[Editor's note: In this installment of To Hell and Back: A NUVO series, Theresa Rosado profiles the actions and connections of Dr. Marc Zackheim, a psychologist who worked with the staff and students of New Horizons Youth Ministries.]
Throughout the '80s and '90s, children of New Horizons met with a man they called Doctor Z. They described Doctor Z — whose legal name was Marc Zackheim — as if he were a horrid monster from a fairy tale: a large man with drooping jaws, long arms, a pointy nose and beady eyes that walked with a stoop. "Everyone was deathly afraid to talk to him as they would say he was very, very creepy," says a former Escuela Caribe student. Other students describe being touched by Doctor Z. "He would always stand behind me and rub my shoulders and he always asked me about masturbation, how often I did it. When, where and how." Boys at Zackheim's group home in Plymouth, Indiana made jokes about him when he visited, feeling uncomfortable with how he touched them. With the absence of testimonies from New Horizons and other facilities where Zackheim counseled, he fought molestation charges and won an acquittal in 2006, based on a story given as a testimony. However Zackheim's stories caught up with him — tales unwoven by documents and contradicting statements created by him and his wife Vicki.
Vicki Johnson Zackheim concocted one of those tales. She was best known as the adoptive mother of Anthony Godby Johnson. Anthony Godby Johnson is the pen name of the 1993 bestselling book A Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy's Triumphant Story. The book was originally sold as an autobiographical memoir, but questions about the story's authenticity and Tony's existence began to surface.
Screenwriter and producer Armistead Maupin accepted galleys from Anthony and formed a lengthy friendship with him over the phone. Maupin and other celebrities wrote blurbs for Tony's book, deeply inspired by his story. As the years passed Maupin grew to feel very close to Tony but was prevented from seeing him. Maupin grew doubtful of Tony's existence. Maupin published the novel Night Listener in the year 2000, considering the book a semi-autobiographical account of his experience with Tony. In 2006 Night Listener became a movie starring Robin Williams.
Significant evidence had developed indicating Tony's story was a hoax. Numerous famous people corresponded with Tony who inspired them and initiated conversations by phone or by email. Vicki claimed that Tony was stricken with AIDS and syphilis, his health was so frail and death so imminent that he could have no visitors without threatening his immune system. But an expert voice analysis on recordings of Vicki and Anthony indicated they were the same person. No records confirmed Tony's existence. Numerous medical records were absent, as well as the alleged doctors and nurses that treated him for life threatening ailments. Photos allegedly of Anthony used on the book jacket were actually of a child named Steve Tarabkija, taken by Vicki Johnson while working at a school before Tony existed.
Marc Zackheim stated he had met Vicki through correspondence with Tony. In a strange move for a mother who confessed to love her son so deeply, Vicki claimed she left her adoptive son with another caretaker in New Jersey in 1998 before moving to Illinois and marrying Zackheim. Tony stopped communicating with anyone after that.
Zackheim had hopes of leaving the U.S. after being acquitted on charges of practicing medicine without a license and sexual battery in Indiana in 2006. He proposed a bid for a group home with Guam's Department of Mental Health. In an interview with a Guam news broadcast, Zackheim said that his experience with troubled teens along with raising his stepson, Anthony Godby Johnson, have been successful. "He certainly has been a wonderful guide to what can be done if the right things happen," he described. "He's an amazing kid. But he's not a kid. He's twenty-seven years old." In a following interview with KUAM News, Zackheim states that Anthony Johnson is 30 years old. When KUAM pressed Zackheim on the inconsistencies of his statements, he diverted questions about his relationship with Anthony Godby Johnson and his trial for medical fraud and molestation in Indiana. Zackheim stated that he thought it was best to refrain from answering these questions until the bid was announced. Zackheim had claimed a role in raising Tony, forgetting Vicki's claim that she left him with a caretaker before moving to Illinois. Supposedly born in 1978, Tony would have been 20 years old by the time Marc Zackheim married Vicki — well beyond the teen years during which Zackheim had inadvertently claimed he raised him.RELATED: To Hell and Back Part 2
The aforementioned trial and acquittal came from the examination of statements from New Horizons alumni and a 2004 Indiana State Police investigation. Several of the boys from the Plymouth facility alleged that Zackheim had them remove clothes and touched their genitalia while performing examinations. A 1995 account of a New Horizons' alumnus states that while at the Koala Center in Plymouth, Zackheim "fondled my genitals in a dark office when I was 13 years old. We went off of the unit to an office down the hall and talked for a few minutes. He asked me about girls and if I had any homosexual experiences while at Indiana Boys' School. He told me he needed to perform a physical examination. He told me to take my pants down and he played with my genitals for a few seconds. He told me to pull up my pants and we talked on the way back to the unit. No nurse, no parents (were present). Just him and I." Not a single girl reported receiving a physical from Zackheim.
Zackheim denied the claims, but said he did physical assessments of the boys in the presence of a nurse after a youth who had lived there fell ill and died during 2002. Zackheim was charged with practicing medicine without a license and three misdemeanor charges of battery for fondling the genitals of his clients. He was acquitted of all charges in 2006.
Zackheim found himself in court again, facing numerous federal charges of health care fraud after his acquittal in 2006. It was 2009 and President and CEO of New Horizons Youth Ministries Charles Redwine pleaded in a letter to a federal judge on behalf of the psychologist that contractually worked for him. "I am saddened to see this travesty of injustice from trusted staff who apparently did not have the same heart for youth this man has."RELATED: To Hell and Back Part 3
Zackheim played a dubious role in admitting and treating students at New Horizons. Zackheim counseled students at New Horizons, played a significant role in admittance and escorted numerous children to Escuela Caribe. An alumnus wrote Zackheim "would come down to interview people and take large groups back with him. Then waves of new students would show up. He would take at first about two to three then once he took like six or seven." Charles Redwine documented his relationship between Zackheim in a letter given to a federal judge. "I have professionally known Marc for over twenty years. He visited our campus in the Dominican Republic where I was director and immediately became our unpaid consultant, visiting our campus regularly. He was therapeutically involved with our difficult-to-manage and disordered youth. Marc's vast training and insight was invaluable to me personally in the early years of my administration."
Tim Blossom wrote, "I have known (Zackheim) for well over 20 years. My father, Rev. Gordon C. Blossom, the founder of New Horizons Youth Ministries, recognized his strength of character and devotion to children in need of his special abilities." Blossom looked up to Zackheim as well, writing, "Marc was my professional mentor and equal."
In the second trial, Zackheim was convicted of health care fraud and sentenced to federal prison. However Zackheim died of a heart attack before serving his sentence. A few months later, the Indiana Department of Child Services revoked New Horizons' license.
In a memorandum U.S. Attorney David Capp wrote, "While in a position of trust, Dr. Zackheim used his patients – all of whom were minors – for financial gain. Dr. Zackheim fabricated various diagnoses and attached these false diagnoses to the medical records of his juvenile patients. Dr. Zackheim's fraudulent designs placed these young individuals in danger of several future harmful consequences due to inaccurate patient medical records."