Meehan was killed the next year after he had tried to attack Debra Newell's daughter Terra. Terra stabbed Meehan repeatedly in self-defense after the knife he had been carrying fell from his hand as the two struggled on top of a parking garage.
Emily would hear the news after her white coat ceremony, a formal ceremony in nursing school to welcome her into the profession and celebrate the transition from classroom learning to clinical learning.
In an ironic twist of fate, as the family was driving up to attend the ceremony and visit Emily, Emily said her younger sister Abby had seen some prisoners working alongside the road and had mentioned her dad and his death someday, not knowing he had already died.
When their mother told the girls the news after the ceremony, Emily said Abby got "very, very emotional."
Emily initially thought her father had killed Terra in the exchange, but after learning Terra had overcome her father, with the help of her dog and a pair of rubber boots she'd been wearing, she said she initially found his death "humorous."
"It sounded like a movie," she said. "It sounded like this was scripted."
In the weeks that followed, however, the reality set in and his death became more difficult to deal with as she was forced to confront the realities of what type of man her biological father had been not only to her, but to other women he came in contact with.
"I got upset because I started to think about things and dig up the past," she said.
She now has lingering questions that will never be answered about what her father's real motivations were during his life.
"If he was here right now, I would ask him, what was your plan when you married my mom and you decided with her that you wanted children? Was this going to go on forever?" she asks.
Emily has also questioned whether her relationship with her father would have taken a different course if she had been a boy.
"It's clear that he does not like women and I wondered if our relationship would have been different or if he would have tried more," she said.
Entering The Spotlight
In some ways, the podcast and subsequent television show featuring her dad and his manipulative ways has been a cathartic healing process, but learning about the man her father was has also been difficult to come to terms with.
It's been more difficult, she said, to see it play out on television.
"It's been harder to see the show because now I have a visual and to just see it being played out is very surreal," she said.
The scenes related to her family have been particularly difficult to digest.
"It's hard to imagine that when I was a little girl, my father left and was threatening the woman who gave birth to me that he was going to kill her," she said. "I don't know where I would be, I don't know how my life would have turned out if that would have gone through, because he was not going to raise me."
Despite her father, she and her sister have gone on to lead successful and happy lives.
Emily is working as a labor and delivery nurse in Atlanta, Georgia after graduating from nursing school in May.
She also has her own Youtube channel, Em & Dex, that documents her life with her fiancé, an intensive care nurse, in a series of video blogs.
The pair plans to get married in September.
Her younger sister Abby is a freshman in college. Although her major is undecided, Emily said her sister has an interest in forensics and psychology.
The success of the podcast and television show has catapulted the family into the spotlight, an experience that Emily described as surreal.
Although she only told a few coworkers about her connection to "Dirty John" the news quickly spread among the large labor and delivery hospital where she works.
"At least once a shift someone will ask me about it," she said.
She's taken the new found attention in stride, but also said it's bittersweet.
"My biological father is still a criminal, he's nothing to be proud of," she said.
New Found Friendship
One silver lining in the whole experience, is that Emily and her sister have formed a close bond with the Newells, particularly Terra, after each suffered in their own way under John's destructive and deceptive behaviors.
Emily and Terra continue to talk on a regular basis and, because of their unique link, are able to understand one another in a way no one else can, she said.
"We have an unspeakable bond and I think a lot of people are surprised by that, you know, just the circumstances, but I am actually fond of these women," she said. "They are very kind-hearted and we just show a lot of love and compassion for one another."
While John caused a lot of damage and destruction in his life, his daughters may be "the only good things he left behind," Emily said.
To learn more about the incredible true story, tune in to Oxygen’s “Dirty John, The Dirty Truth” airing January 14 at 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central.
[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.]
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