Johnny Gosch, An Original 'Milk Carton Boy,' Has Been Missing Since 1982

Instead of finding his son, Johnny, worried father John Gosch spotted a red wagon full of newspapers sitting on a sidewalk.

November 11, 2016
Noreen Gosch sitting next to husband, who is holding poster of their son, Johnny [Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images]


Noreen Gosch sitting next to husband, who is holding poster w.picture of their son, & w. other members of Johnny Gosch Foundation, effort formed to locate boy who disappeared when he was 12-years-old & is assumed to have been kidnapped, meeting. (Photo by Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Photo by: Noreen Gosch sitting next to husband, who is holding poster of their son, Johnny [Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images]

Noreen Gosch sitting next to husband, who is holding poster of their son, Johnny [Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images]

By: Leigh Egan

There was no crime scene, nor any clues left to suggest someone abducted a 12-year-old boy. His pet dachshund was still there, looking lonely and lost. The pup had been down the suburban road many times with his best friend, Johnny Gosch, a paperboy who delivered the news to residents. The boy vanished, and the events to come were so bizarre that people today still have a hard time believing them.

Photo by: The Johnny Gosch Foundation

The Johnny Gosch Foundation

On September 5, 1982, Johnny, a charismatic preteen, reportedly started his paper route for the Des Moines Daily Register early in the morning, as usual, in a residential area of West Des Moines, Iowa. He slung a yellow messenger bag across his shoulders and set off with his red wagon, full of daily newspapers.

At around 7 A.M., neighbors reportedly began calling Johnny’s parents, John and Noreen Gosch, complaining that they hadn’t received their morning paper. That was unusual since Johnny hadn’t missed a single day of work since starting the paper route.

John Gosch set out to find his son, perhaps thinking the boy lost track of time and was running behind in his deliveries. Instead of finding his son, however, the worried father spotted a red wagon full of bundled newspapers sitting abandoned on a sidewalk. Johnny had simply vanished. Heartbreakingly, it was reportedly the first day that his parents had allowed him to deliver the papers without adult supervision.

John and Noreen Gosch phoned the police right away. It wasn’t like their son to disappear without telling anyone. In 1982, authorities waited 72 hours before considering someone missing, even children, if they didn't have immediate cause to believe it to be an abduction. Today, of course, police waiting that long to search for a missing child is unheard of. Noreen eventually helped in writing the legislation that would differentiate missing adults from missing children in Iowa. In 1984, Iowa passed “The Johnny Gosch Bill,” which requires police to act when a child is reported missing. Eight other states followed, implementing similar bills. Federal law now prohibits authorities in any state from creating a waiting period before searching for missing children.

Witnesses & Frustration

According to police, witnesses reported seeing Johnny talking to a man in a blue Ford Fairmont. Private investigators hired by the family reportedly found witnesses who claimed they saw the boy pulled into the car. Despite these purported accounts, police were reportedly hesitant to believe someone abducted the boy. However, they did search wooded areas throughout the vicinity. They never found any evidence suggesting what might have happened.

Noreen was getting frustrated with the police and didn’t understand why they wouldn’t do more to help find Johnny. Des Moines authorities were still under the impression that he'd run away, but Noreen was insistent that her son would never do that.

The Gosches reached out to the FBI and, within a few days, created enough flyers and posters to fill telephone poles and convenience store windows for states on end. They also reached out to the press, and the media attention helped get Johnny’s face on the front page of several major newspapers. They spoke to a private investigator, who suggested that Johnny may have been kidnapped and forced into a child-sex-trafficking operation.

Two years went by without finding Johnny. According to the Gosch family, police were moving at an unbearably slow pace. Noreen continued to keep the case in the limelight, and the community reportedly took more precautions than they used to. Kids were no longer riding their bikes alone, while others stopped walking home from school, and instead enrolled in after-school programs. Other parents hired sitters or worked fewer hours so that their children were no longer “latch-key kids.”

Missing Children Milk Carton Program

Photo by: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The fear intensified when, in 1984, another boy, Eugene Martin, disappeared while delivering newspapers in South Des Moines.

Placing missing childrens' photos on milk cartons became something of a phenomenon after Johnny and Eugene went missing. They became the first missing kids to appear on the back of cardboard milk containers. Within months after the boys’ pictures appeared, the National Child Safety Council implemented the Missing Children Milk Carton Program that eventually displayed thousands of childrens' photos on milk cartons.

Bizarre Allegations

As years went by, speculation, reportedly based on the findings of private investigators, intensified about children being kidnapped and forced into pedophile rings. But authorities discounted the possibility, saying they found no evidence to support the claims.

Nine years after Johnny vanished, Paul Bonacci, who had been convicted of sexually abusing three boys, allegedly claimed he was involved in a pedophile ring as a child. He said that he had helped kidnap Johnny as a part of a larger alleged scandal that involved unproven accusations of child sex trafficking. Bonacci said he was a teen when he was kidnapped and made into an “MK ULTRA sex slave,” by an “elite government group” that he claimed abducted children and forced them into child prostitution. He blamed his felony convictions on his childhood trauma but said he came forward because he “wanted to make things right.”

Authorities didn’t take Bonacci’s claims seriously, even though he reportedly led investigators to a Colorado home where he said he was held captive for years. He claimed Johnny was also held captive there. The abandoned home was boarded up, but many etchings and initials were found on pipes and boards in a secret area under the house.

Photo by: Why Johnny Can't Come Home cover art [The Johnny Gosch Foundation/Amazon]

Why Johnny Can't Come Home cover art [The Johnny Gosch Foundation/Amazon]

But Bonacci’s allegations might not have been as far-fetched as authorities made them out to be. During the 1980s, a possible pedophile epidemic was arguably sweeping throughout the world. Child actor Corey Feldman alleged in his book, "Coreyography," and on the "Dr. Oz show" that while working in Hollywood he was surrounded by many pedophiles that were influential persons in the entertainment industry. However, the LAPD ended its investigation into his claims because the statute of limitations expired.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, according to an alleged missing 30-year-old dossier, thousands of children in the UK were allegedly being sold into sex rings and abused by powerful and famous men.

Meanwhile, Noreen, fearing for her son’s safety, had been keeping a secret to herself. But after she talked to Bonacci, she claimed that Johnny had knocked on her door out of the blue in 1997. She indicated Johnny only stayed at her home briefly, and pleaded with her to not say a word. He'd reportedly seen a quick chance to escape his captors and intended on sneaking back before they knew he was gone. “The night that he came here, he was wearing jeans and a shirt and had a coat on because it was March. It was cold, and his hair was long; it was shoulder-length and it was straight and dyed black,” Noreen claimed in a 2005 interview with KWWL.

Noreen wrote a book in 2000, "Why Johnny Can’t Come Home", telling her story. Did Johnny really visit Noreen that night? Would a mother who spent the past seven years frantically searching for her son let him leave so quickly? The story is difficult to digest for many people. Johnny would have been an adult by 1997. Why would a full-grown man stay with his captors?

Noreen stands by her story, but claims she’s never seen her son again after the 1997 encounter. She has stated that she wholeheartedly believes he is still alive and out there somewhere, in hiding, so that he can protect himself.

Anyone with any information of Johnny’s whereabouts is urged to call the Des Moines Police Department at (515) 283-4811.

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