It’s been 40 years since 12-year-old Johnny Gosch disappeared while delivering newspapers near his West Des Moines home.
West Des Moines police have never classified his disappearance on Sept. 5, 1982, as a kidnapping — it officially remains a “missing persons” case.
His parents, John and Noreen Gosch, who divorced in 1993, have publicly disagreed about what and who they think were involved in the case. But both believe he was kidnapped. Police today say they believe that, too. A motive was never established, and no arrests have been made.
Here’s what we know — and some of what we don’t — about Johnny’s case.
Who was Johnny Gosch?
Johnny Gosch was a 12-year-old Des Moines Register paperboy who had a route in the area around his West Des Moines home for about a year before his disappearance. He was a reliable and prompt paperboy, according to a story in the Register the day after he went missing. He had won an airplane ride over Des Moines in a sales contest.
On the morning of Sept. 5, 1982, Johnny defied his parents by leaving the house alone to start his paper route, accompanied only by the family’s dachshund. John and Noreen Gosch had told him that he needed to go with his father.
He never returned.
At the time, Johnny was 5-foot-7 and 140 pounds, with light brown hair and blue eyes. He had freckles on his face, a gap in his front teeth, a birthmark on his left cheek and a horseshoe-shaped scar on his tongue. He’d be 52 years old now.
The youngest of three Gosch children, Johnny was well-liked by schoolmates, according to a Des Moines Tribune story on Sept. 7, 1982. He played football and took karate lessons. He was a seventh-grader at Indian Hills Junior High School. Around other students, he was known to speak out against drug use.
When did John and Noreen Gosch find out Johnny was missing?
Around 7:45 am the morning Johnny disappeared, John and Noreen Gosch began receiving calls from customers along the route complaining that their papers had not been delivered. When John drove around the neighborhood, he found his son’s red wagon full of newspapers a few blocks from the family home.
Johnny’s disappearance was reported to the West Des Moines Police Department. However, Iowa law at the time dictated that Gosch could not be classified as a missing person until 72 hours had passed.
According to Gosch’s motherother paperboys witnessed a man in a blue car pull up and talk to Gosch shortly before his disappearance.
How did Johnny Gosch’s disappearance change missing child investigations?
Following Johnny’s disappearance, his parents lobbied locally and nationally to raise awareness about threats to children and law enforcement’s response to missing children.
One success was the “Johnny Gosch bill,” passed by the Iowa Legislature in 1984, which required law enforcement to immediately investigate missing child cases where foul play was suspected.
Noreen and John Gosch divorced in 1993 and both eventually remarried. Noreen Gosch has expressed her belief that her son was taken by a child pornography ring and is still alive, and she claims to have seen him alive as an adult in 1997. However, authorities were never able to confirm this story.
Noreen Gosch is one of the administrators of the private Official Johnny Gosch Group on Facebook, where she often answers questions from people curious about the case.
From ‘Who Took Johnny’ to ‘Why Johnny Can’t Come Home,’ where can you find more?
Noreen Gosch self-published a book in 2000 titled “Why Johnny Can’t Come Home.” The book provides an in-depth look at what she believes happened to her son based on her research and the work of private detectives.
Johnny’s disappearance has been the subject of many true-crime podcasts, such as “True Crime Obsessed: Who Took Johnny?” available through Apple Podcasts.
In 2014, Brooklyn-based Rumur studios released a documentary titled “Who Took Johnny,” combining archive footage and new interviews with Noreen Gosch, John Gosch, investigators and others involved with the case.
The documentary, which played to a sold-out audience at the Fleur Cinema in April 2015, grew out of a one-hour special commissioned by MSNBC to recognize the 30th anniversary of the disappearance. Rumor filmed the special in 2012, and the program “Missing Johnny” aired in December that year.
Who was Eugene Martin?
Two years after Gosch’s disappearance, another central Iowa paperboy met a similar fate.
Eugene Martin of Des Moines enjoyed many things typical of a 13-year-old boy: football, fishing, skating, video games and TV. When the Iowa State Fair kicked off for the year in 1984, Martin relied on his Des Moines Register paper route to earn spending money.
Was Eugene Martin ever found?
He usually delivered newspapers with his older stepbrother, but on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 12, 1984, he went alone. Witnesses reported seeing Martin talking to a clean-cut man in his 30s between 5 am and 6:05 am
Around 6:15 am, Martin’s bag was found on the ground with folded newspapers still inside. He was never seen again.
Many thought the circumstances behind Martin’s and Gosch’s disappearances were similar, prompting speculation that both boys were kidnapped by the same person. Law enforcement was never able to make a definitive connection between the two cases, however, and no arrests have been made in either case.
What cultural impact did Johnny Gosch’s disappearance have?
A string of disappearances of children — Etan Patz in New York City in 1979, Adam Walsh in Hollywood, Florida, in 1981, Johnny Gosch in West Des Moines in 1982 and Eugene Martin in Des Moines in 1984 — ignited a panic over childhood safety in the United States.
The America ethos of letting preteens roam freely through neighborhood streets on foot or on bicycles has faded.
Ron Sampson, who became head of the Help Find Johnny Gosch Foundation in 1983, said Johnny’s disappearance “absolutely changed the culture.”
“You didn’t let your kids out of your sight,” Sampson said. “All of a sudden, everything that you thought was safe and sound … was suspect.”
How did the missing kids milk carton campaign start?
Before Facebook, Amber Alerts and text messages, pictures on milk cartons became a way to distribute information about missing children.
It made sense at the time. Most Americans drank milk, and the cartons had a frequent turnaround from grocery store to fridge.
The grassroots campaign had deep Iowa ties.
Cartons from Anderson Erickson Dairy in Des Moines were among the first to be distributed in grocery stores. They featured the black and white images of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin — the two Des Moines Register newspaper carriers who disappeared in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
From there, the missing kids milk carton campaign grew. Dairies across the nation participated, and notification of missing kids via milk carton pictures became part of Americans’ routines.
Even though the campaign was short-lived and mostly ended by the late 1980s, the cartons are still a prominent image for many people when they think about missing kids.
This article originally appeared on the Des Moines Register: Johnny Gosch’s disappearance changed the US; he has never been found