Believing in Tony's Existence


July 21, 2006 — -- Who is Anthony Godby Johnson? The 14-year-old boy wrote a heart-rending story: he was dying of advanced syphilis, AIDs, had his leg amputated, and 54 broken bones.

Over the course of a decade, his story sparked the interest of a publishing company, a movie studio, and this network. But is it a true tale? Even more basic, does the boy even exist? Or, as some believe, was it all a hoax?

The story that may have drawn in hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers across the country began in Union City, New Jersey. Tony lived, the story goes, above a Union City drugstore with Vicki Johnson, a social worker who had adopted him.

She'd saved him from a harrowing life in New York City where he'd been abused and forced into prostitution by his parents. Tony suffered endless ailments and wound up with AIDS.

The story was first told in an inspirational autobiography, "A Rock and a Hard Place," an astonishingly impressive work for a 14-year-old. Published in 1993, the book has had six paperback printings.

When the heartbreaking story attracted the eye of movie makers, agent Ron Bernstein sold Tony's book to HBO.

"I said to HBO, 'don't do your usual cheap deal with me. This kid is dying! You gotta do it for the kid,'" said Bernstein. "[It] made people feel good about themselves. It was, 'I don't care how bad my life is, there's somebody whose life is much worse and they're not beaten down.'"

Bernstein was among those charmed over the phone by the boy. Tony spent hours talking with friends and supporters, including San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin.

"He would call just out of the blue and start talking to me," said Maupin.

Maupin says it didn't strike him as odd that he was developing a friendship over the phone with a 14-year-old boy.

"It struck me as wonderful. He was saying 'I love you' in the way that a kid says it to a parent or an adult that's really close to them," said Maupin. "It's a level of intimacy that was quite extraordinary, maybe even stronger because it was on the phone -- just a voice in the night talking to you who seems to understand you, to respect you, to need you."

According to Maupin, Tony was on the phone, connecting with a lot of people on a regular basis, including an ex-nun and a rabbi. Maupin says the rabbi came from Israel to see Tony and was turned away at the door.

Each time Maupin tried to visit, the apartment in Union City was off limits, with Vicki saying the boy's fragile health prohibited visitors. Maupin, like many other admirers, settled for pictures of the boy, sent out by his adoptive mother.

Bernstein says Vicki told him that Tony was nearing "death's door." "[He] was so fragile that he couldn't see anybody because their germs could kill him."

Tony's increasingly dramatic story was part of a 1997 ABC special on abused children hosted by Oprah Winfrey. In the special, Tony was played by an actor, but, allegedly, his own voice told his story, and it was seen by millions of people across America.

Bernstein describes Tony's voice as "very strangely androgynous."

In a clip from the special Tony says, "I was bought for an hour, sometimes two, or maybe for a whole night."

It was a story that sparked deep feelings and sympathy in people.

"I've not met Tony Johnson, because there is no Tony Johnson to meet," said Terry Anderson, who was Armistead Maupin's business partner. Anderson suggested a shocking possibility: the voice they'd all been speaking with sounded oddly feminine because, maybe, Tony's mother was playing both roles.

"For six years, my brain was divided down the middle," Maupin said. "There were days when I would talk to Tony and think, 'this is clearly a boy, why would I ever doubt this?' and other days when I would think, it's her [Vicki]."

But in those six years, Maupin says he never asked the crucial question: are you a fake?

"How do you do that? Do you say, 'excuse me, are you fake, are you really a 40-year-old woman?'", asked Maupin. He says if he had questioned Tony over the phone, he would have been doing the one thing that he says you're never supposed to do: doubt the story of an abused child.

Maupin turned his agonizing personal debate about the suffering boy into a novel, "The Night Listener."

One day, out of the blue, Bernstein says he got "The Night Listener" in the mail. "I read it because Armistead is a client. I was so stunned. I called Armistead and I said, 'are you sitting? I was the agent for that kid. I sold his book to HBO. I cannot believe you had the same experience that I did.'" Bernstein said he and Maupin talked for an hour, both aghast.

Bernstein admits he never questioned if anybody was lying. "I was talking to two voices, Tony and Vicki." But Bernstein says he began to have his own doubts when a lucrative deal, to turn Tony's book into an HBO movie, collapsed because Vicki said Tony was too sick to let anyone from HBO meet him.

As time went on, Bernstein took note that a boy on the brink of death kept hanging on for years with a bushel of ailments.

Maupin agrees that he found the number of ailments a bit unbelievable, too. "It did get more and more melodramatic, and as it did, my doubts grew."

Four years ago, when "20/20" first began looking into this story, we hired expert voice analyst Tom Owen.

He was asked to compare tapes of Vicki's and Tony's voices.

"You're hearing rhythm, you're hearing cadence, you're hearing pitch, you're hearing mannerisms. So, if the same individualistic traits exist in Tony's voice and in Vicki's voice, it's my opinion that it's the same voice," Owen explained.

But if Tony doesn't exist, who wrote "A Rock and a Hard Place"? Either the mastermind behind a huge hoax, or the embattled guardian of a sick boy's privacy -- depending on whom you believe -- graduated from a Union City high school in 1975. Her real name was Joanne Victoria Fraginals.

Years after Tony's book was published, she moved to Illinois and married child psychologist Marc Zackheim.

The Zackheims, who live at the end of a private road, declined to speak with "20/20." But faxes sent by Dr. Zackheim insisted that Tony's story was true and has already been proven. He accused Maupin of spreading lies for commercial gain.

ABC received other letters in support of Tony, some from people claiming to have met him. One letter said, "Tony exists" and "is a beautiful and deep soul."

Bernstein's response to the people who still believe in Tony? "There are still people that believe in the tooth fairy." What's most interesting, Bernstein says, is not that Vicki may or may not have been Tony, but that people wanted to believe that Tony exists.

The movie version of "The Night Listener" will come out in August. Robin Williams stars as the writer, Armistead Maupin, who, for a long time, wanted to believe in Tony. Williams says he's known Maupin for 30 years. "He became obsessed with the idea of finding out who is this person."

Maupin adds, "It was very difficult for me. I didn't stop thinking about it. I didn't stop speculating over it. I didn't have any proof, so all I could do was turn to fiction."

Maupin says the movie is a fictional reflection of the complicated emotions he felt after bonding with Tony and Vicki on the phone and never being allowed to meet the boy.

"I think maybe Tony was her [Vicki's] imaginary friend. He was certainly mine," said Maupin.

Haunting questions remain. If Tony never existed, who is the boy in the photographs people received? And if Tony does exist, why over the years have no official records or tangible evidence been uncovered or provided?

The 14-year-old who didn't have long to live would now be 28 years old. Jack Godby, who wrote the introduction to Tony's book, tells us he still keeps in touch with him by email and by phone, although he admits, after all these years, he's never met Tony in person.

Tony Johnson's tale has been played out in print and on television, and now -- a fictional version -- will soon be in theaters. But, will we ever find out definitively whether or not Tony still exists, or if he ever did?

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