BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jennifer Toth, author of "What Happened to Johnnie Jordan? The Story of a Child Turning Violent" -- where is he today?
JENNIFER TOTH, AUTHOR, "WHAT HAPPENED TO JOHNNIE JORDAN?": He's in prison, an adult prison (UNINTELLIGIBLE) outside of Toledo. He's serving more than a life sentence.
LAMB: What's that mean?
TOTH: Means that he'll be at least 70 before he's considered eligible for parole. But his attorney and other people believe that by the time he's spent his entire adult life and most of his life in prison, he really won't be eligible for parole.
LAMB: And how old was he when he committed his crime?
TOTH: He was 15 years old.
LAMB: How old is he today?
TOTH: Today he's 21. He just had his 21st birthday. And his attorneys say that if had been three months older, he probably would have gotten the death penalty.
LAMB: How many hours do you think you've spent talking to him?
TOTH: Well, I still speak with him at least once a week on the phone for the prison-allotted time. And I spent weeks out there at different parts of the five years I spent writing this book. I would spend about five or six hours a day interviewing him for two-week spans.
LAMB: Why did you want to do a book on Johnnie Jordan, Jr.? No, he's not -- is he -- yeah, he is a Junior.
TOTH: He is Junior. His father is Johnnie Jordan, Sr.
That's a difficult question. I really wanted to look into what was going on with these kids who apparently showed no remorse and had no -- seemed to show no emotion after committing these horrendous crimes. But what really hooked me on this case was the Johnsons -- the victims of this crime, because I thought -- I really sincerely believe they deserved better. They deserved an answer to the questions they were looking into, why this child killed. At least they deserved a real attempt to look into what happened here.
And I was also angry that children's services was trying to cover up what really happened and that nobody was looking at this seriously. There was a reason behind the murder, and I think that to look at them in a straightforward manner is the only chance we have of preventing them. And the Johnsons deserved that. Mr. Johnson died before reform was ever really implemented or even sought. And I think that his quest was something I wanted to continue.
LAMB: Who are the Johnsons?
TOTH: The Johnsons were an elderly couple in rural Ohio, and they were -- they had foster parented dozens and dozens of children over the years. And Johnnie was about 15 when he was placed in their home. They were better to him than anyone had ever been to him. He liked them so much that he wanted them to adopt him. But one evening in late January, he walked into the kitchen where his foster mother was preparing his favorite dinner for him, and without a word, he bludgeoned her to death and then set her on fire. And it was one of the most horrendous and inexplicable crimes that Ohio has ever faced because nobody knew why he did it, not even Johnnie. In fact, when he was arrested, he told detectives, "I don't know why I did it, why it happened. She was a nice lady. She didn't deserve this to happen."
And he was also appalled that he could watch her bleed to death and not feel anything. He knew something was wrong there.
LAMB: What home -- what number of foster homes was Johnnie's stay at the Johnsons?
TOTH: This was his 19th foster placement, and he had been through 19 in five years. He had also been through a very poor family environment. But he really wanted the Johnsons to adopt him, and he really wanted to stay there. And he did not know what triggered his rage. He knew he woke up with a churning in his stomach and a feeling that he was going to do something bad, but he had no idea that he was going to commit this crime.
LAMB: The Johnsons lived in exactly what spot, near what town?
TOTH: They lived in Spencer Township, which is just outside of Toledo. It's a very rural area, very small population, very little crime. And I think that this was also interesting to me because I wanted to show that these crimes are going on throughout the country, not just in urban areas but in rural areas and in suburbs. And you know, it crosses all sorts of lines -- economic, social, everything. These kinds of crimes are really increasing throughout the country.
LAMB: Where do you personally live?
TOTH: I live in Maryland, in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside of D.C.
LAMB: How did you find this story?
TOTH: Well, I had been hearing from social workers and teachers about these kids without a conscience, these ticking time bombs. And I was very dubious about it, so social workers presented me with a number of different cases throughout the country that sort of fit the characteristics that they were talking about. And one of those cases was this case, the Johnnie Jordan case.
And then I called out to Ohio. I talked to Mr. Johnson. I was very moved by how he felt about this crime. I can't say that he forgave Johnnie or in what way he forgave him, but there was this lack of vindictiveness. He seemed to think that he and his wife and Johnnie had all been wrecked by the same storm. I mean, he really didn't -- he really felt very angry or resented that he hadn't been told of Johnnie's past. It was what had happened to Johnnie that he felt most angered by. At the same time, he didn't -- clearly didn't embrace Johnnie anymore.
And when I talked to Johnnie Jordan, I felt that -- I felt like I had more anger towards him than even Mr. Johnson did. And then when Johnnie walked into that room the first time I interviewed him, and I realized this was a child who couldn't look me in the eye, he was too shy to look me in the eye, and he still ate meals of Little Debbies and Coca-Cola, and he was too small for his prison jumpsuit, and he kept outgrowing his shoes, but no one could give him new shoes because the prison wasn't -- would only give him one pair of shoes a year, and social services was no longer involved in his case. This was just a child in an adult system.
LAMB: Why no picture in the book?
TOTH: Frankly, because I think my publisher felt that he wasn't a sympathetic-looking person. He wasn't white, upper middle class. He was a -- he's a kid, and he is more representative of the kids who are filling the prison system today. You know, he's had a rough past. He often has that sort of -- that tough stance that I think a lot of kids take on in prison, and a lot of kids who grow up, as he did, on the street do.
LAMB: Why would we care whether he was a sympathetic person or not? I mean, why no -- again, back to the picture thing.
TOTH: It's a tough issue, you know? I don't know that a lot of people want to face this. Certainly, in Ohio they didn't, and they still don't. Some people don't want to face this. The director of social services -- children's services there recently said, "Well, why do we want to open old wounds? Why point fingers?" Well, the point is to understand what happened. You know, Johnnie Jordan didn't have to murder. He chose to, and that is his responsibility. But there are reasons why children kill and why we can prevent this from happening in the future. I think that's very important.
I think there are so many things to learn both personally and also, you know, within the Welfare system, about how to prevent these situations. People don't want to look at kids who murder because it's a -- it seems like a horrendous, awful, inexplicable thing. But what I'm saying is there are reasons.
We often see stories of kids who just suddenly erupt -- you know, the Columbine shooters or just people -- kids across the country. And they -- we often hear that there was no reason, there was no trigger. Well, oftentimes, those reasons are hidden in juvenile files which are closed to the public. And I think that those privacy laws are not protecting the children, as they were intended to. They're certainly not protecting people like the Johnsons who took in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who needed homes. They're only protecting a system that's failing.
LAMB: Why would your publisher, Free Press, care whether or not this Johnnie Jordan was a sympathetic person?
TOTH: I think because it's a difficult -- it seems like a difficult issue, something that people don't necessarily want to look at. And they don't want to care about what happened to Johnnie Jordan. But I think that Johnnie is more representative of the kids who are in adult prisons now. I think most of them have come from his kind of rough background.
LAMB: What's he look like?
TOTH: He looks like a kid. He -- when he was in prison, he was trying to put on weight to make him look tougher, so he wouldn't get picked on as much. But the weight kind of fell into -- into fat -- you know, not a fat kid, but certainly just not a muscular man yet. He's a child still. He's been working out a lot since he's been in prison, so now he looks a little tougher. He often sits in sort of a tough inmate pose, you know, with his legs spread like -- looking like he's ready to pounce. But he -- he still has a soft look in his eye oftentimes, and he still looks like a child.
LAMB: Have you talked to him hundreds of times?
LAMB: Why does he talk to you?
TOTH: That's a good question. And at first, he didn't want to talk to me. At first, he wanted to get paid for participating in the book, and I told him that that -- I wouldn't do that. And then he was reluctant. He said, "What do I get out of it?" And I said, "Don't you want to help other kids like you, so kids don't wind up where you are?" He said, "Why do I care about other kids? I don't care. You're -- you're stupid if you care about other people like that."
Now, that was the tough Johnnie Jordan, that outward Johnnie Jordan that you see on the surface. There's another side to Johnnie Jordan which is much more compassionate and gentle. There's only a part of him that's cut off from his emotions.
My husband's a journalist for "The Washington Post." He was sent to Pakistan for three weeks to cover the war, and it was a difficult time for me. And Johnnie called every night, reminding me to kiss my baby good night and to make sure I wasn't too lonely. And Johnnie had nothing to gain from that. The book had already been out. He had already read what I had written. And it's not always a very generous and oftentimes not sympathetic look at who he is. So there are many different sides to Johnnie Jordan. And just as when you look at him, there are just many different features, he often appears rough, but there's often something very young about him.
LAMB: Where is Johnnie Jordan, Sr., and where is Johnnie Jordan, Jr.'s mother?
TOTH: Johnnie Jordan, Sr., is in prison, serving about 40 years, 40 to 70 years for the abuse he inflicted on his children. And his mother was in prison for two years, but she plea-bargained her way out of a longer sentence. His mother is often on the streets now. His father is serving prison time.
And his father, I have to say, is the ugliest man I've ever met. And I don't mean physically. I just mean sitting down and talking to him -- everything he says is self-serving. He told me that Johnnie committed the murder so that he could spend more time with his father because he loves his father so much because he wanted to present himself as a good father.
And in fact, Johnnie and his father were incarcerated in the same prison at one point by mistake. That's not supposed to happen. And Johnnie said that he would -- when he saw his father, he didn't know why but he'd just feel like throwing up. And Johnnie is a kid who had been through abuse, but either didn't recognize the abuse or didn't want to admit the abuse. Either the abuse was so normal in his family that he didn't recognize it as abuse, or he didn't -- he tried not to remember it.
He plays with his memory a lot, and he tries to remember things the way he wants them to be.
LAMB: The mother is on the street for what purpose?
TOTH: She's in an out of, you know, drugs. She has some substance abuse problems. She's not a very, you know, stable person.
LAMB: Have you met her?
TOTH: Only -- I saw her briefly, but she did not want to talk to me for this book.
LAMB: How many children did those two have together?
TOTH: They had seven children, and even before Johnnie was born, social services was aware that there were problems in the family. And the parents I think were so befuddled -- I guess that might be the word -- that they actually named one of Johnnie's younger siblings Johnnie because they had forgotten they had a child by his name.
LAMB: What's the age range of the seven children?
TOTH: Johnnie is the third and...
LAMB: He's 21.
TOTH: And he's 21. And his oldest sister would be probably about 26 now. And the youngest...
LAMB: And the youngest...
TOTH: ... is about 5.
LAMB: And where are they all?
TOTH: They're all split up. They're all in different places. The two youngest are with his step-grandmother, who also cared for Johnnie. One of them is in juvenile prison. The eldest is on her own, with two children of her own. Most of them, except for the eldest, have been in and out of different foster care facilities and different juvenile detention facilities.
LAMB: Johnnie Jordan, Jr., has -- and I think I read in your book -- has been in five different prisons? Or are there more by now?
TOTH: There are five now.
LAMB: Adult prisons.
TOTH: Adult prisons.
LAMB: Why five different prisons?
TOTH: The first time he was in a prison that had a juvenile -- a branch for juveniles, in particular. And then he was transferred and put in with adult inmates when he should have been with juvenile inmates because they try and separate them in Ohio, although it doesn't always work. Then he was in a prison with his father, and they didn't recognize the father and son were in the same prison until I requested an interview, and then they had to separate them. So he's just been moved all around.
At first, he had a very difficult time in prison. He was in solitary confinement an awful lot because, like most kids in adult prisons, they tend to lash out a lot. In fact, once -- one of the first times I interviewed him, I was alone in a conference room with him, and before we went into that conference room, I saw a kid who was incarcerated jump up and grab the person who was visiting.
And then a guard took me aside, and he said, "These are the most dangerous criminals you've ever met, these kids, because they don't wait until they're on the street to get somebody back. They just react at the moment to whatever happens. So you have to be very careful in interviewing them."
And the day before, one of those kids in that environment had pulled a knife on his former girlfriend and grabbed her, and it was a hostage situation -- because most adult criminals recognize "If I do this, I'm going to get more time, and I'll just wait till I'm on the street again," or they do it in a more subtle manner. But the -- but a lot of these kids are very impulsive and will just react.
LAMB: How much money is paid to a foster parent to take a kid in?
TOTH: Ten dollars a day, twelve dollars a day. Very little. Very little, considering what they're up against. So you get some of the most caring and generous people, like the Johnsons, and some people who can't get a job anywhere else and they're looking for any extra income they can get.
LAMB: How much race is there involved in all this? Are these -- are these folks white or black?
TOTH: Well, in prison, in adult prisons -- three quarters of the kids serving time in adult prisons are black.
LAMB: What about Johnnie Jordan?
TOTH: Johnnie's African-American. The Johnsons were African-American.
LAMB: And go back to the scene when the murder was committed. How old would you say Mrs. Johnson was?
TOTH: She was almost 70. And -- or, I'm sorry, she was 62. He husband was 70.
LAMB: And what were the circumstances again? How long had he been in the home? What time of day was it? And how did the actual murder itself happen?
TOTH: Johnnie had been with the Johnsons for three months. He loved playing checkers with Mr. Johnson. He loved teasing and joking with Mrs. Johnson. He felt very comfortable there, and they really liked him. But they had noticed some disturbing behavior. They were never told of his past. They were just told that he needed a temporary home for two or three days, but those two or three days stretched into three months. He had not been enrolled in school by social services because they kept expecting to move him.
The day of the -- Johnnie had found out several days before that he was going to be moved from their home, and he was upset about it. The day of the murder, he woke up with a churning in his stomach and this feeling that he was going to do something really bad, and he didn't know what it was.
LAMB: Again, the date, January...
LAMB: ... in nineteen...
TOTH: Ninety-six. That's right. I'm sorry.
And all day, he tried to -- to combat this feeling inside of him and tried to change what he felt. He thought he'd go out for a walk, but it was too cold to go out for his walk. And he called his counselor several times during that day, paged him, said, "J.R., you better come get me. I'm going to do something bad. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to do something bad." And J.R., who, like a lot of people in his position, was burned out. He's got dozens of kids on his caseload like Johnnie. And...
LAMB: J.R.'s operating out of where, by the way? What's...
TOTH: Out of Toledo.
LAMB: What's his name, full name?
TOTH: J.R. Robinson. And he often takes, you know, care of kids like Johnnie in a mentor-type role. Often he's paid. In this case, he was paid, but he's also looked out for Johnnie when he wasn't paid. And it's a stressful situation. You know, these kids call at all times of the day and night, and it was taking a toll on him, and he was getting out of town for that weekend. So he said, "Johnnie, you know, you can hold on till" -- you know, "Wait a few days. I'll be back in a few days." He thought, at worst, Johnnie might run away again.
The Johnsons had also noticed Johnnie's troubled behavior, and they had called social services three times the day before the murder, asking that he be moved form their home. There was nothing really specific that they noticed, just that he was aggravated and edgy and that he was breaking their rules. Like, they had a rule against cursing and swearing in the house, and Johnnie would do that. And it wasn't like Johnnie because Johnnie had generally been sort of sweet-natured with them.
Now, Johnnie's father had also been arrested recently on charges of abusing his children, and Johnnie felt responsible -- he always felt like he had to protect his parents, to take care of his parents. Of all the kids in his family, he was the one who sort of looked out for all the others and he felt responsible for them.
So a lot of things were going on inside of Johnnie, but he didn't know -- he couldn't -- he didn't know the feelings inside of him. He couldn't identify them. You know, for example, Johnnie doesn't feel anger, he just gets angry at something. And oftentimes, he'll smile when he's angry. He doesn't connect the emotions to how he's feeling.
LAMB: And at this stage, he's 15.
TOTH: He's 15.
LAMB: How much school has he had?
TOTH: Well, he's repeated several years of 5th grade. He's up to, I think, 8th grade now.
LAMB: How many different schools?
TOTH: He's been in maybe six, seven schools.
LAMB: Private, public?
TOTH: Mostly public. He was suspended 120 times from the last school he had been in.
LAMB: For doing what?
TOTH: For just talking when he shouldn't have been talking, from being disruptive, that sort of thing. And yet when he was in a group home that he liked very much, where J.R. was the counselor, he got almost straight A's. So you know, he was very influenced by his environment.
LAMB: So we're back to the home again. And what time of day is it?
TOTH: It's in the afternoon now. Johnnie's been fighting this feeling all day. It's the afternoon, and he gets what he describes as an "evil thought" stuck in his head. He walks into the room where Mrs. Johnson is watching Oprah, and he has this thought, "Hit her over the head just once. Hit her over the head." He walks out, and he's trying to, you know, break this -- free of this feeling, but it's really churning inside of him.
He waits longer, and then he says that he walks into the room where Mrs. Johnson is, and he, at this point, sees himself from outside of his body. It's as if he's in the corner of the room, the ceiling, looking down at the scene. And he said on one shoulder, on his right shoulder, he saw a little devil, like a cartoon figure, in a red cape saying, "Hit her over the head. Just do it just once. Hit her over the head. Do it." And on the other shoulder, he saw a little angel in a white gown, like in the cartoon, saying, "No, Johnnie, don't do it. Don't do it." And they're arguing back and forth.
So three times, he walks into the kitchen where his foster mother is preparing dinner for him, his favorite dinner, and he sees an axe by the stove -- by the wood stove. And he takes the axe in his hand. And twice he was able to turn and walk out. And the third time, he hit her from behind and on the top of her head. She turned and looked at him. She didn't say anything. But he -- he remembered her -- the surprise in her eyes. And he remembered the surprise he felt. And he said to me later, "I never thought I had the guts to do something like that. I never thought I could do something like that."
And then he struck her something like 12 to 15 times, according to the coroner, in her face and her eyes. Johnnie said he hit her much more, many more times than that. He didn't realize how difficult it was to kill -- I mean, how physically difficult. And he also said -- and he wasn't proud of this -- he had no idea how good it would feel to murder, how good that rage would feel. And he's not proud of that. And he also said that he knew something was wrong with him when he could watch her bleed to death and not feel anything.
When he was arrested by detectives, they described his confession as the most bizarre confession they had ever heard. It was even inhuman, considering the brutal nature of the act.
LAMB: But he did other things besides just hack her to death.
TOTH: Right. He set her on fire.
LAMB: And how did he do that?
TOTH: He poured kerosene on her. The idea was -- he kept hearing her breathe, he said. He thought he kept hearing her breathe. The coroner believes that she was dead before he set her on fire, but he was afraid she was breathing and that she would tell what happened. And he also had this idea that if he set her on fire, it would all just vanish. There would be nothing left of her or of anything.
LAMB: Where's Mr. Johnson in all this?
TOTH: Mr. Johnson had gone out to get a space heater because the house was cold. It was a very, very cold winter, and he had gone out to get a space heater while his wife was talking to a friend in the house. And the friend had subsequently left. So he -- in fact, when he was leaving, he had a sense that he shouldn't leave, and he had walked back towards the house. And then he heard his wife laughing, and he left again.
So he was driving back to the house at this time, when Johnnie was, you know, pacing back and forth after he'd set her on fire. He was still in a very agitated state. And then Johnnie walked out into the night, and he walked down the same road that Mr. Johnson drove up, coming home. In fact, they passed each other, but neither -- but Mr. Johnson didn't recognize Johnnie.
LAMB: Was it dark, at this point?
TOTH: It was dark. And like most of the juvenile crimes -- crimes committed by juveniles -- they happen between 3:00 and 6:00 in the afternoon.
LAMB: Why is that the case?
TOTH: There is -- some people believe it's because the kids are out of school at that point, so they're free to commit the murders. They're oftentimes more restless at that time than at night.
LAMB: So what happened when Mr. Johnson got home?
TOTH: He knew immediately who had done it. He knew it was Johnnie. There was no evidence linking Johnnie to the case. In fact, the only reason he was arrested was -- or, I'm sorry -- that he was able to be brought to trial was because of his confession. And he confessed because he said he wanted help. But Mr. Johnson got on the phone. He called the police. He called the fire department, actually, first because of the smoke in the house.
And Mr. Johnson in his heart believed that his wife was still alive, even though he knew she wasn't. It was a very poignant scene, I think, from the description of his neighbors and his friends there, and from Mr. Johnson himself. It was like he could no longer breathe. He knew his life had left.
LAMB: Now, when you -- how much of what you just told us came from Johnnie Jordan? The description of all that.
TOTH: The description of the murder, that came from Johnnie.
LAMB: Did it come to you, or did it come in the trial?
TOTH: It came to me. Some of it came out in the trial, as well. He had told his -- he had also told his attorneys about the angel and the devil debating for him whether he should do this and that it was an evil thought that told him to do this. And his attorney tried to get different psychiatrists to evaluate him to see whether he was fit to stand trial. And they had brought down three different psychiatrists, and each of them determined that these cartoon figures were just an indication of an immature conscience, that they weren't indications that Johnnie was not fit to stand trial.
LAMB: At some point in your book, you suggest -- and I don't remember exactly how it happened -- that Johnnie Jordan did this because of watching cartoons on television.
TOTH: I asked Johnnie. I said, "Well, why -- why did you think of doing it this way, hitting her over the head?" Because Johnnie had access to guns. There were different ways he could have done this. In fact, in my research, I found that there was one other time when he had thought of killing someone, and that had been a previous foster mother. And it was the same type of situation, in which he wanted to stay but he was going to be moved.
And at that time, he had had a gun buried in the back yard because she didn't permit guns in the house, and he respected her. But he had also thought of hitting her over the head. And "Where did you ever get this idea of hitting someone over the head?" He said, "I don't know. Maybe it was the cartoons or something." I said, "Well, did you expect that she would just die from getting hit over the head?" And he said, "Yeah, I think I did. I think I would just have to hit her once, and that would be it. And I could put her in the closet, and there wouldn't be any blood or anything like that."
So he -- he was the one who thought that perhaps it came from cartoons. He didn't know where he got the idea, but it was something that stuck with him.
LAMB: How big a story was this in Toledo?
TOTH: It was pretty big, just like every community that faces these kinds of seemingly inexplicable murders, these horrendous crimes. And there was a lot of outrage, a lot of anger towards Johnnie. "Put him away, and then let's move on." There was a lot of open wounds.
Right after his case, they lowered the minimum age at which a child can be executed to 13. They changed the laws to make it easier to prosecute children as adults. It really came down to wanting to protect foster parents from these really evil kids. And you know, rather than looking at who Johnnie was and what happened to him and why this happened, the reaction was to change the laws so that we can put these kids away as soon as possible for as long as possible.
LAMB: Is this Lucas County?
TOTH: Lucas County.
LAMB: And that -- and Toledo's inside Lucas County?
TOTH: That's right.
LAMB: How many foster parents are there in a county like that?
TOTH: That's hard for me to say, and it fluctuates. After Johnnie's arrest, the numbers went substantially down. And a lot of people complained when I wanted to write this book, you know, "Nobody's going to want to foster-parent." And my argument was, "No, look, real foster parents out there know about these troubled kids, and they're begging social services to be honest."
Even Mr. Johnson said that had he known of Johnnie's difficult behavior and rough past, he still would have taken Johnnie in. I found that remarkable. After everything that had happened, he still would have taken Johnnie in, but he would have been prepared. He would have known what to look for. He would have known to make sure that Johnnie was getting some sort of counseling. So it's...
LAMB: You used the figure somewhere in the book about 200, and I don't remember whether that was 200 homes or 200 foster kids. You know what -- how big a number of -- in that county, how many children were foster children?
TOTH: I don't know, but I think it was about 200 foster parents around that time.
LAMB: How many of them do it for the money?
TOTH: That's a very difficult question. I would say of Johnnie's foster parents, all the ones that I interviewed, they did it at least partly, at least mostly, for the money.
LAMB: That's 19.
TOTH: One of the foster parents hid a knife under her bed for protection. Another hid a knife in her laundry basket for protection.
LAMB: How many of them have multiple foster kids?
TOTH: Almost all of them. Almost all of them.
LAMB: And how many of them talked to you? How many of the 19 foster parents that he had talked to you?
TOTH: A number of them spoke to me off the record, and several of them spoke to me on background. And some of them would -- corresponded to me but did not speak directly to me. So I think that with each of them, there was this sense of "It could have been me," you know? That's what they wanted. They wanted to find out from me information about him, rather than to explain what their experience was with him.
LAMB: What year did you start this book?
TOTH: I started this in '97.
LAMB: So you're a year after...
TOTH: About a year...
LAMB: ... the murder.
TOTH: ... after the murder.
LAMB: And in your own life, what was going on? Were you married then?
TOTH: I was -- yes, I was married. I forget the date I was married! In '96. That's embarrassing! Yeah.
LAMB: How old is your child now?
TOTH: He's 14 months. He's 14 months.
LAMB: And you had written the book "Mole People" -- "The Mole People." What year did that come out?
TOTH: That came out in '93 -- '92 or '93.
LAMB: All about the people who live in the tunnels in New York City.
TOTH: Right. People making their homes in tunnels under New York.
LAMB: What led up to all this? Where did you come from? What -- where did you go to school?
TOTH: I went to school at Washington University in St. Louis, and then I went to Columbia journalism school, and I was -- interned working at a newspaper. And I was working in some -- tutoring some kids, and one of the kids said that she had a friend who lived in the tunnels under New York, and I didn't believe it. So I started working in soup kitchens and working in the homeless circles and found out that there were literally thousands of people living in the tunnels under New York City and making their homes there.
LAMB: When you would go out to talk to them -- and how many, roughly, did you talk to, the "mole people"?
TOTH: Oh, that's -- that's very difficult. There were communities of -- like, underground central, there was a community of over a hundred people right there. It's not there anymore, but -- and then there were tunnels, like under Riverside Park, where you'd get three or four people living together in sort of neighborhoods underground.
LAMB: And you'd go down into the tunnels?
LAMB: What did you dress -- how did you dress?
TOTH: Well, I was once mistaken for a homeless person by a homeless person above ground! Not that I intended to fit in, it was just my -- my boots and my pea coat was missing a button and, you know, I wore my hair in a ponytail, you know? I didn't try and fit in, but I just wore the thickest boots I could because I was so afraid of that third rail. And it was mostly wintertime when I was there, so heavy coats.
TOTH: It started off as an adventure. It really did. I just found it fascinating. And then, as I watched people die of everything from AIDS to simple colds, people unable to care for themselves, yeah. In fact, the fear hit later. You know, when I look in at my son, I look into his eyes, and I think, "Was I crazy? I could have missed out on this," you know? And now -- now that I have his life to look after and to look after my husband, as well, I can't imagine doing it again.
LAMB: What -- what drove you to do this? Where did -- in your own past, is there anything that connects on this?
TOTH: My father's a journalist.
LAMB: He is?
TOTH: Yeah. Well, he recently retired from the "Los Angeles Times."
LAMB: His name?
TOTH: Robert Toth. Robert Toth. He covered national security. He was also a foreign correspondent, and we lived in London and Moscow during the years of the Soviet Union. And in the '70s, he wrote articles about Soviet refuseniks. He had been threatened and told not to write these articles, and he was arrested and he was interrogated. And he was sentenced -- or he was accused of being a spy, just to prevent him from writing these articles, which I'm very proud of him for. He really stood up for what he believed was an important truth to be told. I found that inspiring. I've always...
LAMB: What did he think when you're going into the tunnels of New York and also, for that matter, interviewing Johnnie Jordan and going through -- into the prisons and stuff?
TOTH: He was pretty angry about the tunnels. He threatened to break all my fingers to prevent me from writing and to keep me out of the tunnels! But my little brother told me that I should do it.
LAMB: Why did he think you should do it?
TOTH: He said, "Just do what you always do. Don't listen and just do it."
TOTH: But then again, he was a -- he was an undergraduate student at Stanford, so, like me, he didn't realize how bad things could get. Now -- and with Johnnie Jordan, I think my father had a lot of different feelings about it. My father works closely with me when I write these books. He's the toughest editor I hope I'll ever have because he's pretty tough. But -- and he wasn't -- he was nervous about my association with Johnnie. But in the end, I think he understands how important it is.
LAMB: Now, Johnnie Jordan, Jr., calls you at home collect.
LAMB: How close do you want to get to this young man? Or you're already, you know, hundreds of hours into the relationship.
TOTH: Right. Right. And our relationship changed substantially after I'd finished the book. During the book, I purposefully was cold to him. I had purposefully kept up a -- he had my number to call me collect, and I hadn't yet had my son during most of this time. And I felt that it was a professional relationship. In fact, there were often times I asked him tough questions, and he'd get so angry that I wondered if he'd ever call me back, or that was the end. But I had to ask those questions, and I had to really put it to him.
And then after the book came out -- and he said something to me. He said, "You know, I really don't want to be in here anymore. I really want to be out. But I realize I could do this again, and I don't want to do this again. I don't want to kill somebody again. It might happen. But I don't want that to happen."
And we talked more and more, and I realized there was a type of self-awareness developing in Johnnie, just having some connection to the outside world, because everybody had fallen away from him. The only person that he still kept in contact with was his former attorney, who...
TOTH: Ron Wingate (ph).
LAMB: And how did he get an attorney? Because he didn't have any money.
TOTH: Right. It was -- he was assigned an attorney.
LAMB: Did I read that the attorney wasn't paid?
TOTH: Was paid...
LAMB: Very much?
TOTH: No, just $1,000 or $2,000 for all the amount of work he put into this case. He put an astounding amount of work into this case.
LAMB: Why wasn't he paid?
TOTH: It just -- because of -- it was a court-appointed lawyer, and so this was something that, you know, he was expected to take on, this case, in addition to his other cases. But he got very involved in Johnnie's case. He really felt strongly. He felt, "This could be my kid." You know, "If the situations were different, this could have been my kid."
His other attorney felt very differently. He never felt that his step-children could have become Johnnie Jordans.
LAMB: Now, one's named Wingate.
TOTH: One's Wingate.
LAMB: And Meyer (ph).
TOTH: Yeah, and Wingate's African-American and Meyer is white.
LAMB: Now, does that have anything to do with the relationship with the two? Mr. Wingate got close to Johnnie Jordan. He's black. And Richard Meyer is white.
TOTH: I don't think so. I don't -- I really don't think that Johnnie notices color very much. I don't think he's -- that affects him very much. Maybe it affected the attorneys. You know, maybe you could identify -- he could -- the African-American attorney could identify with the things that Johnnie was up against more than the white attorney could. I don't know.
LAMB: You pointed out in your book, though, that Mr. Wingate made a thousand dollars, or whatever it was, but the attorney who went after the money at the county level for Mr. Johnson made $165,000.
TOTH: Uh-huh. Because there was -- Mr. Johnnie sought reform within the foster care, juvenile justice and mental health care systems. He died before any of those reforms went anywhere. And with his death, the move towards reform was dropped. And that's why I felt it was important to continue, because Mr. Johnson wasn't educated beyond the 4th grade, and I think that that affected his ability to get the help that he needed to get these reforms.
But he did have an attorney who was a former social worker, who was going to fight for these reforms and trying to prove that the foster care system had been negligent in not telling -- or criminal in not telling the Johnsons of Johnnie's past. Now, it was really impossible to prove that they were anything but negligent in not telling the Johnsons, that it wasn't -- had -- what's the word? It wasn't out of cruelty that they didn't tell them, it was just negligence. So there was an out-of-court settlement for just under a million dollars, and the attorney received a cut of that. But Mr. Johnson died before he spent any of that money, and...
LAMB: What did he die of?
TOTH: He died of cancer, but it was really noticeable, the decline after Mrs. Johnson's death. He just withered. I watched him wither. He just had nothing left in him. His friends say he died of grief, and I personally believe that that's true.
LAMB: Another thing you traced on the Johnnie Jordan, Sr., and his life level was drugs, that it seemed that you were saying that at the heart of the beginning of all the problems were drugs.
TOTH: I think drugs and just a cycle of bad childhoods -- Johnnie Jordan, Sr., Johnnie Jordan, Jr.'s father, had a difficult past, too. He had actually also been in foster care at different times. His mother was a prostitute. His father was a pimp. He was illegitimate. Johnnie's mother, Marilyn Monroe -- at least, that's what she said her name was, told her husband her name was, Marilyn Monroe. She had also had a difficult past that she wasn't willing to talk about. And it was assumed that there was a lot of abuse in her past, as well. So there -- I think that, aside from the drug abuse, which is often a part of these difficult childhoods, that there's -- there are these cycles that are not being broken of abuse and neglect, of drugs, of bad parenting.
LAMB: Abuse -- you use that word several times. What kind of abuse?
TOTH: Well, in Johnnie's case, it was -- I think it was certainly both physical, but more damaging, I think, is the emotional abuse, the power people have over their kids, the brain-washing they do, say, you know, "This is normal. These people are out to get us. Don't go see a psychiatrist," you know? "They're going to -- they're just going to try and get us. And if you open up at all to the outside, you're going to -- you're going to kill me, literally, because they'll put me in prison and people will kill me."
It's an awful lot of responsibility for kids. That kind of abuse I think is more damaging and was more damaging to Johnnie than anything you could put him through physically.
LAMB: Who -- you have a lot of characters in your book, besides what we've talked about so far. Who are the good -- good ones and who are the not-so-good ones?
TOTH: I think this was also very inspiring in this book, the heroes, the people that were working to save Johnnie Jordans and were working against a system that was not designed to help, let alone save, a system that I think was creating Johnnie Jordans. And they're working within that system.
LAMB: When you say "system," what are you talking about?
TOTH: Juvenile justice, mental health, foster care.
LAMB: County level? City-based?
TOTH: Uh-huh. All the way up.
LAMB: How much federal money is into this?
TOTH: Lots. Lots and lots. And it's just not being used effectively.
LAMB: How much state money is in it?
TOTH: Lots, too. I can't put a number on it, but it's just not being used effectively.
LAMB: What about the children's services and all? When all this started -- let's say, you know, you've got a Johnnie Jordan, Jr. How do they find out he needs a foster home? And who decides that?
TOTH: Oftentimes, with kids like Johnnie -- well, with Johnnie it was his parents -- were abusive and neglectful, and it took many, many times for social services to recognize that they had to be -- these kids had to be taken away. And by the time they were willing to terminate parental rights, it was really too late for most of these kids to be adopted. But...
LAMB: Who does that, by the way? Who decides?
TOTH: The social worker. The social worker.
LAMB: Works for?
TOTH: The children's services.
LAMB: And that is administered by?
TOTH: The welfare agency? Is that what you mean?
TOTH: Yeah. So...
LAMB: And is that a county-based operation?
TOTH: It is county-based.
LAMB: And where do they get their money?
TOTH: They get their money from state, federal and county.
LAMB: Lots of money? A place like Lucas County, Toledo area, is there...
TOTH: I think enough to raise these kids better than they're doing. I think...
LAMB: Did they cooperate with you?
TOTH: No. Social services, children's services? Not at all.
LAMB: Not at all?
TOTH: Not at all. Not at all.
LAMB: Wouldn't talk to you about this.
TOTH: No. They did -- at one point, the director agreed to meet with me with two attorneys, two of his attorneys, but that was it. And he also told the foster parents not to talk to me. I was able to get ahold of all of Johnnie's files from social services...
TOTH: Well, it wasn't always legally, but yeah, I was able to get those files. And certainly, I wouldn't have used them without Johnnie's permission or the Johnsons' permission, but I felt that there were a lot of truths that needed to be told, the truth like the Johnsons had asked that this child be removed from their home three times the weekend before the murder. And you know, there were people who needed to be held accountable, but most of all, that system that was protecting itself needed to be held accountable. They wouldn't even give the files to the judge involved in the case. They wanted to withhold the files from the judge, and he had to absolutely order them a number of times to give up those files.
LAMB: Why are they doing this?
TOTH: They wanted to protect themselves. They wanted to protect their social worker who had neglected to take him out of their home, the home -- but they also wanted to be absolved of any blame. They wanted to believe that this kid just went off, and that's what they want to present to the public, that there was no way of predicting that this kid was going to flip and murder, which is absolutely not true.
LAMB: He was tried, as you say, as an adult and convicted as an adult for -- what kind of murder? Was it...
TOTH: Aggravated -- murder and then aggravated robbery and aggravated arson.
LAMB: And was there an insanity plea?
TOTH: There was -- there was an insanity -- and had Johnnie known that that's what he was pleading, he would not have pled insanity because he didn't want anybody to think he was crazy. No matter what, that was the most important thing to him, that nobody thought he was crazy. So -- yeah.
LAMB: Well -- so social services and the juvenile courts -- what did you find there?
TOTH: Well, I found that at one time, his probation officer before the murder -- about a month before the murder, his probation officer had noticed that Johnnie was getting out of control and wanted to put him in a detention facility. To do so, he needed to appear before a judge with his social worker from foster care, the probation officer and a mentor. And they all needed to be in agreement before the judge. The social worker had failed to show up at that meeting, so the move was thrown out -- you know, just like in traffic court, if the police officer doesn't show up. And so Johnnie was put back into the Johnsons' home.
So I found that those three systems were not working together. In fact, in Ohio, like in many states, if a kid is found to be criminal or delinquent, they can no longer enter the mental health system. And I think most people would recognize that kids who are showing troubled behavior, whether it's abusing animals or assaulting each other, they need mental health, as well as some sort of, you know, juvenile justice intervention.
They need these programs to be working together, and they're not. They're all working separately. And that's why these kids aren't getting the help they need to develop emotionally, to develop the kind of conscience that we -- we think that they don't have when they commit these crimes.
LAMB: When this book came out -- and when was the actual date that it was published?
TOTH: It was published in February of this year.
LAMB: Did the local "Toledo Blade" do a story on this book?
TOTH: Yes, they did.
LAMB: Did it make any difference?
TOTH: I don't think -- I think that it made a difference in that it made people more aware of this case. I think that it's -- the fall-out has been -- has been uneven. Some people are very pleased that it's out in the open. Some people are still angry. "Why pick at old wounds?" Actually, the only person that I know of who's angry is the director of the children's services. But all of this needed to come out. He needs...
LAMB: Is there a name on that director?
TOTH: He needs -- yeah, Dean Sparks (ph). He needs to be aware of what's going on. He -- I think he knows, and the fact that he wants to cover it up I think is -- is really almost criminal.
LAMB: Let me go back to -- I've asked you this a couple times, but what is it about you that's driving you to do this, both "The Mole People" in the tunnels of New York and this story on Toledo?
TOTH: Because this didn't have to happen and because we can stop this from happening. They don't -- Mrs. Johnson didn't have to die for these changes to be made. She did die. But as Mr. Johnson said, there are going to be a lot more Mrs. Johnsons out there until we do something about this.
And if we can tell these stories and be honest about them, if we can really look at what's going on, we can prevent them. And these kids are our greatest hope. This is at the point at which we can change things. It's harder to change when people are in their later years, or even middle years, living in the tunnels under New York and they have nothing to go back to above ground. But these kids, they have a future, and they know it.
And all of the kids that I've talked to, they want to do right. They want to do good things. They want approval. They don't want to go out and murder somebody. But they're not getting what they need to develop into a healthy human being. And to me, that's what's so important. That's why -- that's why these stories are important.
LAMB: Are you driven because you want to be a writer, or are you driven because you want to have an impact on the social system?
TOTH: That's a good question. I don't know if I know the answer to that. I know that when I get involved in these books, I feel a real commitment to them and -- because they give me so much. I learn so much about myself and about what's going on around me. I feel so much more enriched, knowing someone like Johnnie Jordan even, and knowing Mr. Johnson. He taught me things that -- that still today I think about every day. Every day.
And I want to present things to people. I want readers to read what I have to write and come up with their own ideas, their own conclusions. A lot of people who have read my books have actually taught me things about things I've written. You know, they've seen other things than I've seen, and that's important to me.
LAMB: Do you have a next book in mind?
TOTH: I have some ideas. I certainly hope there'll be a next book.
LAMB: But do you have an area that you want to -- that you've thought about doing?
TOTH: Yeah. Again, I think it will be non-fiction. My father keeps trying to encourage me to get out of the kinds of non-fiction I've been writing about, something a little safer, he says. But I have some ideas.
LAMB: Our guest has been Jennifer Toth, and this is the cover of her book, "What Happened to Johnnie Jordan? The Story of a Child Turning Violent."
Thank you very much.
TOTH: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2002. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.