If you haven’t listened to last week’s episode, go back and listen to it, because it’s part one of the story we’ll be finishing today. And I’m just going to say this here, during today’s episode we’re going to talk some about pedophilia, child pornography, and child sexual abuse, which can be upsetting to some people. We’re not going to discuss it in great detail, but it is an important aspect of today’s case, so it’s going to be kind of hard to avoid. We just wanted to give you a heads up beforehand in case you like to listen to our episodes around your children or something. Okay? Okay.
Anyway, let’s do a little recap of our last episode before we jump feet first back into this thing. In 1982, twelve-year-old Johnny Gosch disappeared early in the morning while delivering papers. There was very little evidence and no real explanation for what happened to him. Johnny’s parents Noreen and John were tireless in their efforts to find Johnny, and continued to believe that he was still alive as the years went by. Little snippets of evidence surfaced over the years, which the Gosches believed were absolute proof that Johnny was alive. In 1984 and 1986, two other boys around Johnny’s age disappeared in the Des Moines area, but police never connected the three cases to one another, and none of the cases led to evidence in any of the others. After nearly a decade with no solid leads, the Johnny Gosch case suddenly blew wide open in 1991 and took a very bizarre, horrifying turn.
As I teased in our last episode, an inmate in a Nebraska prison told his lawyer that he had been involved in the abduction of Johnny Gosch. This man was 24-year-old Paul Bonacci, who was serving a prison sentence for molesting a child and who had been a victim of sexual abuse himself since the age of six. Now, before we talk more about what Paul had to say about Johnny, I feel like we should back up and talk a little about Paul’s background.
Paul had been a plaintiff in a grand jury’s investigation into allegations of a child prostitution ring based in my birthplace of Omaha, Nebraska during the 1980s. Paul’s claims were that he and other at-risk youth had been used as part of a child prostitution ring that was allegedly run by Lawrence E. King, who ran the Franklin Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska. According to Paul and the other plaintiffs in the case, King and other members of his child sex ring would fly foster children, some of whom were lured from the campus of nearby Boys Town, which was a sort of refuge for at-risk youth, across the country to service high-level US politicians, as well as prominent citizens of Omaha. I could go into more of the dirty details of this child sex ring, but the details are pretty horrifying and don’t really warrant full discussion here.
Anyway, in 1990, the grand jury investigating the allegations of child sex abuse found that it was a carefully crafted hoax, stating that, “We found no credible evidence of child sexual abuse, interstate transportation of minors, drug trafficking or participation in a pornography ring.” Paul Bonacci, who had claimed to be a victim of the sexual abuse, was indicted on charges of perjury. Those who had brought the accusations against Lawrence E. King and the others involved in the child sex ring claimed that there had been a massive cover-up to protect the high-level government officials who were allegedly serviced by the child prostitutes.
And now, in 1991, here’s Paul Bonacci saying that he was involved in the abduction of Johnny Gosch. A production crew from Des Moines went to Nebraska to interview Paul. In that interview, Paul stated that by 1982 he was no longer being used for sexual abuse and was instead being forced to assist in the abductions of boys to be used in the child sex ring. Paul said that it was his job to hold Johnny down in the back of the car that took him and place chloroform over Johnny’s face to make him fall asleep. Paul also described telling Johnny that everything would be all right and that he would survive this terrifying situation if he did what he was told. During the interview, Paul claimed to have dissociative identity disorder, which at the time was known as multiple personality disorder, and would place his head on the table and call up various personalities to tell the story of what happened to Johnny.
Now, anytime I hear about someone claiming to have dissociative identity disorder, I instantly become skeptical. For those who aren’t aware, DID is an incredibly controversial mental health diagnosis, as it is a somewhat rare and difficult to identify disorder that has frequently been falsified to fortify a criminal defense. I’m not saying that DID doesn’t exist or that Paul Bonacci definitely didn’t have it. I’m just saying I’m a bit skeptical about this.
But I digress. After the dissemination of Paul’s account of kidnapping Johnny, Noreen Gosch decided that she wanted to meet with him and discuss what happened to her son. Noreen traveled to Nebraska, and just before going in to meet with Paul, she told the camera crew that had gone with her that she didn’t feel any hatred for Paul because she knew he had been a victim of abuse himself. Paul filled out a release for her to meet with him without knowing who she was. When they were in the same room together and Noreen’s true identity was revealed to him, Paul broke down into tears.
Paul told Noreen about how the mastermind of Johnny’s abduction—a man named Emilio—wanted to abduct boys who hadn’t been sexually assaulted before, and who were close to their families, and that’s why they had targeted Johnny. Paul said that, after his abduction, Johnny had been bound and gagged, and that Paul had been the first to sexually assault Johnny on film.
In a very strange and unnatural segue, Paul brought up yoga, saying that Johnny told him that his mother did yoga. Noreen stated that it was true, that she did do yoga, and that this was something she hadn’t told the press before. Paul also told Noreen that he had seen a birthmark on Johnny’s chest that was shaped like South America, but this detail was widely publicized after Johnny’s disappearance, so this didn’t really prove that Paul had actually been present at Johnny’s abduction or seen him naked afterward. However, Paul did bring up other means of identification that hadn’t been widely publicized, such as a scar on Johnny’s tongue, a scar on his leg, and a tendency to stammer when he became upset. Noreen corroborated these things, stating that Johnny had once bitten through his tongue and brushed up against his older brother’s hot tailpipe. To Noreen, this was undeniable proof that Paul had, in fact, been involved in the abduction of Johnny Gosch.
The police, however, were not convinced, stating that they did not believe Paul had shown any legitimate firsthand knowledge of the crime. Because of this, West Des Moines Police never once traveled to Nebraska to interview Paul. Even though I found Paul’s story difficult to believe, it’s still pretty strange to me that the police didn’t even want to talk to the guy. I mean, the guy is admitting his involvement into one of their most famous cold cases, and yet they’re not even willing to talk to him about it? It seems pretty weird.
The West Des Moines Police did, however, travel to Paul’s hometown of Omaha to interview his siblings. Paul’s siblings stated that on the day of Johnny’s abduction, Paul had in fact been in Omaha, which was enough for the police to dismiss Paul’s story as mere hogwash. I have two problems with this interview, though. First, the interview was conducted ten years after Johnny’s disappearance and regarded a day that, for the Bonacci family, was probably just any regular Sunday. The second issue I have is that, just because Paul was in Omaha doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been in Des Moines as well. According to Google Maps, West Des Moines is a two hour and one minute drive from Omaha, so if Johnny was abducted at around six am, Paul could have conceivably been back in Omaha and with his family by 8 or 8:30 that morning.
The Gosch family believed that the police refused to interview Paul because they were a part of a massive government conspiracy to cover up the horror of what had been taking place in Omaha. This led Noreen to become an even greater advocate for children, as well as a voice speaking out against human trafficking.
In 1992, America’s Most Wanted covered the Johnny Gosch story to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the boy’s disappearance. Noreen and John Gosch were actually friends with John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted and a man whose son had also been kidnapped. Both the Gosch family and the Walsh family were instrumental in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, so it was about time Walsh covered Johnny’s story.
Anyway, during that episode, Paul discussed how the people who ran the child sex ring would force him to engage in sex acts with other kids, which they would film to “split your mind up so you don’t even remember who you are” or to blackmail you into staying with them instead of going to the police. Paul also stated that Johnny had been sold to a man in Colorado called the Colonel who was selling Johnny for sex, and that Paul had seen Johnny there in 1986. Johnny had apparently tried to run away once, and after that he had been branded with an X, that had a curved line connected to the bottom of the X, kind of like a rocking chair.
After the episode aired, a bunch of kids came forward, stating that they had been a part of this child sex ring, and what’s really crazy is that many of these kids had the exact brand that Paul had been talking about. For what it was worth, it seemed that Paul was speaking at least some truth about this child sex ring.
Also in that episode of America’s Most Wanted, Paul talked about a house in Colorado where kids, including Johnny, had been kept. He also talked about these secret underground chambers where the kids would be ushered if the police were to show up at the house. Paul and the crew of America’s Most Wanted flew out to Colorado, and the house that Paul described was actually there. The house was abandoned, and the owner of the house, a former prison guard, had disappeared. When they went inside the house, they found the underground chambers that Paul was talking about, complete with children’s initials carved into the woods. This gave further credence to Paul’s story of a child prostitution ring that transported kids across the country to service high-ranking officials.
Noreen and John Gosch divorced in 1993, which is fairly common among couples who are forced to endure the loss of a child. Over the years, Noreen has publicly hinted that she believes that John might have been involved in selling Johnny to the child sex ring, which, frankly, seems pretty unlikely, unbelievable, and uncalled for, although it is an interesting theory to entertain for half a second.
In 1999, Paul Bonacci filed a civil suit against Lawrence E. King, citing allegations of sexual assault and false imprisonment. King never appeared in court, and Bonacci was awarded $1 million, although this amount was never paid to him.
During the civil suit, Noreen Gosch was called to testify for some reason, even though she really didn’t have any direct connection to Paul Bonacci’s case. While under oath, Noreen was asked whether she had seen her son since his disappearance. At first, Noreen would not answer the question, but upon a threat from the judge to be held in contempt of court, Noreen stated that yes, she had seen Johnny once since he had disappeared.
Noreen described one night in 1997 when she had heard persistent knocking on her door around 2:30 in the morning. When she opened the door, she saw a young man with long black hair. Noreen said that she immediately recognized Johnny’s eyes, because, according to her, “the eyes don’t change.” Apparently, 27-year-old Johnny also opened his shirt to show Noreen his birthmark and said, “It’s me, Mom. It’s Johnny.” Noreen said that there was another man there whom she had never seen before and who didn’t speak at all. She invited the two men in, and they talked for about an hour and a half. Johnny described what had happened to him, discussing how children were forced to engage in illegal activity to keep them from going to the police. Johnny also stated that he had to stay in hiding because he knew too much and his life was in danger. Noreen said that throughout their conversation, Johnny kept looking at the other man as if for his approval before speaking. Noreen also said that Johnny asked her not to say anything about the visit for his own safety, and then he disappeared into the night, never to be seen again.
Paul agreed with Noreen, stating that Johnny is still alive, but that he is hiding, because he knows too much about the trafficking ring and would be killed if he came forward with the information that he had.
There were no further developments in the Johnny Gosch case for almost an entire decade. However, in August of 2006, Noreen began to receive disturbing photographs on her front doorstep. One was a color photo of three boys, perhaps in their early teens, fully clothed and tied up on a bed. Another was a black-and-white image of another early teenage boy who is bound and gagged, lying on his stomach, bare-chested and barefoot. Noreen pointed out that there was a branding on the boy’s shoulder like the one Paul had described, as well as a dark spot on the boy’s chest that she claimed was his birthmark. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen this photo, and I don’t see what she’s describing at all. There were other pictures of other boys in various states of binding and undress, all of whom Noreen firmly believed were Johnny. She was able to track these images to a website featuring child pornography, which was quickly shut down.
Noreen turned these images over to the authorities. The picture of the three boys was connected to a solved case in Florida, while experts determined that they were unable to conclusively state that the boys in the other pictures were of Johnny Gosch. Johnny’s father, John, states that he doesn’t believe that these pictures were of Johnny, citing that he doesn’t see a birthmark on the boy’s chest and that Johnny had large feet, but that the boys in the picture had rather average sized feet.
I’ve seen all of the photos that Noreen received, and I agree with John Gosch. I do not believe the boys in these photos are Johnny. For one thing, they don’t even look like Johnny in the face. Also, in the pictures I saw of Johnny before he was kidnapped, he was a pretty stocky kid, and the boys in these pictures are very thin. And sure, Johnny probably would have lost weight in captivity, but I don’t think you lose that large frame that easily. My personal theory is that some dirt bag went onto a child porn site, printed off a few images of boys with similar hair colors as Johnny, and sent them to Noreen to mess with the poor, bereaved woman.
There isn’t much else to this case that warrants a lot of discussion, but I did want to note something that I thought was interesting. The filmmakers of the documentary Who Took Johnny went to Washington DC to interview an FBI spokesperson about Johnny Gosch, but when they asked their first question about Johnny, a woman who is off-screen interrupts, saying that there will be no discussion regarding Johnny Gosch. I found this to be a little bit suspicious, but it also makes sense. Whether or not Johnny was actually kidnapped by a child prostitution ring that is part of a major cover up, his case is still a highly publicized and contentious case, and so institutional protection is probably warranted to guarantee the integrity of the FBI.
Finally, it should be noted that, while Noreen believes she knows exactly what happened to Johnny and that he is still alive today, Johnny’s father John is not sure exactly what happened. I find it very interesting that two parents, who were once a united front to get their son back, are now so different in their interpretations of what happened to their boy.
So, Willy, that is the Johnny Gosch case. What are your thoughts?
Like I said at the beginning of our last episode, the Johnny Gosch case is a rabbit hole. What begins as a simple child abduction is this snowball that gathers more substance and intensity the more it rolls down the hill. We basically have three options when dealing with this case: believe all of it, believe some of it, or believe none of it.
I personally land on the “believe some of it” side. I do believe that Johnny Gosch was abducted in order to be used for sexual gratification, and I do believe that Paul Bonacci was a victim of a child prostitution ring based in Omaha, Nebraska. However, I do not believe that Johnny was abducted by the same child prostitution ring that victimized Paul Bonacci. In fact, I don’t think that Paul Bonacci was involved with Johnny Gosch at all.
Now, of course, that statement begs the question of why Paul would admit to being involved in Johnny’s abduction if he wasn’t actually involved?
Well, let’s think about this for a second. Paul is sitting in prison for sexual abuse of a child, but is a long-time victim of sexual abuse himself. One year prior to his confession, a grand jury declared that the vile sexual abuse he had endured was merely a hoax, and that same jury had indicted Paul on allegations of perjury. It must really suck to have been a victim of sexual abuse for most of your life, and then for a bunch of bureaucratic bimbos to say that it was all a lie. So what did Paul do? He claimed that one of the most high profile child abductions in American history had been pulled off by the very child prostitution ring that a grand jury had decided never existed in the first place. It’s pretty brilliant, actually, because it brought the whole Franklin Credit Union scandal and Paul’s own sexual abuse back into the limelight once again.
Now, there are some issues that I have to deal with concerning this theory. Probably the biggest issue is the fact that Paul knew things about Johnny that hadn’t been publicized, such as the scars on his tongue and his leg. Now I don’t know about you, Willy, but when I was Johnny’s age, I had a scar on practically every part of my body. That’s just what happens when you’re an active boy, which it sounds like Johnny was. If someone were to have mentioned a scar I had to my mom, she probably would have been able to identify an incident that could have caused it, even if she couldn’t picture precisely which scar it was. So I personally think that Paul offered up some conceivable possibilities, and Noreen, who time and time again has proven herself to be someone who will believe a lot without much evidence, was quick to find a way to make what Paul was saying fit Johnny.
Plus, Paul’s knowledge of Johnny’s stuttering when upset and his scars are actually the only evidence whatsoever that Paul was involved with Johnny. If Paul really was telling the truth about Johnny, then how come he wasn’t able to give any real information? How come his story didn’t lead to Emilio, or to the car used in the kidnapping? I just think that if Paul really was involved in Johnny’s abduction, then something more would have come of his confession. But if we’re really being honest, Paul didn’t shed much actual conclusive light on Johnny’s case.
Now, like I said earlier, I definitely believe that Paul was abused as a part of a child prostitution ring, I just don’t think that Johnny was.
So what do I think actually happened to Johnny? I think the most likely explanation is that he was kidnapped by a local pedophile (or perhaps a pair of pedophiles) with a penchant for twelve, thirteen, fourteen-year-old boys, and that perhaps this same person also kidnapped Eugene Martin and Marc Allen. Unfortunately, I think Johnny was sexually assaulted by this pedophile and later killed, and that his remains are somewhere yet to be found along with Eugene and Marc.
To me, it just doesn’t make sense why Johnny would be a target for a child prostitution ring that already had a steady pipeline of children from Boys Town and the Nebraska foster care system. Unfortunately, many kids in the foster care system are at-risk youth who are more prone to run away, and if they do go missing, are far less likely to be missed. However, kidnapping a boy from an affluent neighborhood is an incredibly risky move, not only because there is a higher probability of someone witnessing the crime, but also because kidnapping a boy like Johnny is far more likely to cause a greater uproar and should have caused a much deeper investigation than taking a kid from foster care would. Paul stated that the reason they would have taken boys from affluent neighborhoods was because Emilio, the apparent mastermind of the abduction plot, liked to take kids who were close to their families, because he liked to hurt people. But frankly, Emilio would have to have been an idiot to risk his whole human trafficking business just so he can swipe a rich kid from a stable family over a poor kid from an unstable family.
Something else I find difficult to believe is Noreen and Paul’s assertion that Johnny’s life is in danger because he knows too much about the child prostitution ring. If the people involved with the child prostitution ring were just waiting to kill Johnny Gosch the moment they could get their hands on him, then how come they haven’t taken out Paul or Noreen? After all, what on earth could Johnny reveal that Paul and Noreen hadn’t already? It doesn’t make sense for Paul to feel safe being in the limelight with all he’s done to reveal the child prostitution ring and yet still maintain that for some reason Johnny’s life is in considerably more danger.
I think Noreen Gosch is an incredible woman who has faced incredible obstacles in her life and has done so with grace and strength. The things she has done to improve the way our nation responds to missing children have been instrumental in protecting the most vulnerable members of our society. It is also undeniable that she loves and cares for her son, as she went to such extreme lengths to do whatever she could to find him.
Unfortunately, because Noreen received very little assistance from her local police department and the FBI, she was forced to investigate her own son’s disappearance herself. And, let’s face it, Noreen Gosch is not a trained investigator. I think that she was so committed to finding her son, and finding her son alive, that she became seriously at-risk for being manipulated and defrauded.
For example, she took every witness statement from the morning of Johnny’s disappearance as fact, even when they couldn’t be corroborated, and even though eyewitness statements are inherently unreliable.
Then, there was the dollar bill saying “I am alive. Johnny Gosch,” which she immediately accepted as having come from Johnny, when it just as easily could have been written by some puckish teenage boy who thinks he’s prodigiously funny.
I already talked about how I think she was fooled into believing Paul Bonacci’s story, and how I don’t think his story is true at all.
I also don’t believe that Johnny came to visit Noreen in 1997, but I’m not sure that she’s lying about it either. I think it could easily be true that some punks decided that they were going to play a prank on this lady, and that Noreen, who so desperately wanted her son to be alive, believed them wholeheartedly. Or she could have made it up, perhaps to vouch for Paul in court, or to keep Johnny’s story alive and in the media’s mind. Either way, I don’t think this visit from Johnny actually happened.
And then, finally, there are the pictures of the bound and gagged teenage boys she found on her front doorstep. While everyone else, including Johnny’s father, concluded that the boy in the photos couldn’t have been Johnny, Noreen continued to claim that they were, in fact, pictures of her son. In the documentary Who Took Johnny, she even went so far as to say, “Those photographs are my son, and it matters not to me if people think it isn’t Johnny. We know that it is, and the West Des Moines police are mistaken.” I mean, when you hear her say that, it almost sounds like she’s completely refusing to listen to what anyone else has to say about it, kind of like someone who is caught up in a cult. She has her opinions about what is true and what is not, and you just can’t convince her otherwise.
Unlike a lot of people on the internet, though, I don’t think that Noreen is crazy. I think she is seriously misguided, but I don’t think she is crazy. I think she is a desperate, tireless, hard-working woman who just wants the best for her son, and for other children like him. If that means believing that he is alive and hiding somewhere, then that’s good for her. She has made peace with what happened to Johnny, and if he’s alive somewhere, then he is, and if he’s dead somewhere, then he is.