true crime

Before he targeted Debra Newell, John Meehan married Tonia Sells. This is her story.

Debra Newell’s life was turned upside down in mere months after meeting John Meehan online.

The now-notorious con artist and predator behind the Netflix series Dirty John had wooed her on a dating site, before striking up a whirlwind romance based on an expertly-spun web of lies involving a concealed criminal history, false claims he was a doctor, and a hidden drug addiction.

After they were married, he manipulated her for money, terrorised her family, and ultimately had her fearing for her life.

But there was a victim of John’s dark side similarly manipulated before her – his first wife Tonia Sells.

Portrayed in the eight-part series by Sprague Grayden, Tonia fell just as hard and fast for Meehan as Debra – drawn to him instantly by his false charm. She only became aware of the horrors behind his behaviour 10 years in to their marriage, and after two children.

The two met out dancing when she was nursing at age 25. He had followed her to the bathroom, she recalled, and struck up a conversation.

He was 31 at the time, but claimed to be 26. They wed in November 1990 and, as portrayed in the Netflix series, the real footage of their nuptials is where we learnt of John’s problematic nickname “Filthy John” – seemingly alluding to his treatment of women.

“Let me start by saying that John Meehan’s, John Meehan’s nickname is ‘Filthy John Meehan’,” a friend muses in the snippet below.

Throughout their 12 years together – 10 as a married couple – Tonia even helped put John through nursing school.

But then, as if out of nowhere, John demanded a divorce. This is where things went pear-shaped to a terrifying degree.

Tonia, in search of answers to explain his unexpected behaviour, tracked down John’s mum Dolores – who John, having explained that he was from a dysfunctional family, had claimed he was estranged from.

Dolores revealed John’s real age, and filled Tonia in on his previous drug charges, of which she had been completely unaware. Soon after, Tonia searched their Ohio home and found hidden boxes of prescription drugs, like Versed and fentanyl, which John had stolen from work. She also discovered he was having an affair.

“[I didn’t start investigating his past] until the end — until he asked me for a divorce and I was like, ‘Something’s not right here,’” Tonia said in an interview with Extra below. “That’s what allowed me to get the courage and finally start looking and digging… I started searching, I got some clues from his mum who I’d never met, I searched his office, and I found drugs and an affair. That’s how my knowledge of who he was started.”

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Fearing for their kids’ safety, Tonia contacted the police to report the stolen drugs, and John subsequently lost his job at Good Samaritan Hospital. This is when the aggressive calls began.

Tonia Sells Bales and daughters Emily Meehan (left) and Abigail Meehan (right). Image: Facebook.

Tonia began recording his calls, including one where he directly threatened her.

"When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, OK? [...] Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, OK? Because that’s what it’s gonna come down to," he told her.

Tonia reported the deeply concerning message, and John was convicted of menacing and given a suspended sentence.

This is when John moved on to his next victim, Debra.

As portrayed in the series, after months of manipulating Debra and terrorising her family, John was killed by her daughter Terra in self-defence - during a fight for her life when he had attempted to kidnap her.

Since his death, Tonia has been living in Ohio, and now goes by the name Tonia Sells Bales. It is unclear whether she has remarried.

Tonia Sells Bales, Abigail Meehan, Emily Meehan and family. Image: Facebook.
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She's been involved in some of the press surrounding the series, including attending the premiere with her daughters, who were pictured with Eric Bana on the night.

They've also grown close to Terra Newell since John's death.

 

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Hey dad, long time no see. ????

A post shared by Emily Meehan RN, BSN (@ematyourcervix) on

Speaking on the US Today Show, Tonia said she had "kept an eye open" on her ex-husband, even after they had separated. She says his fate came as no surprise.

“We’ve known [his true colours] for a long time. This is all new to you guys, but we’ve been watching him and watching his story and kind of keeping an ear and an eye open with a detective in Ohio for the last 17, 18 years,” she said in an interview with Megyn Kelly.

"So, some of it's a surprise. Exactly how it happened is a surprise. But we knew that this was going to end in someone dying. We just didn't know who."

That said, Tonia admits it was difficult to tell her kids about John's death.

"I wasn't in tears because he died, I was in tears because I had to tell his children," she explains in the video below, while her daughter Abby says, "we're kinda happy that he's gone, a weight has been lifted off our shoulders".

You can stream the entire first season of Dirty John on Netflix now.

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