On September 5, 1982, 12-year-old paperboy Johnny Gosch disappeared from West Des Moines, Iowa. He is presumed to have been kidnapped. No arrests have ever been made in his disappearance.
Noreen Gosch, his mother, claims that he once escaped his captors to visit her with an unidentified man in 1997, and that her son told her he was a victim of a pedophile organization. She said that he was cast out when he got too old, but lived in fear and did not feel that it was safe to return home. His father, John, publicly stated that he is not sure whether or not the visit happened.
In 2006, his mother claimed that images of him in captivity appeared on her doorstep. Though other boys in the photos have been identified, one has not, and Noreen insists the child is Johnny.
As of today, he has been missing for 38 years.
Between 6 and 7 AM on September 5, 1982, Johnny left his home to begin his paper route. Often, Johnny would wake up his father to help him with his route, but this particular morning, he just took the family's dog, Gretchen. He was seen at the paper drop picking up his newspapers before dawn. That was the last corroborated sighting of Johnny by multiple witnesses.
One neighbor named Mike claimed he saw Johnny talking to a large man in a Ford Fairmont with Nebraska plates, but he did not know what was being discussed, as he was just watching from his bedroom. When Johnny headed home, Mike claimed to have seen a man following Johnny.
The sighting of the blue car was corroborated by another witness, John Rossi, who said "something was strange" when seeing the boy talking to the man in the car. He could not recall the license plate, and says to this day, he hopes he will wake up in the middle of the night recalling the license plate number, but it hasn't happened yet.
That morning, Noreen and John began receiving phone calls from unsatisfied customers, complaining that their son hadn't delivered their paper. John went out into the neighborhood to search for him, and immediately found Johnny's wagon full of papers about 2 blocks from their home... but no Johnny. They contacted the West Des Moines police department and reported their son missing.
Noreen has been outwardly critical of the police response time, and the policy that Johnny could not be officially considered missing until 72 hours had passed since he was last seen. She also claimed it took 45 minutes for the police to arrive and take her statement after they were called.
The police originally believed that Johnny may have been a runaway, but later changed their minds to suggest that he was kidnapped. However, no motive was able to be established. With no evidence or suspects, they quickly realized they had never little to go off of. No evidence has ever been found.
Over the years, the Gosch family has hired many private investigators to help find their son, including retired NYC police detective Jim Rothstein and retired chief of the LA FBI branch Ted Gunderson. However, they were not able to turn up anything of value, either.
In 1984, Johnny's photo was placed alongside Juanita Rafaela Estevez's on milk cartons across the country, becoming the 2nd and 3rd children to ever be featured in such a way.
On August 12, 1964, Eugene Martin, another paperboy from the Des Moines area, went missing under similar circumstances to Johnny. Though no connection was ever able to be proven, though the similarities are certainly nothing to immediately chalk up to coincidence.
NOREEN GOSCH AND FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS
Noreen Gosch has shared various events that seem a bit implausible. For instance, about Eugene Martin, she claimed her private investigator told her that in the second weekend in August 1964, another paperboy from Des Moines would be abducted, even though no connection was ever officially drawn in the cases.
Her most well-known, and high contended story, is that in March of 1997, her son came to visit her. She claimed that at 2:30 AM, there was a knock at her apartment door. When she opened the door, she saw her son, now 27, with another man. She said she didn't know who the man was, and Johnny would look over at him for approval to speak. They talked for over an hour, she said, but he didn't say where he was living.
In her 2000 book, Why Johnny Can't Come Home, she wrote about what she believes her son went through. She said he was kidnapped into a pedophile ring of some sort, but when he became to old, he was pushed out. However, he was still being watched, and he was afraid to return home out of fear.
Then, on September 1, 2006, Noreen reported that she found photos left at her doorstep. One of the images shows 3 boys bound and gagged. She claims that one of the boys was her son, and the images had been found on sites featuring child pornography. An anonymous letter was sent to the Des Moines police on September 13, claiming the 3 boys were from Tampa, Florida and were simply challenging one another to an escape contest. The note provided the name of the detective who had reviewed the image and determined no crime had been committed, and said that the image being left at Noreen's doorstep was a "reprehensible joke on a grieving mother".
Nelson Zalva, the detective mentioned in the letter, corroborated the story and said the images had been taken before Johnny even went missing.
Though the image is totally explainable, there was a 4th boy in the images that was never identified by law enforcement. Even though the image was confirmed to be a crime-less game between friends, Noreen still believes that the image is of something horrible that happened, and that the unidentified boy is her son.
Johnny's disappearance gained national attention as Noreen became more and more vocal about it, specifically about the incompetency of law enforcement. She created the Johnny Gosch Foundation in 1982 and traveled to different schools to talk about sexual predators. She lobbied for a bill that would mandate an immediate response to claims of missing children, which became Iowa law in 1984, with several states following.
In 1989, a 21-year-old named Paul Bonacci told his attorney that he had been abducted into a sex ring as a teenager and was forced to participate in Johnny's kidnapping. (Of note: Bonacci was a convicted pedophile) Noreen met with him, and she claimed he knew things that he would only know if he had talked to or met her son. However, the FBI and local police do not believe Bonacci is a credible witness. Bonacci accused Lawrence E. King, a Republican party activist, of running a prostitution ring, though charges were never brought against him as they found the allegations to be a hoax.
I like to include a theories section in my disappearance articles, however, there is pretty much just one theory here: Johnny was abducted and killed. He was taken by force. Noreen's stories are just that, stories. Perhaps dreams or delusions of a grieving mother, but not credible facts.
Some believe that Noreen had simply dreamt her interaction with Johnny, while others believe that perhaps she purposely made it up to bring new attention to a cold case. Given that nearly 15 years had passed since her son went missing, it would make sense that she was trying to bring interest to the case yet again. I do think she may have had a dream or a delusion, but if in the 15 years prior she didn't have any signs of such actions, it would be odd for it to be so long before the grieving mother began to crack.
There is, of course, the potential that he was kidnapped and not immediately killed. Though sex trafficking in the traditional sense of being kidnapped off of the street and kept in a pedophile ring isn't that common, it does happen. It isn't completely out there to believe he was kidnapped and sold into sex slavery or kept in some sort of pedophile ring, and killed when he became too old. I genuinely hope this is not what happened. While I also don't wish for a child to be kidnapped and murdered, I would rather that than a child to be kidnapped, forced into sexual slavery and then murdered.
There is one other theory, though it is pushed almost exclusively by Noreen. She claimed that for about 2 weeks before their son went missing, an unknown number would call at around 1 AM every night. John would always answer and say "wrong number", except the night before Johnny disappeared, he said something like "yes, alright, okay". Additionally, people had claimed to see John at gay clubs in town. Though nearly everything about John being a suspect in the case comes from Noreen, who randomly began implicating her ex-husband, it is a theory that some people subscribe to.
Overall, it is likely that Noreen Gosch lost her mind a little bit after her son disappeared, which is absolutely reasonable given what she went through. But I do not believe he visited her in 1997, nor do I believe he was alive in 1997. I think he was likely killed soon after he was abducted. She is likely not purposefully lying, but instead, so desperate to believe that her son is still alive that she has convinced herself that he is.
In the years after Johnny's disappearance, John and Noreen divorced. As quoted by a Reddit user, "a sadistic kidnapper got really lucky. He didn't just take her kid. He took everything from Noreen Gosch. Her son, her husband, her mind, her whole life." On a positive note, she was able to use her life for good. Passing legislation that allowed missing children to be taken seriously immediately has probably saved the lives of many kids since the law was passed.
Disappearance cases can often have a lot of different possible scenarios. Running off on their own, the victim of a domestic dispute, or other things that their lives tie into. But sometimes, people are just plucked off of the streets. There wasn't some elaborate plan by an adult who was grooming them, they didn't decide to start a new life, they weren't killed by their partner who played the grieving spouse. They were just... taken. Gone without a trace. It is horrifying that it happened, and it absolutely makes sense that a grieving mother going through the trauma of losing her son in such a way would concoct stories to make it seem like he was still alive. But Johnny Gosch was likely kidnapped and murdered.
I feel so terrible for John and Noreen Gosch, who were dealt a hand that nobody should ever have to get. They lost their son, they fell apart from one another, and at least once, someone tried to play a prank on them by getting their hopes up that their son was alive somewhere. It is heartbreaking. What is worse: to live a life where you know your son was kidnapped and murdered, or to live a life of false hope where you convince yourself he's still out there, scared and alone? How do you even choose?
Without a confession, it is likely that the mystery of what happened to Johnny Gosch will remain unsolved. I hope he is resting peacefully, and I truly wish for a lifetime of peace for his parents who continue to live on without him.