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Face on the Milk Carton: What Happened to Johnny Gosch?

Decades later, the question remains...

johnny gosch
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been well over three decades since 12-year-old Johnny Gosch vanished while on his paper route in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. The case is heartbreaking, and made all the more haunting by the strange theories that now seek to explain his disappearance.

That morning of September 5, 1982 started out like any other for the Gosch family. Johnny set out on his local paper route. On this particular day, however, his father did not accompany him as he usually did. By 6:00 A.M., the Gosches received calls from their neighbors complaining that their newspapers had not been delivered. Johnny’s father, John, set out to search the neighborhood. Just two blocks away from the family home, John found his son’s abandoned wagon, full of undelivered newspapers. Johnny was nowhere to be found.

Related: Before the Lindbergh Kidnapping, There Was the Abduction of Charley Ross 

There were no witnesses around at the time of Johnny’s disappearance, though a neighbor later claimed he’d seen Johnny and another paperboy talking to a man driving a Ford Fairmont convertible. Another neighbor also reported seeing a man in a blue car talking to Johnny. However, with no further evidence of abduction, the Gosches faced considerable obstacles in convincing the police their son had been kidnapped.

After a 23-day search, authorities were unable to uncover any evidence as to Johnny’s whereabouts or any motive as to his kidnapping. His parents, in particular his mother Noreen Gosch, lobbied intensely to keep the case in the public eye. Because law enforcement took such a long time to respond, John and Noreen Gosch were forced to taken matters into their own hands. They were able to get Johnny’s disappearance into multiple headlines around the country—they went on television and distributed over 10,000 posters with Johnny’s picture on it. 

johnny gosch
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  • Photo Credit: Iowa Cold Cases

The same year that Johnny vanished, Noreen established a foundation in her son’s name. The organization pushed for legislation that called for an immediate police response to reports of missing children. The bill became state law in 1984, after receiving support from the likes of John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted, whose own son was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. The Johnny Gosch Bill now requires police to investigate missing-child cases immediately instead of waiting 72 hours as they had in Johnny’s case. In addition, Johnny’s face appeared on a milk carton in 1984: one of the first missing children whose case was publicized that way.

Then, just a few years later, Johnny’s story went from tragic to downright bizarre.

Related: The Mysterious Disappearance of the Beaumont Children 

In 1989, a man named Paul Bonnaci came forward with some shocking assertions. He claimed that he had been abducted by human traffickers as a teenager and was forced to help in the kidnapping of Johnny Gosch. Bonnaci claimed that the ring trained children to work for the government and participate in sexual acts in order to make the blackmail of politicians possible. This sex ring, Bonnaci claimed, was the work of a man named Lawrence E. King, then director of the Franklin Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska.

Bonnaci claimed he knew Johnny—he identified a birthmark on Johnny’s chest and said that Johnny had talked about going to yoga classes with his mother, a fact his family had not shared with the public. Because he was able to provide intimate details of Gosch, both John and Noreen believed he was telling the truth. Nevertheless, the FBI did not consider Bonnaci a credible witness—he suffered from multiple personality disorder and had a delinquent past.They believed his testimony was a hoax and declined to seek an indictment against King. In 1990, two of the accusers against Franklin were indicted for perjury.

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  • Noreen Gosch

    Photo Credit: The Johnny Gosch Foundation

Years went by with no new leads. Then, in 1997, Noreen claimed that one early morning, at 2:30 A.M., she was awakened by the sound of knocking. When she opened her front door, her son Johnny, now 27, was standing there with a man she had never seen before. Noreen claimed that the two entered her apartment and that they spoke for over an hour before departing.

“Johnny would look over to the other person for approval to speak,” she told the Des Moines Register. “He didn’t say where he is living or where he was going.” Though Noreen worked with the FBI to create a new sketch of Johnny’s current appearance, the case went cold again. She claimed that she did not contact the police when Johnny showed up because he warned her that doing so would be detrimental to his safety. Noreen claims that her son confirmed that he had been the victim of a pedophile organization and had been cast aside when he grew older. However, he still feared for his life and lived under a new identity, deeming it unsafe to return home. John has stated his uncertainty as to whether or not the visit occurred—the couple has been divorced since 1993. 

Related: Pauline Picard: The Unending Mystery of a Little Girl’s Disappearance 

The next bizarre development came on September 1, 2006. Noreen Gosch returned home to find several disturbing photographs at her doorstep. She claimed that one of the photos showed Johnny, bound and gagged, with a brand-mark on his shoulder. Another photo showed three boys bound and gagged. Just two weeks later, the Des Moines police department received an anonymous letter, which read:


Someone has played a reprehensible joke on a grieving mother. The photo in question is not one of her son but of three boys in Tampa, Florida about 1979-80, challenging each other to an escape contest. There was an investigation concerning that picture, made by the Hillsborough County (FL) Sheriff’s Office. No charges were filed, and no wrongdoing was established. The lead detective on the case was named Zalva. This allegation should be easy enough to check out.

In fact, a detective in Florida named Nelson Zalva confirmed that he had investigated the photo of the three boys and could find no evidence that anything criminal had taken place. Despite this, Noreen maintains that the other photograph is indeed of Johnny, that he was the victim of a child prostitution ring run out of Omaha, Nebraska, and that there is a cover-up that stretches from local law enforcement all the way up to the FBI.

Two similar disappearances in the area could support an active child predator theory. In 1984, Eugene Martin, another young paperboy, vanished on his route in the early morning hours. In 1986, 13-year-old Marc Warren Allen disappeared on his way to a friend’s house just down the street. 

johnny gosch
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  • Photo Credit: The Johnny Gosch Foundation

A few theories have surfaced over Johnny Gosch's current whereabouts. Noreen firmly believes the prostitution theory, and that the investigation has been hampered due to the influence of politicians and celebrities involved in the alleged ring. Although this theory hasn't been officially rejected, Des Moines police have stated that there is no evidence to suggest that Johnny was part of a pedophile ring.

Connected to this outlandish theory is a deeper conspiracy–that Johnny Gosch's identity has changed since his abduction. The pseudonymous conservative columnist known as Jeff Gannon (legal name James Guckert) was part of a minor media firestorm in 2005. Although unqualified for the job, Gannon was part of daily press briefings with President George Bush. He was eventually pushed to resign from his job after his use of male escort services came to light.

Related: 9 Real-Life Kidnapping Stories That Still Haunt Us 

Certain internet speculators, already on edge about Gannon's ability to access presidential briefings, put two-and-two together in odd ways. Soon, claims that Gannon was actually George Bush's lover or former sex slave were engulfing conspiracy theory boards. Then, visual similarities between Gannon and the kidnapped Johnny Gosch were noticed–and the J.G. repetition of Gannon's aliases seemed to seal the deal. Noreen Gosch has asked Gannon to take a DNA test to prove whether or not he is her son, but Gannon refused.

What really happened to Johnny Gosch on that fateful day in 1982? Could the rash of disappearances be connected? Sadly, decades later, the case remains unsolved.

[Via: The Johnny Gosch Foundation; Wikipedia; Iowa Cold Cases]

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons