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It’s a story that shocked communities and catapulted Iowa into the national spotlight, changed state law and forever changed the way parents monitored their children’s activities.
Twelve-year-old Des Moines Register paperboy Johnny Gosch left his West Des Moines home on Sunday morning, September 5, 1982, to begin his paper route. He wore a white sweatshirt with ‘Kim’s Academy’ on the back, warm-up pants, blue rubber flip-flops, and carried a yellow paper-bag.
Normally, his father, John Gosch, accompanied him on the route, but on this day Johnny went alone.
He never came home.
What happened after that has been the subject of speculation for more than three decades.
In a November 11, 2010 interview — the day before Johnny would have celebrated his 41st birthday — Johnny’s mother Noreen Gosch told WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck that several other paper boys, all witnesses to the abduction, said Johnny was approached by a man driving a blue Ford Fairmont.
“The guy shut off his engine, opened the passenger door and swung his feet out on the curb right where the boys were assembling their newspapers. And he started talking about where’s 86th street?” Ms. Gosch told Brilbeck. “Johnny turned to Mike and said, ‘I’ve got my papers loaded in the wagon. I’m scared. I’m getting out of here. I’m gonna head home.'”
As Johnny left, the driver of the car took off, too, the boys told police.
“The man pulled the door shut and started up the engine, but before he left he reached up and flicked the dome light three times. Then he pulled out and left,” Ms. Gosch said.
She said she believes the driver was signaling another person who later grabbed Johnny, and that one of the paperboys saw a tall man come out from in between two houses and follow her son.
West Des Moines Police Lt. Jeff Miller — a rookie cop at the time — told Brilbeck police began scouring the area immediately but hit one wall after another.
“They went ahead and called in the staff,” Miller said. “The troopers. They called in detectives. Reserves. Contacted Polk County Sheriffs. The State Patrol. At that point they did a door to door canvass of that neighborhood trying to find someone who saw something of Johnny.”
Nothing was found, and they saw nothing at all, said Miller.
Noreen Gosch kept meticulous notes about her son’s disappearance and documented the first two years in an early chapter — “They Have No Crime … I Have No Son!!!! The First Two Years” — in a book she’d later publish about her unsuccessful efforts to work with police and what it took to finally get law enforcement’s attention.
One month after her son’s disappearance, Noreen founded The Johnny Gosch Foundation and also developed a program called “In Defense of Children.” She began touring the nation, making nearly 1,000 personal appearances with law enforcement, missing persons organizations, those involving human trafficking, and doing whatever she could to increase overall awareness of crimes involving children.
On July 1, 1984, a bill she authored — the Johnny Gosch Bill — was passed into Iowa law. It mandated immediate police involvement whenever a child went missing, and was subsequently adopted by eight additional states.
That same year, she traveled to Washington, D.C. and testified before Congress during hearings on organized crime. Her testimony, she said, led to death threats and also, in part, the eventual establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. President Ronald Reagan invited her to the center’s opening and dedication.
She went to work on two documentaries — one for HBO and another for the State Department.
Her story and what she believed happened to her son led to her writing Why Johnny Can’t Come Home, a book published in 2000.
Time marched onward — months turning into more years — still with no sign of her son.
In the interim, two more young Des Moines boys also vanished under mysterious circumstances. Thirteen-year-old paperboy Eugene Martin vanished from Des Moines’ south side on August 12, 1984.
Not quite two years after Martin’s disappearance, 13-year-old Marc Allen told his mother he planned to walk to a friend’s house down the street but never arrived at the neighbor’s home and hasn’t been seen since March 29, 1986.
Marc Allen’s mother, Nancy Allen, has stated she doesn’t know whether her son’s disappearance is linked to the disappearance of either Johnny Gosch or Eugene Martin, but felt police were reluctant to pursue her son’s case because of the other two missing boys.
“I got the distinct feeling [police] did not want parents to be frightened to let their children sell newspapers or do different things,” Nancy Allen told WHO-TV’s Aaron Brilbeck in a story Channel 13 aired November 25, 2010.
More than two decades after all three boys disappeared, one mother received a stark reminder.
Early one September morning in 2006, Noreen Gosch said a mysterious envelope showed up on her front doorstep. Inside, she said, she found three disturbing photos of several boys, all tied up. One of the boys appeared to be Johnny.
“I literally could not breathe. I could not get my breath,” Gosch told Brilbeck. “I was so totally unprepared to see something like that. All these years had gone by and here was this picture.”
The image in question depicted a young boy, hog-tied and wearing only his underpants and socks.
Gosch took the photos to the West Des Moines Police Department.
“When I did we spread them out and the detective kept saying ‘That’s Johnny, that’s Johnny,'” said Gosch. “I said ‘I know that’s Johnny.'”
The press went wild. Newspapers and television stations across the country reported Gosch’s story. Then came a call from West Des Moines police, who told Gosch they were planning a press conference of their own; they planned to announce the pictures weren’t of Johnny after all.
“I said that picture is Johnny, and the detective said to me, ‘Well, somebody from Florida called in and said he used to be an investigator and remembered the pictures — those pictures — from a case in 1970-something,'” Gosch said.
Noreen Gosch said she asked the detective if the caller had provided them with any evidence, and he’d responded with ‘no,’ telling her they just had the phone call.
“And based on his phone call you’re going to do a press conference and say that picture’s not Johnny?” she recalled asking him. “And he said, ‘Well, yes I am.'”
To this day, Gosch believes the boy in the photo is her son, and that he was bound, gagged and abused, and taken for the purpose of satisfying pedophiles. Police continue to insist it’s not him.
“We found out where the photos were taken,” Lt. Miller told Brilbeck. “We talked with investigators in Florida and they were able to identify all of the kids in that picture and they weren’t Johnny Gosch.”
The differing opinions on the boy’s identify hasn’t stopped Noreen Gosch, who continues to dedicate her life to finding her son’s abductors and raising awareness about kidnapping and human trafficking. Her lobbying helped change laws and improve child safety. Her son was one of the first children ever to appear on a “Missing Kids” milk carton.
“The things that are good is the awareness that this has brought. The case changed the country. It was a watershed case,” she said.
In a personal note to her son on a website she created in his honor, Noreen wrote, “My hope is that the latest report saying you are still alive is true and that one day we will be able to see each other again.”
She also posted a list of things she knows about her son’s kidnapping and notes how it all feels “like it was yesterday.”
Police, however, doubt he’s alive and believe the only real break in the case will come when Johnny’s remains are found.
“In the ideal world he is alive and he comes home and everybody’s happy,” Lt. Miller said. “But in the real world more than likely our best lead will come when his body is found. And at that point it becomes a crime scene.”
WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck talks with Noreen Gosch, mother of Iowa missing paperboy Johnny Gosch, and the West Des Moines Police Department on what would have been Johnny’s 41st birthday. WARNING: Some viewers may find the content disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised. Air date: November 11, 2010
Miller told Brilbeck that as a parent, he didn’t know what Ms. Gosch is going through, and felt his statements might be kind of harsh.
“But that’s reality,” he said. “That’s more than likely what will happen.”
Asked about what would have been her son’s 41st birthday, Noreen said she often thinks about what his life would have been like had it not been for that fateful day in 1982.
“He would have gone on, probably found the love of his life. Maybe, hopefully settled down. Had a family, an interesting career that he enjoyed like his siblings,” she said. “You want the best thing for your child and the sad thing is that was all robbed from him…and those years are missing. The clock stopped at 12 years old for us.”
The documentary feature film “Who Took Johnny,” which chronicles the mystery surrounding the young boy’s disappearance, premiered Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, according to a Des Moines Register article published that same day. The festival featured a second showing on Jan. 23.
The film “captures the endless intrigue surrounding the eyewitness accounts, compelling evidence and emotional discoveries” that span three decades, according to filmmakers with the New York-based studio Rumur, which produced the film.
“Who Took Johnny” grew out of a 2012 MSNBC film titled “Missing Johnny.” The film combines archive footage and new interviews with Gosch’s parents, Noreen and John Gosch, along with investigators and others connected to the case.
The Fleur Cinema in West Des Moines has scheduled to show the documentary the week of April 24, 2015.
Here’s how to set up a screening in your hometown theater.
Noreen Gosch, who’d never before agreed to take part in a film until “Who Took Johnny,” said the filmmakers tackled it with “honesty and compassion.” She said the film sheds light on how little was known at the time about pedophilia and the child sex trade, which she is convinced played a role in her son’s abduction.
Trailer for “WHO TOOK JOHNNY?” Rumur Films, an independent studio based in Brooklyn, New York, produced a film in 2014 about Johnny’s disappearance. Filmmakers traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to make Who Took Johnny, which compiles decades of interviews of dozens of people involved with the case. The film focuses on the heartbreaking story of Johnny’s mother, Noreen Gosch, and her relentless quest to find the truth about what happened that tragic September morning in Des Moines when Johnny never returned from his paper route.
If you have any information about Johnny Gosch’s disappearance or whereabouts, please call FBI Special Agent Gerald Ingrisano at (515) 223-4278 or West Des Moines Police Department Detective Tom Boyd at (515) 223-3211.