John Meehan’s first wife recalls how ‘Dirty John’ terrorized her in new podcast: ‘I was scared for my life’

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Before Debra Newell, Tonia Bales was a victim of “Dirty John.”

John Meehan’s first wife has teamed up with Audible to help share her story in a new podcast titled “The First Wife: John Meehan’s Reign of Terror.”

She details her relationship with the serial predator and unveils never-before-released recordings of Meehan’s “long-held secrets” from former friends and acquaintances, as well as personal accounts from colleagues, close family members and the former couple’s adult daughters.

“I’ve been exploring this idea for the last 20 years,” Bales told Fox News. “When the first ‘Dirty John’ podcast came out, everybody was like, ‘They skipped all the stuff about your time with John.’ I wanted to tell my story for a long time, but the right way. And in this podcast, you’ll hear it from the beginning, including the night we met when I wasn’t looking for a date or anything. And then everything changed in so many ways.”

Tonia Bales has launched a true-crime podcast titled "The First Wife: John Meehan’s Reign of Terror."
(Audible)

Meehan’s case is best known from the popular true-crime podcast “Dirty John.” That series explores the tale of Newell, a California woman who had already been married multiple times and had grown children. After Bales, she later met Meehan, a seemingly charismatic doctor who had just returned from volunteering his services for Doctors Without Borders in Iraq.

While Newell initially thought she hit the jackpot on a dating website by meeting the man she had always been looking for, her kids immediately didn’t trust him. As they made their concerns known, Meehan succeeded in driving a wedge through Newell’s family.

A Los Angeles Times reporter, Christopher Goffard, covered the case and turned it into the widely successful podcast. That led to several true-crime documentaries, as well as a scripted TV series also titled “Dirty John” starring Eric Bana as Meehan and Connie Britton as Newell.

But few people knew about Meehan’s first wife and how her seemingly idyllic marriage also quickly turned into a living nightmare.

The case of John Meehan was previously chronicled in a scripted series titled "Dirty John" starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana.
(Photo by: Nicole Wilder/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Meehan married the Ohio-based nurse in 1990, Harper’s Bazaar reported. According to the outlet, Bales was 25 and Meehan was 31, though he told her that he was 26. None of Meehan’s family attended the wedding, and he insisted that his parents were addicts.

“I wouldn’t necessarily describe him as doting, but I felt loved by him,” said Bales. “I felt cared by him. I just thought we had a normal, healthy life and marriage. He was in law school. I was starting my career in anesthesia. We had a lot on our plates, but it seemed to work.”

Still, Bales admitted that she noticed red flags from the start.

“John had a way of talking you out of anything that your gut was telling you,” she reflected. “Although I may have been naive, I wasn’t shy. I would ask about things that I noticed, like his driver’s license. The night we met, it had a different age than what he was saying, but he talked me out of that. He said he altered his birthday because he wanted to get alcohol in college and get into bars. I thought, ‘Well, I know about people who do that.’ He just had an answer for everything and he was confident about it.”

According to Bales, she later discovered that Meehan was having an affair.

From left to right, Arlane Hart, Debra Newell and Terra Newell attend the after- party for Bravo’s anthology series "Dirty John" world premiere at NeueHouse Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 2018, in Hollywood, Calif.  
(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

“I was blindsided,” she said. “John was basically leading a double life throughout our whole marriage. When I learned about the affair, I also learned he’s diverting narcotics. I helped him become a nurse [after changing professions], a very sacred profession. It was just sickening to me. Here I was, trying to help him gain this prestigious degree and title. And this is what he was doing with it.”

Harper’s Bazaar reported that after 10 years of marriage, Meehan told Bales he wanted a divorce. While she was forbidden from contacting his mother, Dolores, the outlet noted Bales tracked the matriarch down. It was Dolores who revealed that Meehan lied about his birthday and full birth name and that he had a drug charge against him in California. When Bales found Meehan’s hidden supply of surgical anesthetic drugs, she contacted police, who launched an investigation into Meehan in 2000.

“When John filed for divorce, I felt like I had nothing to lose,” said Bales. “That’s why I decided to call his mom, who I’d never spoken to. I was forbidden from having any kind of relationship with her because she was ‘bad people.’ But I had to get some answers. Regarding the affair, I learned it was with a woman in Michigan. She eventually contacted me because her radar was also going off. John and I were still married and she was pregnant.”

Meehan and Bales divorced in 2002, People magazine reported. However, it was far from the end. 

Bales said that after Meehan learned she discovered his “con scheme,” his demeanor immediately became dark.

Tonia Bales today.
(Photo courtesy of Tonia Bales)

“I had to get a protection order,” she said. “He was leaving these threatening voice recordings. I was scared for my life. I just felt paralyzed by him. You’re always looking over your shoulder when someone is threatening you and saying, ‘Enjoy the time you have left.’ He was a terrorist.”

Meehan lost his license to work as a nurse anesthetist after police searched his home and found a loaded 9 mm Ruger in his closet and 45 empty containers from six different medications, Dayton Daily News reported. According to authorities, Meehan used the hospital medications for himself. He also gave medications to his brother, who died in 2000 from an overdose of his own prescription, records showed.

The outlet also noted that another nurse anesthetist reported to the Ohio nursing board that Meehan once carried a gun into an operating room and “exhibited drug-seeking tendencies.” He was also the subject of drug theft investigations in four states, police shared.

Meehan pleaded guilty to felony drug theft but then fled and checked into a hotel in Michigan, Harper’s Bazaar reported. Police found him unconscious, surrounded by drug vials. According to the outlet, Meehan was sentenced to up to six years in prison in Michigan for resisting arrest and possession of drugs. He served 17 months and was released in 2004.

Tonia Bales details her relationship with the serial predator and unveils never-before-released recordings of Meehan’s.
(Audible)

Meehan’s crime spree after his divorce from Bales came to an end in 2016. He attacked Newell’s daughter Terra outside her apartment building. She managed to kick the knife out of his hand, grabbed it herself, and stabbed him multiple times in self-defense. He died four days later at the hospital.

“There was a lot of emotions that came bubbling up,” Bales explained. “First, I had to tell my children what happened. And that was upsetting to me. But I also felt this huge relief that just spilled out. When I found out he was killed, I was at work. I was crying. I wasn’t sad because he was dead. I was crying that all of this culminated into this big event… Something in me always felt that someone was going to die. I just didn’t know if it would be John or someone else. But I knew all of this wouldn’t end until someone was dead. And that’s exactly what happened. But no one ever imagined that it would be a young girl who would kill him.”

“He took advantaged, manipulated and controlled so many women,” Bales shared. “And it was a young woman who took him out.”

Bales said that at first, she didn’t know what to make of the growing popularity surrounding Meehan’s case among true-crime fans.

“Of course, I wanted to learn all I could about what had happened to me and how other women were affected,” she said. “But it’s funny, the whole world is watching your ex-husband be portrayed on TV and his story is exposed. And yet in life, all he wanted to be was secretive. I’m human, there’s some satisfaction in that. This was someone who tortured me and now it’s all being exposed to everyone.”

Today, Bales is remarried and “enjoying my children thrive” while leading a normal life. And it feels good to no longer be afraid.

“I hope all kinds of people find themselves in this story somewhere,” she said. “There’s so much we can learn from my story and John’s behavior that I hope it will save other women. I would love that. The story is bonkers. There’s some entertainment value to it. But in the end, this is a story of survival.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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