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.
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.
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 a law in the state 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. 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.
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. 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. Nevertheless, the FBI did not consider Bonnaci a credible witness. 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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons