When Wondery and the Los Angeles Times first released the Dirty John podcast in the fall of 2017, the gripping tale captivated listeners who downloaded it in droves. The six-episode series told the story of con man John Michael Meehan, who earned the "Dirty John" nickname when he was a ladies' man while attending the University of Dayton in Ohio as an undergrad.
Though the podcast did provide some backstory about John Meehan's early life, education, and first marriage, it largely focused on his manipulation and verbal abuse toward his second wife, Debra Newell, and her family.
John Meehan died in 2016 when Debra Newell's youngest daughter, Terra Newell, stabbed him in self-defense during an alleged attempted abduction. A scripted TV series based on the podcast debuted on Bravo in 2018, and the story of John Meehan and his lies has continued to keep the public enthralled.
While many know of John Meehan in relation to his life with Debra Newell, the con man first had a family with Tonia Sells Bales (who went by Tonia Meehan at the time). The pair had two children together during their 10-year marriage, and Tonia Bales only found out the true extent of her husband's deceit as their marriage was coming to an end.
She's speaking out about the John Meehan she knew in the new Audible podcast The First Wife: John Meehan’s Reign of Terror — and she discussed the series and her marriage to a "psychopath" with Distractify.
What happened to John Meehan's first wife, Tonia Sells Bales?
The nurse first met John Meehan when she was out with friends after working a shift at a hospital in Ohio in 1988. He claimed that he was a 24-year-old law student at the University of Dayton, and that John was short for Johnathan.
The lies began right away, but Bales didn't know it yet; Meehan was actually much older than he said he was, and his birth name was John. When Bales saw his real birth year on his license at the bar on that first night, he claimed that it was a fake ID he had used to buy alcohol, and that he hadn't yet gotten around to fixing it.
"He would never falter in being able to quickly have an answer or an explanation, or to ease my anxiety about those things," Bales told Distractify about how easy it was for her ex to lie. "It started, honestly, in the first 15 minutes that I met him."
She said that her ex sought her out because he knew right away that she was "naive and vulnerable." It took her years to figure out that he was a "psychopath."
The two got married in 1990 (none of John Meehan's family members attended), and they later welcomed two daughters together: Emily and Abigail "Abby" Meehan.
Their union came to an end in 2000, and the couple divorced. She later contacted some of Meehan's family members for the first time, and she learned more about his past run-ins with the law and his battles with drug addiction.
Tonia Bales has since gotten remarried, and her two daughters are now adults. The family is "thriving and happy" in Georgia.
"We're survivors of this ... There are so many people who feel stuck, and like they can't ever get out or live an authentic life where they are respected," Bales said. "I am here to tell you that it is possible."
John Meehan's first wife, Tonia Sells Bales, is now telling her side of the story in a podcast.
From her first meeting with John Meehan to how her happy domestic life first began to unravel to how she learned about her ex-husband's passing, Tonia Bales is telling all in The First Wife: John Meehan's Reign of Terror.
"None of us were ready..." Bales said about the popularity of the Dirty John podcast and TV show. "There's been a lot of growth from when we found out that John had died until today."
When Bales first learned of John Meehan's death, she said that she began "trembling."
"I always knew that something was going to go down in a big ball of fire — I just didn't know when or how..." she shared. "It was unimaginable to me, and I felt like I was in some sort of dream and that I was going to wake up."
Working on the series proved to be "healing" for Bales and her daughters, who are speaking publicly for the first time about their late father.
"This has helped my children to understand who he was and that they played no role in what John did. It's not their shame," she concluded. "Now, they can stand in their truth."
You can listen to every episode of The First Wife: John Meehan's Reign of Terror exclusively on Audible. The series comes from Aliza Rosen's AYR Media and Audible, Inc.