A cold lead has come back to life in the half-century-old case of stolen baby Paul Fronczak after a man came forward to claim he knows who took the child so many decades ago: His mother, infamous con woman Linda Taylor.
“My mother was capable of anything. Not only stealing a baby, but she could steal you,” Johnnie Harbaugh said in an interview to be broadcast Saturday on ABC News “20/20”. “She was just that kind of woman. You know, she done whatever it took for her to survive.”
Baby Paul Fronczak was stolen from a Chicago hospital a day after his birth in 1964 by someone posing as a nurse, launching a nationwide search for the child and his kidnapper. Just over a year later, a toddler of the right age was discovered abandoned in Newark, N.J. and the FBI believed they had closed the case, at least as far as the missing boy went. The parents, Dora and Chester Fronczak, happily took the baby in, believing it was theirs, and raised him as their own.
But then, nearly five decades later, the 49-year-old man raised as Paul Fronczak took a DNA test to find that he was not, in fact, the Fronczaks' biological child. Now he’s on a mission to solve two mysteries in his life: Who is he, and what happened to the real Paul Fronczak?
The Fronczak parents have maintained their silence publicly for years, but this week offered their first statement to ABC News, saying, “We wish Paul well in his search…” and “we continue to cooperate with the FBI… in our hope for answers.”
Following the first “20/20” report on the stolen baby in November, ABC News “20/20” received hundreds of new clues in its tip line from people around the world hoping to help. That’s where Johnnie Harbaugh comes in.
Harbaugh, 64, said his mother was Linda Taylor, a notorious figure in Chicago in the 1970s and 80s, dubbed America’s “welfare queen” and vilified by President Ronald Reagan. In a televised speech, Reagan said a state government committee accused Taylor of a wide array of crimes and said the committee discovered she used up to 100 aliases and 50 false addresses.
ABC News had begun looking for a connection between Taylor and Fronczak after a vague clue came through the tip line.
“The baby was stolen by a lady known as the ‘welfare queen,’” the tip said. “She had many, many schemes to get money and would have most likely sold the baby.”
Do you think you can help solve the case? You can contact the FBI by emailing Chicago@ic.fbi.gov or by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI, or you can contact ABC News’ Barbara Walters and Brian Ross by writing in to the private tip line by CLICKING HERE.
Taylor died 12 years ago, but ABC News found Harbaugh living in a Chicago suburb. After looking at the hospital’s baby picture of Fronczak, Harbaugh claimed that not only did he recognize the baby, but said he used to play with the child when he was a teenager living with his mother. Harbaugh said the baby had just showed up one day.
“You know what? He had a name. But we called him Tiger,” Harbaugh said.
Taylor, Harbaugh said, was a master of disguise and could pass for white, black, Puerto Rican or Hawaiian in her schemes to collect fraudulent welfare payments. Sometimes she even posed as a doctor or nurse, he said.
“She had a room with nothing but wigs and nurse dresses and shoes,” Harbaugh said.
Baby Fronczak was stolen from his mother’s arms when a woman came into the maternity ward in the Chicago hospital and claimed a doctor wanted to see the baby. After the baby was stolen, authorities released a sketch of the mystery woman. Harbough said that except for the nose, the sketch could be showing his mother.
In the 1970s, when Linda Taylor was put on trial for welfare fraud, she actually came under investigation for stealing the Fronczak baby. A local newspaper reported that one of her ex-husbands said that one day in the mid-1960s Talyor appeared with a newborn baby, even though she was not pregnant.
Isaiah Gant, Taylor’s lawyer during her trial in the 1970s, told ABC News that Taylor never admitted anything about the stolen baby, but said he wouldn’t put it past her.
“I’m telling you, the woman was just a chameleon,” he said. “She could be anything. So I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she could be involved in something like that.”
The FBI told ABC News they are looking back at Taylor’s possible involvement with fresh eyes.
Harbaugh said he didn’t say anything to the authorities about the sudden appearance of the baby because he was in trouble with the law back then. He hadn’t told his story until he spoke with ABC News and a reporter from Slate.com in recent months.
Harbaugh said the baby disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. One day he came home from school and the child was gone. Harbaugh said he’s “positive” it was taken by one of Taylor's boyfriends to Tennessee.
The boyfriend worked for the American Rivet Company and a former employee there confirmed to ABC News’ “20/20” that the man had moved to a small town in Tennessee called Sevierville.
However, when the “20/20” team reached Sevierville, there were no records to be found matching the name Harbaugh had given.
Today, Harbaugh said he regrets he didn’t take action five decades ago.
“I mean, there’s nothing I could say to them. I couldn’t apologize enough for not turning her in,” he said.
ABC News’ Gail Deutsch, Andrew Paparella and Alexa Valiente contributed to this report.