Spoilers ahead for Bravo’s Dirty John and the Los Angeles Times podcast. Episode 3 of Bravo’s Dirty John delved deep into the life of a woman that John Meehan had been manipulating long before he ever came into contact with the show’s primary subject, Debra Newell. Tonia Sells was John Meehan’s first wife, and she felt the horrors of his behavior long before Debra became enamored with him.
Despite Episode 3’s foreboding conclusion, during which John’s character threatens Tonia over the phone after she begins to unravel his lies and secrets, the real-life Tonia escaped the situation unscathed. A LinkedIn page that appears to belong to Tonia — now known as Tonia Bales — suggests she lives in Georgia and still works as a nurse. And amid the release of the Los Angeles Times’ Dirty John podcast that inspired the show, Tonia spoke out about her years married to John, and what she thinks now looking back.
In an interview with Megyn Kelly, Tonia said that her former husband’s behavior with Debra wasn’t as shocking to her as it might look to outsiders. “We’ve known [his true colors] 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.
Those who listened to the podcast also know that John ultimately met his demise after he attacked Debra’s daughter, Terra, and she fought him back to a fatal extent. Tonia said while she wasn’t sure how John would go down, she always feared someone would lose their life. “Some of it’s a surprise, exactly how it happened was a surprise, but we knew that this was going to end in someone dying,” she continued in the same interview. "We just didn’t know who.”
Tonia’s made it clear that she thinks it’s important for her to come forward with her story now that everything is said and done. As the show and the podcast both explored, John lied to Tonia during the 12 years they were together just as he did when he began dating Debra. Though the show tells things a little differently, Tonia actually began digging around for secrets when John unexpectedly asked for a divorce.
“[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. “That’s what allowed me to get the courage and finally start looking and digging. … I started searching, I got some clues from his mom 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.”
In the time since John’s story became widespread, Tonia has made it clear that she thinks it’s important to speak out about her experience. “I think there’s a lot of lessons here. One of them is listen to yourself. Don’t let people 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 the same interview with Extra. “The other thing is just awareness about abuse. Abuse isn’t just sexual and physical. This is a different kind of abuse, this is coercive control. I think just getting that out there is important.”
It can’t be easy to watch such a devastating time in your life unfold on TV for everyone to see, but Tonia said she shouldn’t be embarrassed, and she’s right. John was a master manipulator, and Tonia’s story shows that by the time he met Debra, he was an old pro at living a double life.
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