Hansen: 25 years later, Eugene Martin case still haunts


August 12, 2009



“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.”

Opposite situations

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.

Copyright ©2009 The Des Moines Register

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