Satanic Panic and Recovered Memory in the News

What do “Satanic Mormon” child abuse rings and a glam cult leader have in common? This therapist:

Dr. Barbara Snow in the 1992 documentary “Promise Not to Tell”

On Wednesday (October 3, 2018), six people filed a lawsuit in federal court against a John and Jane Doe who have been identified as Robert and Brenda Miles. The six adult plaintiffs allege that the couple sexually abused them at “touching parties” when they were very young children in the mid-’80s. The lawsuit has grabbed the attention of Mormons, because Brenda Miles is the daughter of Russell M. Nelson, the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This is the highest office in the LDS church. The President is not only the head of the church, but acts as the church’s only living prophet.

The six plaintiffs (three women and two men) are the children and stepchildren of a man who died by suicide in 1995. They have identified this stepfather as one of their abusers (he is designated “Perpetrator” in the filing, which you can read here). The alleged abuse took place in various homes in the Mueller Park area of Bountiful, Utah, as part of a Satan-worshiping pedophile ring run by Mormons. Satanic ritual abuse isn’t mentioned in any stories about this lawsuit, but it was a big part of the original accusations in the ’80s.

The timing of this complaint appears to be strategic. Idaho attorney Craig Vernon of the firm James, Vernon and Weeks filed it just three days before the church’s semi-annual general conference. The lawsuit alleges that church authorities and investigators conspired to cover up the activities of the child-molesting Mormons.

Three of the plaintiffs allege they remember being sexually assaulted at the touching parties by their father, their paternal grandmother, the Mileses, a 16-year-old babysitter and others. Two of the stepchildren claim they were raped repeatedly by their stepfather in the ’80s and again in the mid ’90s with the participation of his second wife. One child and one stepchild were only infants when these things allegedly occurred, but were told of the events by their siblings, parents and therapists.

The concept of pedophile rings barely existed until the late ’70s, when Boston psychiatric nurse Ann Burgess (the inspiration for the psychiatrist character in the Netflix series Mindhunter) studied incarcerated men convicted of molesting groups of children (mostly adolescents) and began presenting information to la enforcement regarding predatory “sex rings.” Public concern quickly grew.

In the early ’90s, Salt Lake City-based therapists Dr. Barbara Snow and Teena Sorenson developed a hypothesis of interlocking sex-abuse rings, publishing two studies on the matter (How Children Tell and Ritualistic Child Abuse in a Neighbourhood Setting).

Snow and Sorenson claimed to have discovered multiple pedophile rings involving incestuous adult perpetrators. They admitted that the children did not initially present with any symptoms of sexual abuse. Disclosures of abuse were slow in coming and difficult to extract.

What the published papers do not reveal is that Snow and Sorenson believed they had stumbled upon clusters of highly secretive, child-abusing Devil cultists masquerading as upstanding Mormon families throughout the state of Utah.

According to a Desert News article (“Snow involved in 5 probes of alleged sex rings“, February 21, 2008), “Snow was involved in five probes in Utah involving alleged sex rings – two in Bountiful, two in Lehi and one in Midvale. The children in all five cases told investigators similar stories involving satanic rituals and multiple adults.”

This all began in the summer of 1985, when Snow was working as a therapist with the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment Center. Sheila Bowers, a Lehi mother and LDS member, brought her three young children to the Center with concerns about their sexual acting-out. Snow rendered an opinion that all three children had been sexually abused. The perpetrator was supposedly a teenage girl who babysat the children. This girl was the daughter of Keith Burnham, a Bishop in the LDS Lehi Eight Ward.

Snow reached out to other Lehi LDS families with young children who had employed the Burnham girl as a babysitter, and interviewed several of the children. She ultimately concluded that all of the children had been repeatedly molested by the entire Burnham family – Keith, his wife Shirley, and their teenage daughter.

The State Division of Family Services promptly removed the Burnhams’ younger children from the home. For weeks, the Burnhams were under investigation. No evidence of any abuse – other than the disclosures elicited by Snow – was uncovered. The Burham kids were returned to their home, and no charges were ever filed.

This was not the end of it, though. While many Eight Ward members disbelieved the abuse allegations and supported the Burnham family, others felt certain the kids really had been molested and suspected a cover-up. A group of concerned parents pressured state authorities to launch a second investigation into the Burnham allegations. The Utah County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney General’s office did so.

Rex and Sheila Bower sent their children to Dr. Snow to be evaluated, as did Alan and Gay Hadfield. Both families had pushed hard for a re-opening of the Burnham investigation. Like the Bowers, the Hadfields had three young children, a boy and two girls.

This is where things went horribly wrong for both families. In February 1986, the Bowers’ son allegedly revealed to Snow that his dad had molested him. No charges were laid in that case, but the Hadfields were not to be so fortunate.

In the 1992 KUED TV documentary Promise Not to Tell (available for rent or purchase on Vimeo), Gay Hadfield says she was approached by a concerned neighbour whose kids had supposedly been molested by the babysitter. She was told the sheriff’s office would contact her, but when that didn’t happen she decided to consult Dr. Snow instead.

Snow, a soft-spoken woman with a calm demeanor, explains the Lehi children she interviewed spoke of “numbers” of other kids being abused by the same “baby-tender.” She suggests the police were incredulous and slow to respond because the Burnhams were upstanding, respected members of the community. According to Snow, up to a dozen children described:

  • multiple abusers, with a high proportion of women
  • “highly aberrant” sexual activities
  • being smeared with blood, drinking blood
  • urine and feces used as sacraments
  • pentagrams, stars, and Satanic symbols

As time went on, the stories elicited by Snow grew more elaborate and bizarre. By the time the investigation wrapped up in late 1988, she had named at least 40 perpetrators, including some adolescents. Yet there was no physical harm to any of the children, and no probable cause to indicate that such crimes had been committed in Lehi.

In May of 1986, as the Hadfield family was planning to depart Utah for a trip to Disneyland, 9-year-old Cara Hadfield had a session with Dr. Snow. Cara had been involved with the sex abuse investigation for nine months at this point, and maintained that she had neither witnessed nor experienced any mistreatment. It is unknown why Dr. Snow felt the need to keep assessing a child who was not party to any abuse.

At this session, Cara suddenly disclosed that her own father, Alan Hadfield, was sexually abusing her. Snow apparently did not contact social services immediately, because Cara Hadfield went home with her family as usual. Sometime that evening, she told one or both parents that Alan had molested her, then backpedaled and said he hadn’t. Gay Hadfield phoned Dr. Snow and declared that her daughter wanted to apologize, but on the line with her therapist, Cara quickly reverted to accusing her father.

The following day, the entire Hadfield family met with Snow. Two of the kids, Cara and 11-year-old Willy, accused Alan, though Willy initially denied being molested. Gay Hadfield believed her children.

Snow contacted the Attorney General’s office.

Alan Hadfield had support. Many Lehi residents flatly rejected the sex-ring stories that were coming out of Snow’s office, and believed Alan would be exonerated, just like the Burnhams.

They were wrong.

According to Snow, the Hadfield kids met with seven other mental health professionals. Dr Paul Whitefield says the kids gave him unprompted, detailed accounts of being abused by Alan and other Lehi residents. Hadfield, out of the 30-50 people named by Snow’s patients, was the only person arrested in Lehi. He went to trial on charges of molesting two of his children, and no one else’s. In Promise Not to Tell, defense attorney Bradley Rich points out the paradox that Cara and her brother Willy were believed when they accused their father, and disregarded when they accused anyone else. County prosecutor David Schwendiman admitted that their other allegations simply couldn’t be corroborated.

The Hadfield children described Satanic rituals that involved costumes and masks, photography, men dressed in women’s clothing and the consumption of  human feces.

At trial, Cara and Willy Hadfield falsely denied that they had ever accused any other adults. The defense brought out that dozens of other Lehi adults had been named. Other parents who had sent their children to Snow testified that their kids would tearfully retract their accusations of abuse after each session with Snow, explaining that she had pressured or forced them to discuss abuse that hadn’t occurred. Only one psychiatric expert was called to the stand, and he testified for the defense. Dr. Stephen Golding deemed Snow’s interviewing techniques “subtly coercive and highly questionable.” Judy Pugh, a colleague of Dr.Snow at the Intermountain Sexual Abuse Treatment Center, stated in her testimony that she thought Dr. Snow was coaching the children into disclosing sexual and Satanic abuse that they had initially denied. Her opinion was shared by  Wayne Watson, Chief Deputy Utah County Attorney, who had observed one of Snow’s interviews through a two-way mirror.

Yet Alan Hadfield was convicted.

In the documentary, several experts on ritual abuse are interviewed. Roland Summit, who played a key role in the McMartin preschool affair and other ritual abuse cases of the ’80s, starts out talking in a sensible and straightforward manner about the public’s growing awareness of battered children and child sexual abuse. By the end of the program, he is deeply into Twilight Zone territory. He declares that people with dissociative disorders can molest children without having any memory of doing so, and courts and therapists ignore these zombie molesters because they simply don’t know what to do, or aren’t adequately trained to see the signs.

Halfway into the documentary, Bradley Rich points to the elephant in the room. Clearly, he says, Snow was interested in ritual abuse. Then, in multiple parts of the state, she found identical cases of it.

By 1992, when Promise Not to Tell aired, no one in Lehi seemed to be concerned about child-molesting Satanic cults hiding in plain sight.

Though Dr. Snow’s post-Lehi “discoveries” resulted in just one very questionable conviction (that of Bountiful resident Arden Bullock), the legend of Satanic Mormon pedophile cults persists. Dr. Whitefield penned the foreward to a book that used some of the Utah “sex ring” material (Paperdolls: Healing from Sexual Abuse in Mormon Neighborhoods). The authors carefully omitted all references to the weirder, ritualistic aspects of the cases. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, former Mormons who became the church’s most outspoken critics, helped spread the legend that Mormons secretly worship the Devil and defile children by leaking the 1990 Pace Memorandum. This spurred the LDS church to take allegations of covert Satanism seriously, though no evidence of such activity within Mormon communities has ever emerged. As with the rest of the ’80s and ’90s “Satanic panic” that scoured America, the UK, Australia and other countries, public concern eventually faded.

Barbara Snow continued to practice psychotherapy, and “found” more Satanic Mormon abuse rings operating in Bountiful and Midvale. One of the two Bountiful rings she supposedly uncovered, with the help of Dr. Whitehead, involved Brenda and Richard Miles.

These rings were identical in structure and activity to the nonexistent Lehi “ring.” Each involved a neighborhood “sex ring” consisting of three to twenty Mormon families, including a significant number of religious leaders. Each involved Satanic rituals and neighborhood “sex parties.” Three of the cases involved playing with, consuming and/or bathing in human feces. Two of the cases involved men dressing in women’s clothing and the use of costumes and masks. In three cases, the children described the use of candles and pentagrams for Satanic rituals.

Investigations were launched, but no arrests were made in these cases. That’s because the stories coming from Snow and her patients were so outlandish that they defied all common sense, and there was simply no evidence to support them. At least one skeptical investigator decided to test Snow by pretending to leak information to her. The police wanted to see what she would do with the false leads.

To no one’s surprise, Snow’s patients began to disclose abuse that included those bogus details.

It was now clear that Snow used highly suggestive, or perhaps even coercive, questioning with her young patients. In Alan Hadfield’s request for a new trial, his defense counsel presented as evidence the following:

  • Barbara Snow’s doctoral thesis, in which Snow discussed the use of authority and punishment to modify patient behavior
  • testimony that she used this technique to modify the responses of her child patients to questions about sexual abuse
  • testimony from law enforcement personnel that false information deliberately “fed” by them to Barbara Snow in their investigatory work promptly appeared in the statements of children she interviewed
  • a highly suspicious correlation between the factual patterns revealed in at least four child sex abuse investigations in which Barbara Snow was involved.

Snow’s career rolled on. In fact, she became a mentor to one of the most troubling young cult leaders active in the U.S. today, Teal Swan.

Teal Swan (video thumbnail)

Swan grew up in Idaho, but entered therapy with Snow in Utah around 2005. It was shortly after her therapy that she began making YouTube videos about being ritualistically tortured and programmed by a Satanic cult that pretended to be Mormon, led by a man she called “Doc.” Swan’s stories of ritualistic abuse were so compelling that she was even invited to share her story on an Idaho news segment, KIVI 6’s On Your Side (you can watch that here).

After establishing herself as a survivor of unspeakable atrocities, Swan then branched into new age platitudes and motivational messages that earned her a vast, cultishly devoted following. In fact, there are signs that Swan is or will soon become a destructive cult leader. She claims godlike powers, encourages her devotees to tattoo themselves, and has established a small community in Costa Rica. She speaks blithely of suicide, murder and her own assassination.

Swan’s SRA story is a little more extreme than most. Doc’s Mormon/Satanic cult used highly sophisticated methods of torture and mind control. As a child, Swan was trained to torture and program other children using electricity. She was a slave of the cult throughout her formative years (c. 1990-2003), and was impregnated by Doc on three occasions. He would then perform abortions on her with veterinary equipment. She was drugged and confined in basements and lava caves. She witnessed sacrifices and was compelled to participate in acts of necrophilia and bestiality. She was forced to appear in violent porn and prostitute herself at gas stations.

Her most startling claim – and the one that draws the most skepticism to her tales – is that when she was about 8 years old, Doc took her to a mortuary after hours and sewed her into human  corpses on two different occasions, leaving her there overnight. This is simply not possible.

“Doc” has spoken publicly about Swan’s accusations. He points to falsehoods in her autobiography, such as being raised in the wilderness (her parents were schoolteachers). He knew Teal’s parents, and at their request he allowed teenage Teal to accompany him on his veterinarian visits. He also helped her acquire a horse. But he was not (and has never been) a Mormon. According to Doc, Teal told fantastical stories to get attention. She claimed to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra, insisted she was going to be model, then moved to Utah to train for the Olympic ski team. Her self-glorifying tales continued into adulthood.

In a June 6, 2004 letter to Doc (reprinted here), she claimed she made the United States Telemark Ski Team and placed fourth overall at Nationals, and was due to appear in an upcoming Playboy. Both claims were false. The letter was full of affection, gratitude and fond memories of their times together. There are no indications that the relationship between Swan and “Doc” was in any way abusive, controlling or damaging.

In fact, the “Doc” described by Teal might be based on this veterinarian, but she has taken so many liberties with the truth of his life that we might as well just say “Doc” is a wholly fictional character existing only in the minds of Teal Swan and her followers. For example, Teal characterizes Doc as a lifelong bachelor with no children. The veterinarian has been married for over thirty years to his current wife, and was married to his first wife for fifteen years. He has two stepsons.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Teal’s cult is that she practices a form of “healing” that can, and probably does, lead to the “recovery” of false memories.

Soon after treating Ms. Swan, Dr. Snow ran into serious professional trouble for the first time in her decades-long career as a therapist. In 2008, she was placed on professional probation for treating her own sister-in-law from 2004-2006, and going to the woman’s Provo home and smashing some computer equipment and other possessions with a baseball bat when the woman refused to comply with her treatment recommendations. Snow falsely stated that she had not billed a third-party insurance provider for the “informal” treatment of her relative, when in fact she had.

It emerged that Snow had convinced her sister-in-law and one other relative that they had been subjected to Satanic and military abuse and repressed all memories of the events. Snow provided the details and urged her sister-in-law to visualize the abuse. Snow suspected that yet another pedo/porn ring was operating in East Salt Lake City, and she collected the obituaries of teenagers from that area whom she believed died in mysterious circumstances.

As the recently filed lawsuit demonstrates, the damage wrought by Snow, Whitehead and others was not temporary. Their fanciful tales of devil-worshiping Mormons ripped apart families, traumatized children who may not have been abused at all and divided entire communities. The attention paid to these bogus ritual abuse cases also drew attention away from actual child abuse, including the highly ritualized rape, forced marriage and brainwashing of young girls in Fundamentalist LDS (breakaway) communities.

The Satanic panic was not just an outbreak of hysteria limited to the ’80s and ’90s. It lives and breathes to this day.

You can read more about Teal Swan at Medium, Vice and Gizmodo.

Anthony Godby Johnson, the Invisible Boy

tony


Boy Wonder

Tony Johnson was a dreamchild: A kid who excelled effortlessly in school, never accepted handouts, and was determined to better himself, despite having a childhood that might have made Dickens blanch. What follows is Anthony Godby Johnson’s story as he told it in his 1993 memoir, A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, and as experienced by some of the literary luminaries he befriended.

By his twelfth birthday, Tony had already been to hell and back. Born to outwardly average parents in New York City sometime in 1978, he was brutally beaten and pimped out to his policeman father’s friends on a routine basis from the age of four. He was deliberately deprived of food, a proper bed, and even minimal affection. By rights, Tony should have suffered psychological damage that would make Harry Harlow’s monkeys look as calm as monks, but Tony had the fortune to be an infinitely old soul with a blazing intellect. He mothered himself with episodes of Mr. Rogers and aspirin, and took such solace in study that he was transferred to a Brooklyn school for gifted children. Even a spell of suicidal depression at age 11 couldn’t keep him down, for he found unexpected salvation in the form of a suicide-hotline worker. This man, Mr. Johnson (a pseudonym), immediately dispatched a social worker named Vicki to rescue Tony. Finally freed from the pedophile ring in 1989, Tony was diagnosed with several serious ailments, including untreated syphilis that had reached such an advanced stage it caused permanent damage to his lungs. He would spend most of his teen years in and out of hospital, always on the verge of death.

Tony was not destined to become the sum of his setbacks, but a magnetic force. People of all ages were drawn to his humor, his resilience, his astonishing strength of character. In many ways he was a typical teenager, swearing like a sea captain and talking baseball and girls, yet he radiated the inner peace of a lama, He was a lot like his heroes, Mr. Rogers and Kermit the Frog. The miraculous touched every corner of his life and spread to those around him. The man who talked him out of committing suicide, Mr. Johnson, was so taken with Tony that he called him his son, and traveled to New York to meet him. Johnson instantly fell in love with Tony and his new mom, Vicki. Vicki and Johnson married and adopted Tony, relocating to a town in the Midwest where the New York pedophiles couldn’t find them.

Tony flourished. Despite continual bouts of pneumonia that required lung draining, a stroke that left him temporarily paralyzed and a coma, Tony graduated from high school at fourteen with the help of private tutors. Good colleges courted him. Then he tested positive for AIDS, sending his new family into a tailspin.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation supplied 14-year-old Tony with a computer so he could begin writing his life story. This would not be the story of his near-destruction at the hands of his parents and their buddies, but the story of his salvation, and the blooming of love and compassion that followed. Vicki, Johnson, and a coterie of new friends relentlessly encouraged Tony to fulfill his destiny. To do that, he would need some mentors. One of them was AIDS counselor Jack L. Godby, a gay black man from Arkansas who got to know Tony through correspondence and phone conversations. Godby formed such a close bond with Tony that Godby became his “Pops” (Johnson was “Dad”). Tony collected several such “moms” and “dads” in his teen years, as though overcompensating for the absence of his biological family.

Tony was drawn to the stories of other survivors, writers like Paul Monette and Armistead Maupin, both of whom had both been touched by AIDS. (Maupin had lost friends and lovers to AIDS, and Monette had been diagnosed in 1991). At thirteen, Tony was such a devoted fan of Monette that he swapped sports magazines for copies of his novels Love Alone and Borrowed Time during one of his many hospital stays. He raptly listened to radio installments of Maupin’s Tales of the City, the bittersweet adventures of a group of gays and lesbians in ’70s and ’80s San Francisco. Though he was a typically girl-crazy teenager, Tony was extremely sympathetic to the persecution suffered by gays and lesbians.
Vicki encouraged her son to write to some of his heroes, and he did. He penned fan letters to Mr. Rogers, Monette and Maupin, Mickey Mantle, Tom Robbins, Bob Paris, Jermaine Jackson and Keith Olbermann, among others. He entered into correspondence with most of these men, but others developed an even stronger bond with the boy through marathon phone conversations. These worldly older men were invariably charmed and awed by Tony’s disarming combination of childlike simplicity (he still loved coloring books), wisdom, and grit.

Monette, Maupin, and Mr. Rogers all provided blurbs for A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story. Maupin wrote, “I want to be like this young man when I grow up.” Monette and Jack Godby provided introductions for the book, Fred Rogers the afterword. Crown Publishers released the book in 1993, when Tony was just fifteen years old. He wasn’t expected to live long.

Armistead Maupin became more closely involved with Tony than any of the boy’s other mentors soon after his editor, David Groff of Crown Publishers, sent him a copy of Tony’s manuscript for perusal. A warm but unfawning phone call from Tony reinforced his impression that this boy had a unique voice. Maupin became one of the many adults to phone Tony at his new home in the Midwest to offer him ongoing support and encouragement. Like the others, he discovered that Tony, laid up in bed most the time and too weak to do anything that other 14-year-olds do, gave far more than he took. He could relate to adults on an entirely mature level, and he radiated humor. In a string of late-night phone conversations that were often interrupted by Tony’s violent fits of coughing, the celebrated gay author and the tough-talking teenager formed such a tight bond that Maupin tentatively began referring to Tony as his son. Tony called him Dad.

In his fourteenth and fifteenth years, Tony lost a leg and a testicle to AIDS and contracted TB. Death seemed so imminent that his loved ones lived in fear of it, but Tony focused only on living. By all accounts, he rarely (if ever) slid into depression or self-pity. Everyone connected to him took courage from this precocious strength, and when it was published, A Rock and a Hard Place deeply affected readers across the U.S., from clinical social workers to grade-school teachers. Vicki set up a Geocities website, Tony’s World, through which her son could update fans on his condition and post articles on child abuse issues. His story was a wake-up call to all adults: Horrific child happens right around the corner from where you live. But love can bring trampled children to their feet.

Suspicions

Vicki Johnson was Tony’s primary caregiver while Mr. Johnson worked, and she protected him fiercely. The family’s real identity was concealed to prevent his former abusers from locating him, since most of them had not even been investigated for molestation. Everyone who knew Tony through phone conversations, including Maupin and Monette, were eager to meet Tony. He was open to the idea, and so was Vicki, but due to his health and safety concerns, face-to-face meetings never took place. Maupin once made it all the way to the Midwest only to be told that Tony was too sick to receive visitors (he later told ABC News the same thing happened to a rabbi who traveled all the way from Israel to see Tony). Finally, Vicki Johnson politely insisted that phone friends refrain from attempting to visit. She explained that Tony was lurching from one medical crisis to the next, always on the precipice of death, and any excitement could undo him. Vicki even began to change her phone number frequently, presumably to prevent Tony’s fans from interrupting his recovery with their late-night calls. Gradually, Tony’s friends began to wonder why no one had met face-to-face with Tony. Not even his editors at Crown Publishers in New York nor his agent, Ron Bernstein, had ever met with the young man. Anthony Godby Johnson was the Invisible Boy, always a phone call away, but forever out of reach.

Before the end of 1993, suspicions were cropping up in the literary world. Armistaud Maupin’s partner, Terry Anderson, felt certain that Tony and Vicki Johnson were the same person. He pointed out to Maupin that their voices were nearly identical over the phone (Tony, embarrassed by his high voice, told callers he hadn’t gone through all the changes of puberty due to his illnesses). After his aborted visit to the Johnson household, Maupin began to have his suspicions, too.

They were not alone in their doubts. Gay author John Preston openly declared A Rock and a Hard Place a hoax. Ron Bernstein, Tony’s agent, had almost struck a deal with HBO to make a film about Tony when Vicki declared that no one from HBO would be allowed to see Tony in person, causing the deal to collapse. This incident stirred the first serious doubts in Bernstein’s mind.

It was Keith Olbermann who first did some detective work. He had been so moved by A Rock and a Hard Place that he contacted Tony, and quickly become a supporter and “brother” to the boy. They were collaborating on a book about baseball when Olbermann’s doubts surfaced. He had been having phone chats with Vicki and one of Tony’s doctors, and gradually noticed that all three voices sounded extremely similar. Also, there were never any background noises on the line – no other voices, no rummaging sounds, no indication that Tony was in a busy household or a hospital.

The private investigator Olbermann hired to check into Vicki and Tony found that Vicki used the surname Fraginals. She did not live in the Midwest. She lived in her hometown of Union City, New Jersey, with two adult women presumed to be her daughters (it is now known she didn’t have daughters). There was no sign of Mr. Johnson or Tony, and the second-story apartment the three women shared was not suitable for a sick boy. It was not even wheelchair-accessible.

Olbermann had given a thousand dollars to Vicki to help her pay for “black market” medication she claimed Tony desperately needed, and according to Maupin, Vicki had solicited donations from other supporters, too.

Newsweek reporter Michele Ingrassia was the first person to investigate Tony’s background thoroughly. She interviewed his editor at Crown, his publicist, some of his penpals, the Make-a-Wish worker who arranged for Tony to receive his computer, and the head of an HIV/AIDS group who was in contact with Tony and Vicki. None of these people had ever laid eyes on Tony. Ingrassia next tried to find any record of a NYC policeman and his wife being convicted of the sexual abuse of their son in the late ’80s or early ’90s. She found nothing. Her May 30, 1993 story on Tony was titled “The Author Nobody’s Met.”
The article should have ended there, since Ingrassia hadn’t been able to suss out any concrete information about Tony or his family, but Ingrassia then waded into borderline libelous speculation by hinting that Paul Monette had invented Tony and penned his memoir, perhaps in a misguided effort to raise AIDS awareness. This idea was picked up by other media outlets, then quietly dropped when supporting evidence failed to surface. Monette stated that while he had acted as Tony’s writing mentor over the phone, he had no part in the writing of A Rock and a Hard Place. He had never actually met Tony. Up to his death in 1995, Monette was uncertain whether Tony was a real person or not.

No one fitting the description of the man known as Earnist Johnson was ever located, though his service as an Air Force sergeant should have made him traceable. He had never appeared in public. Vicki Johnson was the sole spokesperson for Tony. As suspicions mounted, she became even more aggressive in her defense of him. She was quick to verbally attack anyone who questioned her adopted son’s motives, much less his existence.

To everyone’s astonishment, Tony continued to survive and thrive. In 1994, at just 16 years old, he penned a regular column for a Hawaiian AIDS publication. He also maintained a Geocities website to update fans on his health and share articles about child abuse. It was through his online posting that people learned his father had been murdered by vengeful pedophiles in prison.

In 1997, his story was told in the ABC documentary About Us: The Dignity of Children, hosted by Oprah Winfrey (Winfrey, as you probably know, has been at the centre of a great many literary hoaxes over the years). An actor portrayed the younger Tony, and his voice and identity were disguised. Strangely, reports surfaced that Tony was living with the documentary’s producer, Lesley Karsten, as her “son” during this time. In phone calls, emails and letters Ms. Karsten confirmed that she was now the primary caregiver for Tony. He was an adult by this time, but still required constant care.

Karsten also announced that she was marrying a longtime Johnson family friend, Jerry DiNicola. In online postings, Karsten and Tony expressed fears of being attacked by the pedophiles who had abused Tony and killed his father, and seemed grateful that DiNicola was a tough guy who could protect them. He had fought in VIetnam and was even a POW.

Vicki and Earnist faded into the background. According to Tony, they had divorced and Vicki had moved to Illinois with her new husband.

Interest in Tony waned after this point. The questions surrounding his existence, A Rock and a Hard Place, and the mysterious Ms. Karsten were left unresolved.

Then, in 2000, at the end of a painful period of reflection and investigation, Maupin published his thinly fictionalized account of his experience with the Invisible Boy, The Night Listener. He had been talking to Tony for over six years at this point, and though he had never confronted Tony or Vicki about his suspicions for fear he could be wrong, the time had come to deal with his nagging inner voice. In 1997 Maupin told Tony and Vicki that he was writing the novel. Amazingly, Tony accepted this with quiet grace. “I’m a big boy,” he told his friend. “I know the difference between fact and fiction.” Maupin even asked Vicki to name the boy character in the book, and she chose “Pete.” Vicki became “Donna”.
After the novel was released, however, Maupin received an angry call from Vicki. She was incensed that he had “trashed” Tony, and broke off all contact with him.

The novel sparked fresh interest in the mystery of the Invisible Boy, leading journalist Tad Friend to investigate. His story, “Virtual Love“, appeared in the November 22, 2001 issue of The New Yorker. Like Ingrassia, Friend concluded that no one but Vicki Johnson was willing to admit seeing Tony Johnson with her own eyes, though Maupin and perhaps other friends had received snapshots of an adorable preteen boy with light-brown hair, big brown (or green) eyes, and a radiant smile. This boy remained unidentified for many years.

Friend revealed that “Vicki Johnson” was most likely Joanne Victoria Fraginals, a single woman in her forties then residing in Union City, New Jersey. A former schoolteacher, she may have worked as a social worker, but there was no sign of a husband or ex-husband who fit the description of Johnson. Earlier, Michele Ingrassia had visited the pharmacy below Vicki’s apartment and learned that no one there knew of Tony.

Karsten continued to insist that her “son” was very real, alive, and unwell, still guarding his identity to protect him from the rogue New York cops that were out to get him. Tony’s website remained online, though it became inactive shortly after Friend’s article appeared and was never updated again.

VICKI

Sometime in the late ’90s, as Friend was conducting his investigation of the Invisible Boy, Vicki Fraginals married Dr. Marc Zackheim, a psychotherapist who worked with Indiana group homes for toubled teen boys and also maintained a private practice in Illinois. If there was a “Mr. Johnson”, he had divorced Vicki without ever living with her in New Jersey, because no one Ingrassia and Friend questioned had any knowledge of him, and the P.I. hired by Olbermann described Vicki as a single mother.
The Zackheims settled in Illinois. In 1999 they adopted four brothers, ages 1-6. In 2004, Dr. Zackheim was accused of molesting boys in the group home where he worked. He was acquitted.
Marc Zackheim acted as the family spokesman whenever someone inquired about Tony. He accused Maupin of inventing the hoax scenario to exploit Tony’s story for profit. This still wouldn’t explain why so many people “close” to Tony also doubted that he ever existed, nor why the same voice analysis expert who identified Osama bin Laden’s voice on tape, Tom Owen, determined that the recorded voices of Vicki and “Tony” issued from the same person. Nor would it explain why “Tony” and the Zackheims continued to hide his identity from the world, when the threat from the pedophiles was long past (surely, they would have realized by the mid’-90s that Tony was not going to out them).
Since Vicki and Mark apparently met after Tony came of age, it’s possible Dr. Zackheim believed his wife’s stories of having raised an AIDS-afflicted teenager. But that’s unlikely. He threatened legal action against people attempting to investigate Tony’s background, a threat so empty one has to wonder why he felt desperate enough to utter it. Perhaps he knew how unstable his wife is, and was only trying to protect her from further humiliation. He passed away in 2009.

LESLEY AND JERRY

The Karsten/DiNicola period of Tony’s life is perhaps the strangest one in this saga. Lesley Karsten is a real person. However, there is no evidence of a former Vietnam POW named Jerry DiNicola. Like “Earnist Johnson”, Jerry probably existed only in the imagination of Vicki Zackheim. Why would a professional woman such as Karsten perpetuate the Tony hoax by taking it to the next stage? Why would she pretend to be married to a man invented by a woman she barely knew, and why did she take on the challenge of protecting the reputation of a non-existent young man at a time when most of his supporters had fled?
Jack L. Godby, the AIDS counselor who wrote an introduction for A Rock and a Hard Place, was a notable exception; he still received phone calls and letters from Tony on occasion, and seemed to believe his “godson” was real. If he was, he truly was a miracle. He contracted AIDS no later than 1989, yet somehow survived bouts of pneumonia, TB, a stroke, a coma, and the losses of his leg, spleen, and one testicle. Medical researchers would be knocking down his door, if they knew where to find it.
This spiritual and medical marvel has gone silent. He didn’t even surface long enough to rebut The Night Listener or Tad Friend‘s “Virtual Love.” The Invisible Boy is now the Invisible Man, lost in the shadows of Vicki Zackheim and Lesley Karsten, the Invisible Women.


MORE “TONYS”

Since A Rock and a Hard Place was released in 1993, several eerily similar (and equally mysterious) hoaxes have been perpetrated. In the late ‘90s, an online community rallied around 19-year-old Kansan Kaycee Nicole Swenson, a cancer patient. Her supporters were devastated when she died of a brain aneurysm in 2001. Then a group of suspicious Metafilter friends looked into Kaycee’s story and discovered that Kaycee was the invention of a middle-aged mother named Debbie Swenson, who did not have cancer. Swenson feebly explained that she created Kaycee to tell the stories of real cancer patients she had known.

Then there’s the case of “J.T. LeRoy”, an HIV-positive cross-dresser who wrote darkly comic fiction about his life as a boy prostitute. San Francisco musician Geoffrey Knoop finally confessed – under pressure from suspicious reporters – that J.T. was the invention of his 40-year-old girlfriend, Laura Albert. He/she was played in public by Albert or by Knoop’s younger sister, Savannah, sporting dark sunglasses and blonde wigs.

Scarcely a week after the James Frey and J.T. LeRoy scandals erupted, Navajo author Nasdijj was unmasked as well. Nasdijj had written three acclaimed memoirs. In The Blood Flows Like a River Through My Dreams (2000), he described the life and death of his adopted son, “Tommy Nothing Fancy”, who suffered severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Geronimo’s Bones (2004) was about his own childhood on a reservation and in migrant-worker camps. The Dog and the Boy are Sleeping (2003) was about the life and death of his second adopted son, an AIDS-afflicted 12-year-old boy named Awee, and the difficulties of obtaining adequate AIDS care on the reservation. Other Navajos had their doubts about Nasdiij, but that didn’t stop the New York Times and other prestigious publications from giving his memoirs rave reviews. Then reporter Matthew Fleischer of the LA Times revealed that Nasdijj was really Tim Barrus, a middle-class white man from New Jersey whose first career, as an author of gay erotica, had failed. Barrus isn’t Native, wasn’t raised by migrant workers, and never adopted children. [Correction: Barrus and his wife, who divorced sometime in the ’70s, adopted and briefly cared for a boy reportedly suffering from autism. He survived to adulthood.]

Commenting on the James Frey/J.T. LeRoy scandals, Armistead Maupin told ABC News, “I assumed the publishing industry would be embarrassed. But the problem is that the publishing industry salivates a little too hard over the Jerry Springeresque stories.”


2007: The Boy in the Photos Has Been Identified

Thanks to ABC’s 20/20, which aired a story on the questions surrounding “Tony” around the time the film The Night Listener was released, the little boy in the photos sent to Maupin and others has been identified. A New Jersey woman named Cary Riecken, watching the program, recognized him as Steve Tarabokija, a grade-school classmate of her son at Sacred Heart Grade School in North Bergen, New Jersey (two other viewers recognized him, as well). Cary Riecken and the Tarabokija family appeared on a 20/20 update on January 12, 2007.

Vicki Fraginals had been Steve’s fourth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart. She was remembered as a very involved teacher who threw herself into activities like school plays and frequently took photos of her students. Cary Riecken characterized her as a woman who craved attention and pity.

Steve, a 26-year-old traffic engineer, was completely unaware of the Tony controversy and Vicki’s use of his photos. He recalled her as one of the “nicest” grammar-school teachers he had, but his family felt Mrs. Zackheim owed him an apology.

In lieu of an explanation, the Zackheims’ lawyer sent a 140-page document to 20/20, with sworn statements from the Zackheims and three other people who claim to have met Tony in person. The document didn’t address the photos at all.

The blurry image of “Tony” on the front cover of A Rock and a Hard Place was also a photo of Steve Tarabokija.