“This case haunts me. It’s the case I’ll take to the grave.” Retired Des Moines Police investigator James Rowley handled the abduction case of Eugene Martin in 1984, a young boy who disappeared while delivering his Des Moines Register newspaper route. Rowley saved this poster, which is wrinkled and torn, as a memory of a case that has yet to be solved.
Almost two years after Johnny Gosch vanished on his paper route in West Des Moines, Eugene Martin disappeared under similar pre-dawn circumstances on the south side of Des Moines.
That was 25 years ago today, the year the Center for Missing and Exploited Children opened for business. A few days before Eugene’s 14th birthday.
He’d be almost 39 now. Though his whereabouts are still a mystery, Eugene Martin isn’t forgotten.
Jeannie McDowell still remembers how her nephew enjoyed football, fishing, skating, video games and TV. Eugene had an ornery streak, she says now, but what healthy kid doesn’t?
Eugene’s mother, Janice, died recently from diabetes. His stepmother, Susan, and his father, Donald Martin, are divorced.
Eugene’s father will be 64 in October. He has Alzheimer’s disease and has been living in a nursing home for almost three years. Though his memory is slipping, every now and then he’ll ask about his son.
“My brother will be watching TV,” McDowell says. “Something will spark it and all the old questions will come back. ‘Where is he? What happened?’ And he’ll go off the deep end. He’ll become angry, sometimes violent.”
Where is Gene? What did happen to him?
Noreen Gosch says her Johnny is alive and hiding, in fear for his life. She believes the people who said her son was forced into a child pornography/prostitution ring. In her mind, the two cases are linked.
Case links questioned
James Rowley, the retired Des Moines police detective who was on the Martin case until his retirement in 2001, recognizes the similarities — two paperboys, about the same age — but has questions about linkage.
Why the two-year gap? That isn’t how it normally works with serial killers, kidnappers and other vermin. The criminal’s “growing appetite” for crime doesn’t allow for lengthy holding patterns.
“Where was he before ’82?” Rowley says. “Where was he between ’82 and ’84, and where was he after ’84?”
Rowley, 63, has heard all the theories, conspiracy and otherwise, and none makes sense.
“The person or persons who did this will have to show us the body and convict themselves, because there is no evidence. None.”
With the focus and publicity centered on Johnny Gosch for so many years, Eugene Martin seemed, in some ways, like the other kid who dropped out of sight.
His mother, father and stepmother weren’t media-savvy. Not like Gosch’s mom, who grew in the spotlight.
Martin’s blue-collar family members never seemed comfortable peering into a camera lens or prodding law enforcement officials. They didn’t create a Web site or write a book or go talk to politicians in Washington, D.C.
But they still haven’t forgotten or given up. A year ago, another aunt went to a psychic. Let it go, the psychic said. Martin is gone and his remains will never be found.
It wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. Martin was never the other kid to his family or to Rowley. A poster of Martin, forever 13, hangs in the old cop’s garage.
Rowley says he thinks about Martin daily, always wonders what he could have done differently and hopes Jeff Shannon, the detective on the case now, has better luck.
No credible leads
Rowley traveled as far as Mexico and Canada on leads. “We chased 2,000 to 3,000 of them,” he says. “Not one was credible.”
All those leads, Rowley says, enabled the cops to nab five sex offenders. People looking for good news, that’s it.
Witnesses said they saw Martin talking to a clean-cut man in his 30s between 5 and 5:45 a.m. at Southwest 12th Street and Highview Drive. Some said the two were engaged in a “friendly father-son” conversation.
Rowley believes the man talked Eugene into leaving his route. He doesn’t like to think what happened next, but he fears the worst.
In his time as a cop, Rowley worked more than 200 homicides and 50 bank robberies. He helped solve 80 percent of them.
“This case haunts me,” he says. “It’s the case I’ll take to the grave.”
Rowley will never forget Eugene Martin or the date he went missing. As it happens, Aug. 12 is also Rowley’s son’s birthday, which has a way of bringing it home.
Eugene Wade Martin
Age at Report: 13 YOA
DOB: August 17, 1970
Missing From: Des Moines, IA Polk County Hair Color: Brown
Eye Color: Brown
Weight: 110 lbs.
Case Number: 84-03891
NCIC Number: M-129642239
NCMEC Number: NCMC601815
Incident Type: Involuntary Disappearance
Missing Since: August 12, 1984
On Sunday morning, August 12, 1984, 13-year-old Eugene Martin left his home at approximately 5 a.m. to deliver the Des Moines Register newspaper in the Des Moines area. He wore blue jeans, a red shirt and a gray pullover.
Eugene normally delivered the papers with his older stepbrother, but on this day went alone. The Iowa State Fair was in town, and Eugene — who in his free time enjoyed football, fishing, skating, video games and TV — wanted to make some extra money.
Witnesses said they saw Martin talking to a clean-cut white male in his 30s sometime between 5 and 5:45 a.m. at Southwest 12th Street and Highview Drive. Some stated the two appeared to be engaged in a friendly “father-son” sort of conversation, and others recalled seeing the teen folding papers and talking to the man sometime between 5:45 and 6:05 a.m.
A poster announcing a $94,000 reward for information about Johnny Gosch or Eugene Martin, including $25,000 offered by the Des Moines Register, did nothing to solve either boy’s case. Download in PDF format
Between 6:10 and 6:15 a.m., Eugene’s bag was found on the ground outside of Des Moines with 10 folded papers still inside. When customers called to report not receiving their morning newspapers, the manager went out, found the bag and delivered the papers.
At approximately 8:40 a.m., the search for Eugene began. He has not been seen since.
Suspect Likely ‘Loner’
Federal agents said at the time there might be a “definite connection” to the disappearance of another Des Moines paper carrier — 12-year-old Johnny Gosch, who disappeared two years earlier on September 5, 1982 — and described the suspect as a “loner.”
Authorities said they were treating the Martin case as a kidnapping and had issued a nationwide bulletin for a man described as between 30 and 40 years old, 5 feet, 9 inches tall, clean shaven and with a medium build.
“Generally, the person is an introvert, a loner who may or may not be extra guilt-ridden on what he does but will not turn himself in,” said Herb Hawkins, special F.B.I. agent in charge of the Nebraska-Iowa field office in August 1994. Hawkins said some useful information was being gleaned from witnesses.
None of it panned out, however, and neither boy has ever been found.
“… when he left”
In a July 2010 interview with WHO-TV Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck in Des Moines, Eugene’s aunt, Jeannie McDowell, said she believes the cases are connected, though shudders to think of what the teens may have gone through. McDowell also said she does not think Eugene is still alive.
Eugene Martin’s aunt, Jeannie McDowell, spoke with Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck in July 2010 about her nephew and the toll his disappearance took on the family. Courtesy photo WHO-TV
“I hope that he died instantly. I hope he didn’t suffer much,” she told Brilbeck in the second of five cold case installments WHO-TV aired throughout the month.
After losing his youngest son, McDowell said her brother, Don Martin, became withdrawn and spent all his time trying to find out what happened to his boy.
“Eugene was the baby,” McDowell said. “And when he left, it just killed my brother.”
McDowell said her brother went into his own little shell and didn’t want to speak to anybody. Still, day after day, he would read every paper and cut out clippings of anything that had to do with Gene.
Courtesy photo KCRG
NOTE: Eugene Martin’s father, Donald Martin, passed away on Dec. 27, 2010, due to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease and colon cancer. Donald Martin served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1963 to 1966. He earned the Good Conduct Medal, Expert M-1 Rifle Medal, Sharp Shooter M14 Medal, along with the Vietnam Service Medal.
As he approached his 65th birthday in October 2010, Don Martin struggled with the cancer slowly eating away at his body as well as the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Eugene’s mother, Janice, had recently died from diabetes without ever knowing what happened to her son.
Despite the amount of pain he endured, McDowell believed her brother continued to hang on because of Gene. He needed some type of closure so he could go, she said. If he knew Gene was there “waiting for him,” he’d be able to let go and die in peace.
Five months after the WHO-TV interview, Donald Martin succumbed to complications from colon cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, and passed away on December 27, 2010.
At one time, a $94,000 reward was offered — including $25,000 by the Des Moines Register — for information leading to the recovery of either Johnny Gosch or Eugene Martin. It, too, eventually went by the wayside as weeks turned to months, and then years with no viable leads.
“It’s the case I’ll take to the grave.”
James Rowley, the retired Des Moines police detective who worked the Martin case until his retirement in 2001, also recognized the similarities in the two cases but still has questions about how they are linked.
Retired Des Moines police detective James Rowley worked the Eugene Martin case until his retirement in 2001, and has never given up on finding out what happened to the teen. Courtesy photo WHO-TV
“Why the two-year gap?” he stated in an August 12, 2009 interview with the Des Moines Register. That just wasn’t how it normally worked with serial killers and kidnappers. A criminal’s “growing appetite” for crime, he told the Register, doesn’t allow for lengthy holding patterns.
“Where was he before ’82?” Rowley asked. “Where was he between ’82 and ’84, and where was he after ’84?”
Another young Des Moines teen — 13-year-old Marc James Warren Allen — did in fact disappear from Des Moines in 1986. On March 29, 1986, Allen told his mother he planned to walk to a friend’s house down the street, but then just vanished.
Rowley told the Register he has heard all the theories, conspiracy and otherwise, but that none made sense. He’d even traveled to Mexico and Canada to follow up on tips — chasing down somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 leads during the investigation — but found not one credible.
WHO-TV’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the 1984 disappearance of missing Des Moines paperboy Eugene Martin. Air Date: July 8, 2010
Rowley, who worked more than 200 homicides and 50 bank robberies during his tenure as a police officer — helping to solve 80 percent of them — believes the clean-cut man near Martin’s home talked Eugene into leaving his route.
Rowley said Eugene Martin’s case bothers him more than any others he’s worked. In his home garage hangs a poster of Eugene to remind him every day.
An age-progression composite of how Eugene might look today. Eugene has a scar on his right knee and has had a broken right wrist.
“This case haunts me,” he told WHO-TV’s Brilbeck when interviewed for the July cold case series. “It’s the case I’ll take to the grave.”
After nearly 30 years, the former detective still seems amazed they’d never had a solid lead in Eugene’s case. No bone. No fragment. No evidence.
Rowley said he takes the case personally and will leave Eugene’s poster up in his garage until Gene is found or the case is solved.
In a KCCI Channel 8 report that aired Aug. 1, 2014, Des Moines Police Department spokesman Sgt. Scott Raudabaugh said older cold cases are looked at on a yearly basis, and the department has a select group of officers who specifically look at very old cases.
“Certainly the serious cases are extremely important to Des Moines Police Department,” Raudabaugh said, adding that police will examine old pieces of evidence from cold cases with new technology like DNA testing.
“Everything that could be done was done to take advantage of technology that exists now that didn’t exist maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago,” he told KCCI. “If in any way we can develop a suspect and follow up on that we certainly do.”
Eugene Wade Martin was born August 17, 1970. He has a scar on his right knee and has had a broken right wrist.
John David Gosch
Age at Report: 12
DOB: November 12, 1969
NCIC #: M-089641270
DCI Case # 82-04613
Des Moines PD Case # 82-2976
NCMEC #: NCMC601763 West Des Moines, IA Polk County
Missing Since: September 5, 1982
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.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Noreen Gosch spoke with Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck about her son’s disappearance and the things she still wonders about today.
On Sunday morning, September 5, 1982, Johnny Gosch left his West Des Moines home to work his Des Moines Register paper route. Normally, his father 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.'”
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Lt. Jeff Miller of the West Des Moines Police Department
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.
A Mother’s Crusade
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.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Johnny Gosch as a young Boy Scout.
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.
Time marched onward — months turning into more years — still with no sign of her son.
Marc Warren Allen
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.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV Channel 13
Marc Allen’s mother, Nancy Allen, told Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck that every time the news reports a body has been found, her feelings jump from not wanting it to be her son yet wishing for the chance to finally bury him and give them both peace.
“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.
Fighting for Answers
“I literally could not breathe. I could not get my breath,” Gosch told Channel 13’s 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 the 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.
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Based on witness descriptions, officials developed this sketch of the man said to be driving the blue Ford Fairmont.
“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.”
An Ideal World
Courtesy photo WHO-TV
Johnny Gosch as a toddler.
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.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released this photo showing how John Gosch might look at age 40.
With her son’s 41st birthday here, 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.”
‘Who Took Johnny’ premieres at film festival
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.
If you have any information about Johnny Gosch’s disappearance, please call the West Des Moines Police Department at (515) 222-3320 or contact your local FBI office.
With permission, I am posting here a recent e-mail received from Eugene Martin’s cousin, Vickie Martin.
I am the cousin of Eugene Martin. His father Don is the younger brother of my father, David.
I just wanted to say thank you for keeping this case in the eye of the public. I know that there is someone out there who knows what happened to Eugene all those years ago. I sincerely hope that the person who knows what happened will someday need to clear their soul and let someone know where he can be found.
Again, thank you for this website and your efforts to give family members some hope for the future.
And thank you, Vickie, for your kind words. Here, we believe hope is a good thing.