There was no crime scene, nor any clues left to suggest that a 12-year-old boy had been abducted. His pet dachshund was still there, looking lonely and lost. The pup had been down the suburban road many times with his best friend, Johnny Gosch, a paper boy who delivered the news to residents. Yet, the boy was nowhere to be found, and the events to come were so bizarre that people today still have a hard time believing them.
On September 5, 1982, Johnny, a charismatic preteen, started his paper route for the Des Moines Daily Register early in the morning, as usual, in a residential area of West Des Moines, Iowa. He slung a yellow messenger bag across his shoulders and set off with his red wagon, full of daily newspapers.
At around 7 A.M., neighbors began calling Johnny’s parents, John and Noreen Gosch, complaining that they hadn’t received their morning paper. This was unusual since Johnny hadn’t missed a single day of work since starting the paper route. John Gosch set out to find his son, perhaps thinking the boy lost track of time and was simply running behind in his deliveries. Instead of finding his son, however, John Gosch spotted a red wagon full of newspapers sitting on a sidewalk. The newspaper bundles hadn’t even been cut yet. Johnny had simply vanished. Heartbreakingly, it was the first day that his parents had allowed him to deliver the papers without adult supervision.
John and Noreen immediately felt a sense of urgency and phoned the police right away. It wasn’t like their son to disappear without telling anyone. Yet, in 1982, authorities waited 72 hours before considering someone missing, even children. Today, of course, police waiting that long to search for a missing child is unheard of. Noreen helped in writing legislation that would eventually differentiate missing adults from missing children in Iowa. In 1984, Iowa passed “The Johnny Gosch Bill,” which required police to immediately act when a child is reported missing. Eight other states followed, implementing similar bills. Federal law (42 U.S.C. § 5780) now prohibits authorities in any state from creating a waiting period before searching for missing children.
Witnesses and Frustration
Even after witnesses claimed that two men had grabbed Johnny and forced him into the back of blue Ford Fairmont, police were still hesitant to believe that the boy had been abducted. However, they began searching wooded areas throughout the vicinity, perhaps in hopes that he was hiding out, but they never found a shred of evidence.
Noreen felt frustrated with the police. She didn’t understand why they wouldn’t do more to help find Johnny. Des Moines authorities were still under the impression that the kid ran away. Noreen was insistent that her son would never do that. She knew in her heart that someone took him.
Both John and Noreen reached out to the FBI and, within a few days, created enough flyers and posters to fill telephone poles and convenience store windows for states on end. They also reached out to the press, and the media attention helped get Johnny’s face on the front page of several major newspapers. They spoke to a private investigator, who told them Johnny may have been kidnapped and forced into a child-sex-trafficking operation.
Two years went by without finding Johnny, and police were moving at an unbearably slow pace, at least according to the Gosch family. Noreen continued to keep the case in the limelight, instilling a sense a fear across the nation that hadn’t been there before. Kids were no longer riding their bikes alone, while others stopped walking home from school, and instead enrolled in after-school programs. Other parents hired sitters or left their jobs completely so that their children were no longer “latch-key kids.”
Missing Children Milk Carton Program
The fear intensified when, in 1984, another boy, Eugene Martin, disappeared while delivering newspapers in South Des Moines.
Placing missing children’s photos on milk cartons became something of a phenomenon after Johnny and Eugene went missing. They became the first missing kids to appear on the back of half gallon, cardboard milk containers. Within months after the boys’ pictures appeared, the National Child Safety Council (NSCS) implemented the Missing Children Milk Carton Program, that eventually displayed thousands of children’s photos on billions of milk cartons.
As years went by, speculation intensified about children being kidnapped and forced into pedophile rings. Nine years after Johnny vanished, Paul Bonacci, a 21-year-old convicted child molester, said that not only was he involved in a pedophile ring as a child, but that he had also helped kidnap Johnny. Bonacci claimed he was a teen when he was kidnapped and made into an “MK ULTRA sex slave,” by an “elite government group” that routinely abducted children and forced them into child prostitution. He blamed his felony convictions on his childhood trauma, but came forward because he “wanted to make things right.”
Authorities didn’t take Bonacci’s claims seriously, even though he led investigators to a Colorado home where he said he was held captive for years; a home he claimed Johnny was also held captive in. The abandoned home was boarded up, but many etchings and initials were found on pipes and boards in a secret area under the house.
Bonacci’s claims aren’t as far-fetched as authorities made them out to be.
During the 1980s, the pedophile epidemic was sweeping throughout the world. Thousands of miles away in California, child actors Corey Feldman and Corey Haim (and numerous others child stars) were reportedly surrounded by a flood of pedophiles who were so powerful in the entertainment industry, that molesting kids and getting away with it became routine.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of children in the UK, ranging in age from 6 to 15, were being abducted and allegedly sold into sex rings. Most children were afraid to talk, shamed into thinking they did something wrong, or threatened so severely that they feared for their lives. It’s not uncommon for many kids to become accustomed to the lifestyle, and unfortunately continue the vicious cycle once they grow into adults.
Meanwhile, Noreen, fearing for her son’s safety, had been keeping a secret to herself. But after she talked to Bonacci, she revealed that Johnny had knocked on her door in 1997. She indicated that Johnny only stayed at her home briefly, and pleaded with her to not say a word. He reportedly saw a quick chance to escape his captors and intended on sneaking back before they knew he was gone. “The night that he came here, he was wearing jeans and a shirt and had a coat on because it was March. It was cold, and his hair was long; it was shoulder-length and it was straight and dyed black,” Noreen said.
Noreen wrote a book in 2000, Why Johnny Can’t Come Home, telling her story.
Did Johnny really visit Noreen that night? Would a mother who spent the past seven years frantically searching for her son let him leave so quickly? The story is difficult to digest for many people. Johnny would have been a grown man by 1997. Why would an able-bodied adult stay with his captors? Others, however, understood Noreen’s fear. Perhaps she’d rather have her son alive rather than take the chance that he’d be killed if he told someone what happened to him. Or psychologically speaking, perhaps Johnny had been “brain-washed” by this point, and felt his former life was over.
On November 12, Johnny will turn 47 years old. Noreen claims she’s never seen her son again after the 1997 encounter, but she fully believes he is alive and out there somewhere, in hiding, so that he can protect himself.
Anyone with any information of Johnny’s whereabouts is urged to call the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4811.
If you are in search of a missing person, make sure to enter their information into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Main photo: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children