Searching For Tony


Jan. 12, 2007— -- Who is Anthony Godby Johnson? To many, he was a 14-year-old author with a heart-rending story: he was dying of advanced syphilis, AIDs, had his leg amputated, and had suffered 54 broken bones -- both at the hands of his biological parents, and others. The story that first aired on "20/20" in July 2006 now has fascinating new developments.

For more than a decade, Tony Johnson's story sparked the interest of a publishing company, a movie studio, and even this network. But was it a true tale? Does the boy even exist? Or, as some believe, was it all a hoax?

The story that captivated millions of readers and viewers across the country began in Union City, New Jersey. Tony lived, the story goes, in Union City 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 biological parents.

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

Eventually, the heartbreaking story attracted the eye of movie-makers. Ron Bernstein, an agent at the well-known talent agency International Creative Management, Inc., 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 says he 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 phone friendship 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."

Tony's increasingly dramatic story was part of a 1997 ABC special titled "About Us: The Dignity of Children." Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the Emmy-nominated special about the resilience of children was watched by millions. Tony himself was played by an actor, but his own voice narrated his story.

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

Tony says in the show, "I was bought for an hour, sometimes two, or maybe for a whole night."

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

According to Maupin, Tony was on the phone, connecting with many 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.

Maupin says that each time he tried to arrange to meet Tony in person, Tony's adoptive mother Vicki would say the boy's fragile health prohibited visitors. Maupin had to settle for pictures of the boy, sent out by Tony and Vicki.

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."

One of the first people to suggest a hoax was Terry Anderson, Armistead Maupin's former business partner and former boyfriend. "I've not met Tony Johnson, because there is no Tony Johnson to meet," said Anderson. Anderson also 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, ICM agent Ron Bernstein received "The Night Listener" in the mail. Until then, he says he had not known that Maupin had a phone friendship with Tony. "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 the $125,000 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."

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

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

The Zackheims declined to speak with "20/20." But faxes sent last summer by Dr. Zackheim insisted that Tony's story was true and had already been proven. He accused Maupin of spreading lies for commercial gain.

And a few days ago, Vicki Johnson's lawyer sent ABC a new, 140-page response to our story. It included signed affidavits by the Zackheims and three other people swearing to have met Tony. However, none of these people would discuss Tony with us directly. Also, the lawyer asserted that medical and adoption records for Tony exist, but will not be provided to ABC because they are "privileged and confidential." Further, the response contends that claims that Tony does not exist are an attempt to promote the movie version of Armistead Maupin's novel, "The Night Listener." "The Night Listener" was released by Miramax, a sister company of ABC, Inc. Just yesterday, Ms. Johnson's attorney accused ABC News of "bias and disregard for the truth."

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

Jack Godby, who wrote the introduction to Tony's book, told "20/20" he still keeps in touch with Tony by email and by phone, although he admits that after all these years, he's never met Tony in person.

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 Maupin's "The Night Listener" was released in August and comes out on DVD this week. Robin Williams plays the character Maupin based on himself. Williams says he's known Maupin for 30 years. "He became obsessed with the idea of finding out who is this person."

Maupin added, "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 with a laugh.

When "20/20" first broadcast this story in July, a haunting question remained. If Tony never existed, then who is the boy in the photographs people received? Like Maupin, Terry Anderson struggled to conjure the true identity of that boy -- a boy they only knew as Tony. "Somebody out there in the world knows who that is," says Anderson.

Of the many millions of people who saw the original "20/20" broadcast and the special web link which asked, "Do you know this boy?," exactly three people came forward to tell ABC the real name of the boy featured in the photos.

His name is Steve Tarabokija, not Anthony Godby Johnson. And he is not a writer suffering from life-threatening maladies, but is instead a very healthy traffic engineer from New Jersey.

As one can imagine, Steve was surprised when he received a call from an ABC News producer telling him the details of the story. "It was shocking. It took a couple of days just to sink in," he told "20/20."

So how did childhood photos of Steve Tarabokija come to be misappropriated, allegedly by Vicki Johnson? One viewer who came forward to identify "Tony" as Steve was Cary Riecken. She was watching at home the night of the original "20/20" broadcast.

"I said, I know this child! This is Steve!," tells Riecken. Steve, along with Riecken's son, Hassan, were classmates together at the Sacred Heart grade school in North Bergen, New Jersey. The school has since closed. As it turns out, Vicki Johnson was Steve and Hassan's fourth grade teacher. It may have been that Vicki used the photos of her young pupil in order to put a necessary face on a story that so many people believed.

Recalling her memories of Vicki, Cary Riecken explained, "She loved taking pictures of the children all the time. Her role as a teacher was not just as a teacher. She was like a friend to them." Steve's memories are similar. "She was a very nice teacher, one of the nicest that I've had." Nice or not, Steve's mother Lisa is not amused. What would she say to the alleged hoaxer, Vicki Johnson? "How dare you use my son's pictures? How dare you?," she told "20/20." Ms. Johnson's lawyer did not respond to "20/20's" questions about Steve's photos.