To most people, there's something about John Meehan (Eric Bana), the grinning con-man at the heart of Dirty John, that just doesn't sit right. Debra Newell's (Connie Britton) daughters, Terra (Julia Garner) and Veronica (Juno Temple), pick up on John's strangeness right away. So do her son and her nephew.
But Debra? Debra's in love. She's so enamored with John's kisses and smoothie-making skills that she denies any possibility of shadiness. This episode of Dirty John, we realize "love" — or the illusion of it — is John's greatest weapon. Debra is hardly the first woman to fall for his tricks. John has a pattern of making successful, independent women fall for him, then slowly leeching their success (and sanity) away from them. In this episode, we meet Tonia Sells (Sprague Grayden) Meehan's first wife, the mother of two of his children — and the notable victim of this destructive pattern.
How did Sells and Meehan met?
In 1989, someone should have warned 25-year-old nursing student Tonia Sells (who now goes by Tonia Bales Sells), that her charming new boyfriend wasn't who he said he was. He wasn't excelling at his studies at the University of Dayton Law School — he had flunked out. He was't 26 years old, as he'd claimed — he was 31. And he wasn't a stand-up guy. After witnessing Meehan carry out credit card swindles and bring girls back to his room, even when he was dating Sells, his roommates in Dayton gave Meehan the nickname "Filthy John Meehan."
But no concerned bystander stepped in to shatter Sells' picture of Meehan. To Sells, Meehan was an "intelligent, articulate, decent looking guy at the University of Dayton Law School who seems to have a life together," as she told the L.A. Times' Christopher Goffard in the podcast Dirty John.
So, on November 10, 1990, Sells married Meehan at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Dayton, OH. The wedding, by all accounts, was strange. Meehan's family didn't attend. In fact, Meehan forbade Sells from contacting his family at all, a rule that stood throughout their marriage (until Sells, frustrated by Meehan's shiftiness, went rogue — but that's for later).
At the wedding, Meehan's friends, all of whom only knew Meehan for a short period, expressed their disbelief at his getting married. During his toast, Meehan's friend Phil outright said, "If you talk to any of his friends, as far as the reaction to his wedding, you’ll just find out that they’re completely shocked and baffled. To see John really be in love is an inspiring thing for me and, I’m sure, for his friends too." It appeared as if Phil didn't believe Meehan to be capable of love — and said that at his own wedding.
Still, Meehan and Sells remained married for 10 years. In that time, Sells helped put Meehan through nursing school. Like Sells, he became a nurse anesthetist, a nurse with special training to administer anesthesia. Meehan got a job at Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton. They had two daughters together, Emily and Abigail Meehan.
Why did Sells and Meehan get divorced?
In 2000, Meehan asked Sells for a divorce. Following this out-of-the-blue announcement, Sells broke Meehan's Golden Rule. She contacted Meehan's mother. Sells recalled to Goffard in Dirty John, "She clearly was shocked to be getting the phone call, but she also said in that phone call, 'I always knew you would call me. I always knew that this would happen.'" Sells also spoke to Meehan's sisters, Donna and Karen. In those conversations, Sells learned about her husband's real past: Meehan was arrested for selling cocaine and was a regular drug user.
After speaking to Meehan's family, Sells searched her Ohio home and found stashes of prescription drugs like fentanyl, which John had stolen from his job at the hospital. Being a nurse anesthetist as well, she knew Meehan must have stolen the drugs – he had no need to take them out of the hospital for work. Sells contacted the police and began an investigation, resulting in Meehan getting fired.
Meehan, furious about losing his job, sent Sells threatening voice mails: "When it happens, Tonia, and you see it in your eyes, remember it was me, okay?...Tonia, you enjoy your time left on this earth, okay? Because that’s what it’s gonna come down to." After reporting these threats to the police, Meehan was ordered to go to anger management. He pled guilty to felony drug theft in 2002 and served time until 2004.
For Sells, this was a deeply upsetting experience. "I didn’t really know what he was necessarily capable of doing, but I was scared out of my skin. I don’t know if the whole thing made me nervous or… It’s just when you’ve been living a lie for 12 years and, one day or over the course of a few months, you find out that it’s all been made up and it wasn’t true, it really rocks the core of who you are," Sells told Goffard.
To make matters more complicated, Meehan was also having an affair with a doctor in Michigan (they had a daughter together, too).
Where are Sells and her two daughters now?
While Dirty John focuses on Debra Newell and her daughters, Sells and her daughters are an essential component of the story, and were a huge part of Goffard's investigative podcast. For them, this has been a long time coming.
"We've been watching him and watching his story and kinda keeping an ear and an eye open with a detective in Ohio for the last 17, 18 years," Sells said on The Today Show. "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."
All three women appear to be thriving — though they're obviously affected by their time with Meehan. Emily, the eldest daughter, was 5 years old her father asked her mother for a divorce. Afterwards, Meehan was an absentee parent. Emily recalls him missing all recitals and events in her childhood, but occasionally sending gifts in the mail. "I wonder if it would've been different if I was a son," Emily wondered aloud during an interview on the Murderish podcast earlier this year. "It seemed that John didn't like women."
While Meehan wasn't a present father, he used his family when it was personally convenient. Emily claimed he had photos of her framed in his apartment and mentions of kids in his Match.com profile. "He used me and Abby and his father figure as a way to attract women," Emily said on Murderish. Luckily, Emily says she took after her mother. She's about to graduate from nursing school.
Following the ordeal, Emily and her sister, Abigail, are friends with the real Terra Newell. They can understand each other better than anyone else.
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Missing some of my favorites today.... @ematyourcervix @abigail_meehan 3 days together was not enough! 😭😭😭😭 Also a special thanks to @unistudios for getting them Universal express day passes! #universalstudioshollywood #universalstudios #minions #christmastime #dirtyjohn #dirtyjohnbravo #dirtygirls #thedirtydaughters #nike #euninajeans #urbanoutfitters #redfoxgoodclothes #ivieyewear #chloe ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• What I’m wearing..... Sunglasses: IVI eye wear at The Red Fox in Corona Del Mar, California. @redfoxgoodclothes Bodysuit: @urbanoutfitters Jeans: @euninajeans Shoes: @nike @nikewomen Purse: @chloe