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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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Anyone with information about Eugene Martin is asked to call Det. Jeff Shannon at the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4864. You may also call Det. Larry Penland at (515) 237-1550.