Today’s story is a pretty well-known one, and has received some recent notoriety due to a documentary that is available on Netflix called Who Took Johnny. As the title of that documentary would suggest, today we’re going to be talking about the disappearance of Johnny Gosch. This case was one of the first really well-known kidnappings in American history, and it was a precipitating factor in huge shifts in parenting and law enforcement in America.
I hadn’t heard of Johnny Gosch until I was reading a list of missing people who still hadn’t been found a few years ago, but much of my research suggests that, for the people alive when Johnny went missing, particularly those people who lived in Iowa, where Johnny was from, the name Johnny Gosch carries a lot of weight with it.
So I decided to experiment with this, since, you know, we just had the holidays and there’s no greater tradition than sitting down with your family and talking about horrible tragedies that happen to children!
At the time Johnny went missing, both of my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandmother were all living in Iowa, so I was curious if they’d ever heard of Johnny Gosch. I began my question like this: “In 1982, in West Des Moines, there was a twelve-year-old paperboy—”
At that point, my uncle interrupted me. “Johnny Gosch,” he said, and then my aunt chimed in with something like, “Oh, goodness, Johnny Gosch. I remember his mom was kind of…interesting.” Then my grandma said that she thought she’d heard that they’d found him recently, and then we got into a debate about that. For what it’s worth, we figured out that she was talking about Jacob Wetterling, another boy who disappeared in the 80s. My parents hadn’t heard about Johnny Gosch, but to be fair, Johnny disappeared the day after their wedding, so they were on their honeymoon by then and had other concerns.
My point is, the Johnny Gosch case was and is a pretty big deal. While Johnny has never been found, and while there’s no real conclusive evidence as to what actually happened to him, his disappearance sparked a lot of really good things, most of which were spearheaded by his mother, Noreen Gosch, who is an interesting character study herself. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about Noreen, myself included, but no matter your opinion about her, you can’t deny that she is a diligent, tireless, amazing woman who has accomplished so many great things in order to protect our nation’s children.
But Johnny’s case is also an incredibly fascinating one, and one with a lot of bizarre twists and unbelievable developments. In fact, the best word I can think of to describe the Johnny Gosch case is a rabbit hole. So, Willy…are you ready to jump down the rabbit hole?
All right, folks, then strap in, because things are about to get a little wild.
John David Gosch was born on November 12, 1969 to his parents John and Noreen Gosch. He had an older half-brother and half-sister, both of whom were born out of Noreen’s previous marriage. Johnny was described as a thoughtful, caring boy who had varied interests and took great joy in living his life.
The family lived in West Des Moines, Iowa, which, at the time, was a very affluent city of about 20,000 people that was a part of the Des Moines metropolitan area. West Des Moines is a microcosm of the classic understanding of a pleasant, suburban America, and has been included in several lists of best places to live in America. Also, interesting tidbit, in 2015 West Des Moines was awarded the title of the 18th most hipster city in America.
My point in talking about all this is to make it clear that West Des Moines is a safe place. Kids don’t run away from West Des Moines, and they don’t get kidnapped from West Des Moines. Until 1982 at least, West Des Moines was the kind of place where kids ran around outside barefoot until well past dark, where kids walked to school by themselves, where kids only had to be afraid of the fictional monsters in stories. Terms like “pedophile,” “human-trafficking,” and “sex abuse,” were not well-known, if not completely foreign ideas at this time.
Twelve-year-old Johnny Gosch was a paper boy for the Des Moines Register in 1982, a job he inherited from his older brother and had been working at for thirteen months before he disappeared. Johnny got the job with the intention of earning enough money to buy himself a dirt bike, a goal he was actually able to attain, which I find to be impressive. I don’t know about you, Willy, but when I was a twelve-year-old boy, anytime I proclaimed that I was saving my money for some large purchase, the project usually lasted a week before I went out and bought myself a new Redwall book, because I was a major nerd.
Now, Willy, did you ever have a paper route as a kid? I never did, and researching this case reminded me why: being a paperboy sounds terrible. Instead of sleeping in on weekends like a normal kid his age, Johnny—and other paperboys like him—had to get up ridiculously early to distribute the Sunday funnies to the rich white people of West Des Moines, Iowa.
It was on one of these early weekend mornings that Johnny went missing. The date was Sunday, September 5, 1982. Johnny awoke before dawn as he usually did and got ready to deliver the Sunday edition of The Des Moines Register. Unlike every other morning, Johnny did not wake up his father John to accompany him on his paper route. Instead, he leashed up his miniature dachshund Gretchen, grabbed the wagon where he usually stashed his yet-to-be-delivered papers, and left his house around 5:45 am. As you may have guessed, Johnny never made it home.
Johnny’s parents were first made aware that something was wrong at around 7:30 that morning, when they began receiving phone calls from their neighbors, asking why they hadn’t received their Sunday morning newspapers yet. Becoming concerned, Johnny’s father John got up and began to search Johnny’s usual paper route to find the boy and see what was up. He didn’t necessarily think anything was wrong; he figured maybe Johnny was just running behind or was lollygagging around. However, John found Johnny’s wagon filled with newspapers along with Johnny’s dog Gretchen, but there was no Johnny to be found. I’ve heard people say it was almost like Johnny had completely ceased to exist.
Accounts differ as to what actually happened that early morning when Johnny Gosch disappeared. If you were to ask the West Des Moines Police Department what happened, they would tell you that they can’t be sure, since there really was no crime scene to investigate. In those days, it was very easy and very common for kids to run away from home, so the police weren’t convinced that Johnny hadn’t just taken off, since there really was no way to prove that a crime had been committed. The police did interview the witnesses who were about that morning and do have a version of what they believed may have happened, but like I said, they’re not convinced of what actually happened.
However, Johnny’s mother Noreen believes she has crafted an intricate and accurate description of what happened that morning, based largely on witness statements. I’m going to go ahead and tell you about Noreen’s account of what happened, even though I personally think some—though not all—of her information is a little bit unreliable.
The last time Johnny was seen by multiple witnesses was at the paper drop, which was the place where each day’s editions of the newspaper were dropped off for all the paper boys in the area to come by and pick up. It’s there that the boys who roll up the newspapers—which would come in a bundle—tie them up with a rubber band, and then stuff them into whatever vessel they would use to carry them. I think it’s important to note that this is the last time he was seen by multiple witnesses, because eyewitness accounts are inherently unreliable, and become even more unreliable when there’s no one else to corroborate them. Add to that that most of these eyewitness accounts come from adolescent boys who are half-asleep and probably aren’t being hyper-observant at 6:00 on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see why I have a hard time completely trusting this version of events.
Anyway, at the paper drop, Johnny loaded up his wagon with newspapers when a car described as a two-tone Ford Fairmont stopped, and the driver of the car opened the passenger side door swung his feet out of the car, (which…what?) and began asking Johnny where 86th street was. Johnny was frightened by this and thought there was something wrong with the driver of the car, so he asked a neighbor man who was there helping his own son, John Rossi, to come help the guy out. As Rossi approached the car, the driver all of a sudden pulled his feet back in his car, fired up the engine, made a U-turn and took off. Noreen reported that before taking off, the man in the car clicked the dome light three times as some sort of signal to someone else. Near as I can tell, though, Rossi, who was actually there that morning, never said anything about this.
Rossi was able to get a glimpse of the driver of the car, and said that he looked like he was mad about something and that he must have been drinking a lot of caffeine, because he didn’t look sleepy at all, even though it was early in the morning.
Interestingly, West Des Moines Police Captain Bob Rushing doesn’t think there was anything particularly odd about a car stopping to ask a paper boy for directions, and that he’s still not sure what exactly happened the morning Johnny disappeared.
As Johnny left the paper drop to begin delivering his papers, a witness reported that a tall man stepped out from between two houses and began to follow Johnny, but was following far enough behind that Johnny did not realize he was being followed. At one point, a sleeping neighbor heard the slamming of a car door, and when he sat up in bed he saw a Ford Fairmont near the spot where Johnny was last seen make a left turn after rolling through the stop sign at the intersection where Johnny’s wagon was later found.
In some accounts, Noreen states that Johnny was shot by some sort of stun gun that made him collapse on the ground, and then two men came, picked him up, one by his shoulders and one by his feet, and stuffed him in the back of the car. Strangely, though, Noreen does not give this detail in all her accounts of the kidnapping, and it isn’t included in the documentary Who Took Johnny, so I have difficulty believing that this is a legitimate detail. After all, it seems like a pretty important part of the story, so it would be very weird for her to leave it out more often than not.
After John Gosch found his son’s wagon, he reported this back to his wife Noreen, saying that something was wrong. Noreen described her feeling then as “panic-stricken,” but nevertheless sprang into action and immediately called the West Des Moines Police Department. It took the police 45 minutes to respond even though the station was a mere ten blocks away, but during that long period of time which must have felt like an eternity, Noreen spoke with some of the other paper boys and their parents about what had happened that morning.
When the police finally did show up 45 minutes after Noreen initially called, the Gosches described the responding officers’ attitude as one of dismissal rather than of a ready and willing eagerness to help find a child who was potentially in danger. Apparently, the police came in under the assumption that Johnny had merely run away, since, like I said earlier, that was a fairly common and easy thing to accomplish back in 1982. The Gosches, however, knew better, and tried to get the police to believe them when they said that there was no way Johnny would have ever run away from home. One major piece of evidence they brought up was the dog: what twelve-year-old boy would just abscond while leaving behind his dog?
The police, however, weren’t buying the abduction story and informed the Gosches that they would need to wait 72 hours before filing an official missing persons report. This might sound ridiculous to us now, but in 1982, that was the standard. There was no law saying that police must act immediately when a child goes missing, because there was this naïve belief that random strangers did not just nab children off the streets.
Obviously frustrated by the police’s unwillingness and inability to do anything in the moment, the Goshes organized search teams of their own to go out looking for Johnny. There was a huge outpouring of community support for the Gosches during this time, but still very little from the West Des Moines Police. Noreen has stated that, at one of the searches, the West Des Moines Police Chief Orval Cooney, while intoxicated, got up on a park table with a bullhorn and told the searchers to go home because Johnny Gosch was “nothing but a damn runaway.”
Noreen had several negative interactions with the West Des Moines Police during the first days, weeks, and months after Johnny’s disappearance, which sometimes ended with officers yelling at her or with her throwing hot coffee at them. She had a particularly contentious relationship with Orval Cooney, who once stated in a newspaper interview that, “I don’t really give a damn about what Noreen Gosch has to say. I really don’t give a damn what she thinks.” Cooney, who died in 2003, didn’t last long in office after the disappearance of Johnny Gosch. He resigned in 1983, amid allegations of fixing tickets for friends and family, racial prejudice that affected his work performance, working while intoxicated, and interfering with an investigation against his son.
During this time, we see just how diligent, tireless, and hard-working Noreen Gosch was to get her son back. She regularly petitioned the FBI to get involved, even though they wouldn’t, and she took every opportunity to get Johnny’s story out to the public and to ask for help. One month after Johnny disappeared, Noreen founded the Johnny Gosch Foundation, developed a program called “In Defense of Children”, and went on a national tour, keeping over a thousand appointments with various organizations involved with protecting children.
Searchers continued to scour the area for any sign of Johnny. Psychics told the family that Johnny was dead, and that his body would be found near a creek two miles from the Gosch home, where the porch light was left on nightly and where John and Noreen regularly announced that they were willing to work with whatever demands the kidnappers had. At this point, Noreen stated that she hadn’t even heard the word pedophile before, and so they initially believed that Johnny must have been kidnapped for some sort of ransom.
Six months after Johnny disappeared, there was a reported sighting of him in Oklahoma. Apparently, a woman who was in the parking lot of a convenience store was approached by a boy who screamed, “I’m Johnny Gosch, I’ve been kidnapped.” Before the woman could do anything, two men snatched up Johnny and he wasn’t seen again. The woman called the police, but they were unable to find the boy. I’m not sure how believable this account is, but it was reported in multiple places, so I figured it was worth including here.
Noreen continued to be involved in advocating for missing children. In 1984, she was involved in two very big developments in the Missing Children movement. She was instrumental in the formation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and was invited to the White House by President Reagan as a result. On July 1, 1984, the Johnny Gosch Bill was signed into Iowa law. This bill, which was the first of its kind, required law enforcement to respond immediately when a child goes missing.
On Sunday, August 12, 1984, almost two years after Johnny’s disappearance, a thirteen-year-old boy named Eugene Martin left his house around 5:00 in the morning wearing a red shirt, blue jeans, and a gray sweatshirt. He left the house so early because he was a delivery boy for The Des Moines Register, the very same newspaper that had once been delivered by one Johnny Gosch. Eugene typically went with his step-brother to deliver the paper, but I guess on this morning the step-brother decided to sleep in.
Eugene was seen between 5:00 and 5:15 am, folding his papers while engaged in what seemed to be a friendly conversation with an unidentified man in his mid-thirties, who appeared to be a clean-cut individual.
Sometime between 6:10 and 6:15 am, the bag where Eugene typically stowed his newspapers was found with ten newspapers inside, but no Eugene. After receiving complaints from customers about not getting their newspapers, Eugene’s manager picked up the boy’s newspapers and delivered them himself. After that, Eugene’s father called the police and the search for Eugene began.
Unlike the Johnny Gosch case, the FBI did become involved in the disappearance of Eugene Martin, and early on in the investigation they stated that there was a definite possibility that Eugene’s case and Johnny’s case were connected. Eventually, though, the local police determined that there was not enough evidence to connect the cases, even though the boys were of similar age, both of them were paperboys in the same metropolitan area, both disappeared in the early morning hours of a Sunday in the fall, and both were last seen talking to an adult male before they disappeared.
The public, however, believed that Johnny and Eugene’s cases were related. Noreen and John met with Eugene’s family to offer their condolences, and the two sets of parents appeared on television together to publicize the cases, hoping that Eugene’s case would uncover more information regarding Johnny’s and vice versa. A $94,000 reward was offered for any information leading to the recovery of the two boys, and Eugene and Johnny were two of the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence and no leads in Eugene’s case. The boy was never recovered and there was no conclusive determination as to what happened to him. Like Johnny, Eugene simply vanished, and no one has any idea where he ended up.
In 1985, a dollar bill surfaced in Sioux City, Iowa with a handwritten message on it: “I am alive. Johnny Gosch.” The Gosch family sent one dollar the woman who found the bill and asked her to send the marked bill to them, which she did. Almost immediately, the Gosches stated that they believed that Johnny wrote this message, even though there’s really no reason to believe it wasn’t written by some snot-nosed, grease-fingered fourteen-year-old boy who hasn’t changed his socks in six weeks. This is something we’ll see throughout this case: that a tip or a lead will come in, and almost immediately Noreen will believe it completely, regardless of whether or not it actually holds up to rational reasoning.
On March 29, 1986, the day before Easter, another young teenage boy from Des Moines went missing. This time it was 13-year old Marc Allen. Marc, who was described as a handful and who frequently bounced back and forth between his mom and dad’s house, told his mother that he was planning to walk over to a friend’s house down the street and asked her to save him some pizza, because he would be hungry when he got home. Only Marc never made it home, and like Johnny and Eugene, he was never seen again, however police never linked his case to either Eugene’s or Johnny’s case. To this day, no one knows what happened to Marc Allen.
Noreen Gosch, however, believed that there was a connection between all three boys’ cases, but there just wasn’t enough evidence to conclusively state whether or not they were related. The disappearances of three boys in the same metropolitan area in a four year span caused parents to develop a new understanding of the potential dangers that their children faced when left unsupervised.
Years passed and the 1980s came to a close without much progression in any of the three cases of missing boys. In April of 1990, West Des Moines Police believed they had finally received a break in the case when the body of a young man named John Gosch turned up dead in Mexico. However, this John Gosch ended up being a John Gosch of Tacoma, Washington, and not the Johnny Gosch of West Des Moines, Iowa, although, coincidentally, the two John Gosches were born just weeks apart. What the West Des Moines Police thought had been the resolution to a case that had become well-known on a national level was little more than a bizarre coincidence.
However, one year later, in 1991, a break in Johnny’s case would finally come in an even more bizarre twist, when an inmate in a Nebraska prison confessed to his lawyer that he was involved in the abduction of Johnny Gosch. But, unfortunately, Willy, that story is going to have to wait until next week’s episode.