John David Gosch — Johnny to his friends and family — always insisted he was old enough to complete his newspaper route alone, but his father usually accompanied the 12-year-old on Sundays because the newspapers were heavier. Johnny would normally follow the same routine every Sunday; he would get up early, get dressed, and wake his father up. The two of them would then make the two-block walk from their West Des Moines, Iowa home to the newspaper drop-off site, where Johnny would load his bundles of papers into his red wagon.
On Sunday, September 5, 1982, Johnny got up early but didn’t wake his father up like he usually did. Instead, around 5:45 am he quietly slipped out of the house, taking only his dachshund, Gretchen, for company. Johnny, towing the red wagon he used to carry his newspapers, made his way toward the Des Moines Register drop-off site to pick up the papers he needed for the 37 customers on his route. At some point on the short walk, he met up with a 15-year-old friend who also delivered for the Des Moines Register. The two boys picked up their newspapers together and then headed off in separate directions to complete their routes.
Johnny’s parents, John and Noreen Gosch, had no idea that Johnny had left the house without waking his father up. They woke up with a start when the phone rang around 7:30 am; it was one of Johnny’s customers calling to ask why his newspaper hadn’t been delivered. Johnny had been working the same route for the past year and had never failed to make sure his papers were delivered on time. John apologized to the man and said he thought his son had overslept. He went into Johnny’s room to wake him up and was surprised to find that he wasn’t in bed.
Confused, John got dressed and headed outside. He started walking in the direction of the Des Moines Register office; he had gone less than two blocks when he found Johnny’s red wagon. There were 37 newspapers inside the wagon, indicating that Johnny hadn’t made any of his deliveries that morning. Unsure of what was going on, John quickly completed Johnny’s paper route for him, then went back to the house. As soon as he told Noreen what was going on, she called the police and reported Johnny missing.
Johnny was the youngest of three children. He was a polite and friendly boy who got along well with just about everyone. He was in seventh grade at Indian Hills Junior High School, where he was a member of the football team and popular with his classmates. He had also taken karate lessons and knew how to defend himself. He was a genuinely good kid who never gave anyone any trouble; he was the last person anyone expected to simply disappear.
Around 30 police officers were involved in the initial search for Johnny. They were soon joined by dozens of neighbors and family friends, all of them hoping that Johnny would show up with a good explanation for where he had been. While searchers combed through the streets of the quiet neighborhood, detectives started looking for witnesses who might have seen Johnny after he left his home that morning.
Johnny’s 15-year-old friend told detectives that he and Johnny had picked up their newspapers at the same time that morning. He noted that while they were walking to the Register’s office, a man in a dark blue car drove by them three times, stopping twice to ask for directions to Eighty-sixth Street. When Johnny and his friend split up after picking up their papers, the 15-year-old saw that Johnny had stopped a couple of blocks from the office and was talking to a man wearing a baseball cap. He couldn’t tell if it was the same man that had asked for directions earlier.
The 15-year-old watched Johnny for a few seconds and noted that he didn’t seem to be nervous or upset. Gretchen the dog, who would usually bark if she felt threatened, was standing quietly by Johnny’s side. Figuring that Johnny knew the person, the 15-year-old turned away and went about delivering his newspapers. He didn’t see Johnny or the man again.
When John and Noreen woke up later that morning, Gretchen was back at the house. It was unclear when she had returned but there was nothing to indicate that Johnny had returned with her. Police assumed Gretchen headed home alone after Johnny went missing.
Johnny wasn’t the type of boy anyone expected to run away from home. Lou Cooke, the district circulation manager for the Des Moines Register, told police that Johnny had always been a reliable employee. “He’s a really nice little boy…very well-mannered. He’s got a good record — good service record, good collecting record, good sales record…he’s a responsible boy and always has been.” The previous year, Johnny won a sales contest and got to go on an airplane ride over the city of Des Moines.
Friends said there was no way Johnny would have willingly gone anywhere before he completed his paper route: the delivery boys were charged 75 cents for each paper they didn’t deliver. Johnny hadn’t delivered to any of the houses on his route before he vanished, meaning he would have to pay the company $27.75. His boss told police that Johnny had never owed money before because he was meticulous about making sure he went to each home on his route. He believed the 12-year-old had been kidnapped.
Noreen pointed out that Johnny had left all of his belongings and money at home. He had recently used some of the money he saved from his newspaper route to buy himself a motorbike and a new pair of Adidas sneakers; if he planned on running away from home, he would have taken these items with him.
Detectives told reporters that they weren’t jumping to any conclusions; although everyone agreed it was out of character for Johnny to go anywhere without letting his parents know, they hadn’t found any evidence of an abduction. Des Moines Detective Steve Hoffman noted, “We just don’t have anything to go on at this point. We don’t think it’s foul play; he’s just listed as a missing person.”
Hoping to bring in some tips about Johnny’s whereabouts, Michael Gartner, the president of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, announced that the paper was offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to Johnny’s safe return. “We’re terribly concerned about this…we’re mystified and we feel helpless.” The company also warned all of their newspaper carriers — most of whom were young boys like Johnny — to be aware of their surroundings and to immediately alert someone if they believed they were being followed while completing their deliveries.
The search for Johnny continued throughout the day but no clues to his whereabouts were found. By Monday morning, word had spread about the missing boy and more than 1,000 people abandoned their Labor Day festivities to join the search effort. They scoured the city, searching in vain for any sign of Johnny or his Des Moines Register newspaper bag, which wasn’t found with his wagon and newspapers.
While some volunteers walked shoulder-to-shoulder through fields and abandoned lots in West Des Moines, others drove through Dallas, Warren, and Polk counties, carefully checking in ditches alongside rural roads and highways. As hours went by without any sign of Johnny or his yellow newspaper bag, the searchers struggled to remain optimistic. One told reporters that they were operating under the assumption that Johnny was still alive unless they could find evidence proving otherwise.
Investigators flooded West Des Moines, stopping drivers and questioning joggers, hoping that someone might have seen something useful. Unfortunately, not many people had been out and about at the time Johnny went missing; most people were still in bed when he set off on his paper route.
The search was halted late Monday night, and West Des Moines Police Chief Orval Cooney admitted that the lack of clues was discouraging. “The time factor is something we’re not happy about…[but] we have nothing to make us believe he is not alive.”
Witnesses saw two vehicles in the area around the time that Johnny went missing, a dark blue car with a license plate from Warren County, Iowa, and a silver Ford Fairmount with a black stripe. Chief Cooney stated, “We’d just like to talk to the drivers since they were seen in the vicinity…we’re not calling the cars suspect vehicles.”
On Tuesday, John and Noreen made a public appeal for their son’s return. They were convinced he had been abducted and were willing to do whatever they had to do to get him back. When asked if he had a message for the person who had his son, John said, “If they want anything, tell us what it is.” Noreen noted that they were living every parent’s worst nightmare. “They know they have us over a barrel. You are never more vulnerable.”
Tuesday’s search concentrated on the Raccoon River, Walnut Woods State Park, and the Brown’s Woods area. Volunteers on foot and horseback scoured the heavily wooded area for hours but didn’t find any clues to Johnny’s whereabouts.
Chief Cooney admitted that he didn’t know what had happened to Johnny. Investigators had no concrete evidence pointing to foul play — no one heard yelling or any kind of struggle around the time Johnny vanished — but it seemed unlikely that the 12-year-old had taken off on his own. “There have been no problems between the boy and his family…he had no trouble with anyone on his route. He was a happy boy as far as we know.”
The police chief also made another appeal for the two drivers who had been seen in the area Sunday morning to contact detectives. “It’s difficult for us to understand why these people aren’t coming forward. They were seen in the area…those two cars, we feel, are very important to us.” He reiterated that the drivers weren’t considered suspects but might have witnessed something that could help police find Johnny.
With few leads, the West Des Moines police department enlisted the help of Greta Alexander, a self-proclaimed psychic who had assisted various law enforcement agencies in the past. Greta told investigators that she believed Johnny was alive but was being held somewhere against his will, although she was unable to provide any information about who had taken the boy or where he was being held. Still, her words were well-received by Johnny’s parents, who were desperate for some sign that their son was still alive.
On Wednesday, members of the Iowa State Police used an airplane to conduct an aerial search of West Des Moines and the surrounding area. They also asked residents in rural areas of the county to walk their properties and check their sheds, barns, and garages for any potential clues.
By the end of the week, the reward for information leading to Johnny’s safe return was up to $33,000. This included $25,000 raised by friends of the Gosch family and smaller contributions from local businesses and residents. Investigators received dozens of tips but none of them brought them any closer to finding Johnny.
Detectives interviewed Johnny’s family members, friends, classmates, and teachers, hoping to gain some insight into his state of mind at the time of his disappearance. Everyone told them the same thing: Johnny was a pleasant boy who got along well with his parents and siblings and never talked about wanting to run away from home. He loved his paper route and had been delivering to the same homes for about a year; there was no way he could have gotten lost in the neighborhood he knew so well. Everyone believed he had been abducted.
Early Sunday morning, investigators returned to the area where Johnny was last seen. They stopped motorists and pedestrians, asking if any of them had been in the area at the same time the previous week. They were hopeful that they might find someone who had seen Johnny in the minutes leading up to his disappearance, but no one they spoke to was able to provide any useful information.
As the investigation entered its second week, the physical search for Johnny was called off. Detectives turned their focus toward trying to identify the two cars seen in the area around the time Johnny went missing. They were combing through vehicle registration records, but since they only had vague descriptions to go on, it was a tedious task. Gerald Shanahan, chief of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, wryly noted, “There are lots of blue cars in Warren County.”
As days passed without any sign of Johnny, detectives admitted that he had most likely been taken somewhere outside of the Des Moines area. Noreen told reporters she believed Johnny might have been abducted by members of The Way International, a religious cult. “There are a number of them that do abduct young people. They do. I’ve checked.” She wouldn’t say who she got her information from, however, and investigators said that they didn’t know of any cults that would kidnap a child who was unrelated to its members.
On September 30, 1982, Noreen told reporters that her life had been threatened because she went public with the fact that she thought Johnny had been abducted by The Way International. She claimed a man called her and stated, “Because of what you said on television, your life is in danger, young lady!” She believed the anonymous caller was a cult member trying to scare her into giving up the search for her son.
The following day, Noreen got a phone call from a male who said he was a member of The Way and that the group had Johnny. Noreen was instructed to deliver $25,000 to Ninth & Crocker Streets in Ankeny, Iowa if she wanted her son back. She called police, who determined that the address she was given didn’t exist. A few days later, investigators arrested three Ankeny juveniles and charged them with harassment for making the ransom call, which had been nothing more than a cruel hoax.
A month after Johnny went missing, detectives were still struggling to come up with any solid leads about his whereabouts. Despite repeated public appeals, they hadn’t been able to identify the driver of the blue sedan or the silver Fairmount. The investigation seemed to be hitting a brick wall.
Although detectives continued to say that they had no evidence of foul play, they asked John and Noreen if they would be willing to take polygraph examinations about their son’s disappearance. The couple declined. John indignantly told reporters, “Basically, we thought it was pointing a finger at us and we’ve got nothing to hide.” John made it clear that he thought police were focusing on family members because they couldn’t come up with any real leads. “I think they can do a heck of a lot better.”
Iowa DCI Chief Shanahan said that neither John nor Noreen were suspected of being involved in their son’s disappearance. “[The polygraphs] were needed at this stage of the investigation to resolve issues that have not been resolved and to try to separate certain information from hearsay information.” John and Noreen still refused, stating that they believed the tests were unreliable.
Five weeks after their son disappeared, John and Noreen were guests on the national television show “Good Morning America.” Noreen pleaded with the audience for help finding Johnny, asking anyone with information to contact police. She said everyone who knew Johnny was certain he hadn’t vanished voluntarily. “John was a happy boy…he did everything with gusto. He was a lot of fun. He was gentle. He liked people and trusted people and perhaps that’s why he’s gone. He probably trusted someone and was coerced into a car or something.”
John and Noreen’s frustration with the lack of progress made by local police was evident. They decided to take matters into their own hands and hired two private investigators to search for Johnny. After the couple appeared on “Good Morning America,” they received calls from people all across America who thought they had seen Johnny. He was seen on a beach in California, hitchhiking in Iowa, and at a McDonald’s in Maryland. Investigators were kept busy following up on each potential sighting but were unable to confirm any of them.
Nearly two months after Johnny was last seen, West Des Moines police made another attempt at trying to identify the mystery man seen talking to Johnny as he prepared to start his paper route. After extensive interviews with witnesses who saw the man, detectives released an updated description of him. He was in his mid-30s, weighed around 200 pounds, and had dark hair, deep-set eyes, and a dark complexion. He asked for directions, then drove his dark blue car onto Thirty-ninth Street at a high rate of speed.
Once again, investigators stressed that this man was not a suspect in Johnny’s disappearance, but they hoped he might have seen the driver of the silver Ford Fairmount, which was seen close to Johnny in the minutes before he disappeared. Detectives had combed through registration records and checked out more than 5,000 silver vehicles without success; they once again pleaded for the drivers to come forward. The fact that neither one did made police question why they had been in the neighborhood that morning.
Still convinced that police weren’t doing enough to find their son, John and Noreen recruited dozens of their friends to help them distribute missing person posters across the country. They sent more than 35,000 posters to police departments all over the United States, hoping that one would eventually reach someone who recognized Johnny.
Although Noreen was convinced that her son was still alive, she admitted that a psychic had recently told her that Johnny was dea*d and would be found within two miles of his home. This psychic claimed that Johnny’s body was lying face down near a creek close to an interstate highway. Noreen believed she recognized the area the psychic was describing and recruited 70 volunteers to help her search it. They didn’t find anything.
In November 1982, John and Noreen announced that Johnny had been seen talking to a West Des Moines police officer two days before he went missing; after speaking with the officer, he told his parents he thought he wanted to become a police officer when he grew up. His parents now said that the officer he was seen talking to matched the description of the man seen in the area shortly before Johnny vanished. They were now convinced that this officer was involved in their son’s disappearance and claimed that West Des Moines investigators were refusing to help them identify the officer in question.
A few weeks later, John and Noreen held a press conference at their home. They released two sketches they had made of the man seen talking with Johnny on the morning he vanished. They told reporters that they had lost faith in the ability of police to find their son and were taking the investigation into their own hands. The sketches were based on the descriptions given by two people who claimed to see the mystery man talking with Johnny, but John and Noreen refused to identify these witnesses.
As 1982 came to a close, Noreen announced that private investigators had identified a man they believed was holding Johnny captive, but they refused to share this information with the West Des Moines Police Department. When asked by reporters why the couple hadn’t told police about the potential suspect, John stated, “We don’t want them to louse it up, to be very honest with you.” According to John, private detectives questioned the suspect and he admitted taking Johnny. “He is under very, very close observation.”
John and Noreen may have been frustrated with police, but police were just as frustrated with the couple. They cautioned them about continuing to release so much information to the media, noting it could jeopardize any future efforts to prosecute the person responsible for Johnny’s disappearance. They also questioned why the couple would refuse to involve police after claiming someone confessed to abducting their son.
In January 1983, police stated that they were aware of the person Noreen and John were convinced had abducted their son, but detectives were certain the man was not involved in the boy’s disappearance as they could prove he had been in Texas on the day Johnny vanished. Johnny’s parents, however, remained convinced the man had their son.
Tensions continued to mount between the West Des Moines Police Department and Johnny’s parents. John and Noreen continuously told reporters that the police were incompetent and weren’t doing anything to find their son, while police said they were trying to do their job and were tired of the couple constantly trying to manipulate the press to their advantage. Chief Cooney admitted, “I really don’t give a damn what Noreen Gosch has to say. I really don’t give a damn what she thinks. I’m interested in the boy and what we can do to find him. I’m kind of sick of her.”
Polk County District Attorney Dan Johnston noted that while he sympathized with the fact that John and Noreen’s son was missing, they hadn’t been very cooperative in the investigation. Detectives wanted to conduct in-depth interviews with Johnny’s parents but found it was impossible. “You don’t get cooperation. You get counter-attacks.”
As the case reached the six-month mark, detectives admitted that they still had no idea what had happened to Johnny. His trail ended two blocks from his house; there had been no confirmed sightings of the missing boy since he vanished, leaving only his wagon and dog behind. The two cars seen in the area remained unidentified; detectives said they could have been repainted or the original witness descriptions of the vehicles could have been wrong. The case was going cold.
Iowa DCI Chief Shanahan noted that the case was an oddity. “We haven’t had a case like this. Usually, when there are missing persons, you have something to go on. The most striking thing here is the lack of evidence.” Still, he thought that Johnny was likely still alive, if for no other reason than extensive searches had failed to find his body.
John and Noreen also believed that Johnny was still alive. They theorized that he was abducted by two men and forced into child prostitution and the pornography industry. Noreen stated, “It was slick and highly organized. I think they plan their abductions — indicators point to that. We’ve done our homework. We know what goes on in other parts of the country.”
On the first anniversary of their son’s disappearance, John and Noreen were still struggling to come to terms with the nightmare they were living. Noreen admitted, “We’ve never experienced anything that hurt as much as this. It’s a constant physical pain around our hearts. Some nights it hurts so much I feel I could die in my sleep.” She remained optimistic that her son would be found. “Are we ready for an unhappy ending? We have to be. But we also have to have some answers. Until there is proof, Johnny is alive.”
In January 1984, Noreen told reporters there had been a confirmed sighting of Johnny six months after he went missing. She claimed a woman saw two men chasing a boy on March 2, 1983, in a large city in Oklahoma, though Noreen wouldn’t confirm which city. “The boy ran up to the woman and said, ‘Please, lady, help me. My name is John David Gosch.’ At that point, one of the men grabbed him, twisted his arm behind his back, and dragged him away.”
The woman supposedly contacted police shortly after the incident, but word of the sighting didn’t make its way to John and Noreen until months later. Noreen was certain the boy had been her son. “It was Johnny. And he’s still alive.” The sighting only confirmed her belief that he had been abducted and was being held against his will somewhere.
Shortly after midnight on February 22, 1984, Noreen received three brief phone calls from a boy who pleaded for her help before the line went de*ad. John was out of town on business at the time, but Noreen said she was absolutely certain that the voice on the other end of the line belonged to her missing son, though he sounded as if he had been drugged and was having trouble enunciating words. He claimed he was trying to make his way home but didn’t say where he was. The calls were too short for police to trace.
In March 1984, Noreen appeared on the “Today Show.” She said that there had been multiple sightings of her 14-year-old son, who was now 6 feet tall. Many of the sightings had been in the southwestern United States, but Noreen noted that his captors were likely moving him around frequently so he couldn’t be found.
Determined to make sure that no other family had to go through what they were going through, John and Noreen lobbied both locally and nationally for changes in the way law enforcement dealt with missing children. In the summer of 1984, the Iowa Legislature passed the “Johnny Gosch Bill,” which required police to act immediately when children went missing and foul play was possible.
There was little movement on Johnny’s case over the next few months, but it made its way back into the headlines in August 1984, when another paper boy in Des Moines went missing while delivering the Sunday newspaper. The disappearance of 13-year-old Eugene Martin was eerily similar to Johnny’s; unlike in Johnny’s case, however, police took Eugene’s disappearance seriously from the start, immediately treating it as a possible abduction rather than a runway situation.
Although there was no evidence linking Eugene’s disappearance to Johnny’s, there were some investigators who saw Eugene’s case as a second chance to solve Johnny’s case; if they could determine what happened to Eugene, maybe they would learn what had happened to Johnny. Unfortunately, leads were scarce in Eugene’s case as well and no answers were forthcoming.
By the second anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance, his parents had spent $100,000 on private investigators, posters, and other search expenses. Some of the money had come from donations, but they also drained the college funds they had started for their three children and borrowed against their life insurance policies. Despite their extensive efforts, Johnny’s fate remained a mystery.
Noreen said there had been at least a dozen sightings of Johnny; he was usually seen in the southwest and was always accompanied by an unidentified male, presumably one of his captors. Witnesses claimed Johnny was now 6 feet tall and had long hair that hung down to his shoulders; he supposedly had slurred speech as if drugged and walked with a limp, which Noreen attributed to frequent beatings by his abductors. Despite the reported sightings, private investigators working for the family always found themselves several steps behind, never able to see Johnny for themselves. Still, John and Noreen were certain their son was still alive and were willing to do whatever they had to do to get him back.
John and Noreen wanted to do more than just advocate for their son; they also started speaking at conferences and events all over the country, promoting child safety and making sure parents were aware of how to best protect their children from predators. They did this while both continuing to work at their full-time jobs. In May 1985, John noted, “We’re the only set of parents in the country doing this. It’s too late for our son, but maybe it will help other families.”
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley acknowledged that Johnny’s parents had been thrown into a life most parents couldn’t imagine. “John and Noreen have unhappily become experts in the sordid underworld of child kidnapping, se*xual a*buse, and exploitation…their investigators have described auction houses offering children to the highest bidder, child pornographic studios, and prostitution rings.” Senator Grassley believed tougher child protection laws were needed in America.
In July 1985, John and Noreen told reporters they had been given a dollar bill that had their son’s signature and the words “I am alive” written on it. A woman had received the dollar in her change at a Sioux City, Iowa grocery store and Johnny’s parents were certain it was genuine. They claimed three handwriting experts examined the bill and determined that the writing was definitely Johnny’s. Noreen said the family had managed to raise $400,000 in reward money and would be willing to negotiate with Johnny’s captors to secure his release.
Sadly, John and Noreen were so open about their willingness to do anything necessary to find their son that it made them easy targets for scammers. In late July 1985, they said they were scaling back their public search efforts after being swindled out of $11,000 by a man who claimed Johnny was being offered for sale in Mexico City, Mexico. He claimed he could return Johnny to his parents — for a fee. They gave the man the money he requested but it soon became clear he didn’t have Johnny. He was convicted of wire fraud and sentenced to three years in prison.
Years went by and the investigation into Johnny’s disappearance stalled and then went cold. John and Noreen continued to do everything they could to find their son, but the case was no longer considered headline news in the Des Moines area. In June 1988, hoping to jumpstart the case, the FBI released an age-progression photograph of Johnny, showing what he might look like as an 18-year-old. Noreen told reporters she and John were pleased with the photograph. “We see resemblances to members of our family.”
In April 1991, self-proclaimed psychic Greta Alexander once again offered her help in the investigation. She believed Johnny was de*ad and his body was buried in a shallow grave in a remote area northwest of Des Moines. With no other leads to follow, detectives spent hours following her directions to various places but didn’t find any clues to Johnny’s whereabouts.
John and Noreen remained convinced their son had been abducted as part of a child pornography ring, and in July 1991 an inmate in a Nebraska prison seemed to confirm their fears. Paul Bonacci, convicted of s*exually abu*sing three minors, told a private investigator that he was one of four men who participated in Johnny’s abduction. In an unrelated case, however, a Nebraska grand jury said that Bonacci was the most pathetic witness they had ever come across, noting that he claimed to have 28 different personalities and his psychiatrist testified that he was incapable of telling the truth.
While authorities seemed to dismiss Bonacci’s claims, John and Noreen believed he was being truthful about what happened to Johnny. Bonacci’s lawyer, John DeCamp, also believed he was telling the truth. “[His account] did not match up 90 percent, not 95 percent, not 98 percent, but 100 percent. He never varied…he gave a description of Johnny’s pants, names on his shirt, scars on his body.”
According to Bonacci, he last saw Johnny in 1989. The boy, who was initially sold to a pe*dophile in Colorado, was renamed Mark. He grew into a 6 foot 4 man and his hair was dyed black; he was then shipped to the Netherlands where prostitution was legal. Bonacci couldn’t explain why Johnny was still being kept once he was an adult if he had been targeted by a child pornography ring.
Police interviewed Bonacci but he was never charged in connection with Johnny’s case. Although John and Noreen believed he was telling them the truth, detectives noted that the inmate claimed to have multiple personalities — and only one of them admitted to abducting Johnny. The other personalities denied any involvement.
As the 10th anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance approached, John admitted that he almost hoped his son was de*ad. “If he had gone through 10 years of pornographers and ped*ophiles as we’ve heard, I hope he isn’t alive. But on the other hand, he is still our son. We’d love to have him back but the condition he would be in is probably undesirable.”
John and Noreen told reporters that, in some ways, they had beaten the odds since they hadn’t let their son’s disappearance wreck their marriage. John noted, ‘You have a set of parents who are still together and who haven’t totally destroyed themselves over the situation.” Less than a year later, however, the couple filed for divorce after 26 years of marriage.
By September 1997, Johnny had been missing for 15 years. Noreen told reporters that she was certain he was still alive but was hiding his identity because he was wanted for his involvement in a child pornography ring and other crimes he had committed while under the control of his captors. He was supposedly living somewhere in the United States, was married, and had a child. Noreen said she learned this information from investigative sources and had turned it over to detectives, who were looking into her claims.
In February 1999, Noreen came forward with an astonishing story. She claimed that Johnny had visited her at her West Des Moines apartment in March 1997 but she hadn’t told anyone because Johnny said it would put their lives in danger. He supposedly showed up at her door at 2:30 am accompanied by an unidentified man. “We talked for an hour or an hour and a half…Johnny would look over to the other person for approval to speak.”
Police weren’t sure what to make of this new claim. Polk County District Attorney John Sarcone told reporters that he would be very happy for Noreen if her son were truly alive, but noted Johnny would probably be safer if he went to police rather than trying to hide.
Noreen’s ex-husband said he was skeptical of her account of seeing Johnny. He accused her of simply making up the whole thing, pointing out that if Johnny really had returned to Des Moines, he would have gone to the home where he grew up, not Noreen’s new apartment. Noreen said John was just jealous because their son had opted to visit her and not him.
Detectives made several public appeals for Johnny to reach out to them but were never able to prove he was still alive. The case faded from the headlines once again, but returned in August 2006 when Noreen received several photographs in the mail that she believed were of Johnny shortly after he was kidnapped. In one of the photographs, he was on a bed with two other young boys; all three of them were bound and gagged.
Noreen immediately turned the photographs over to police, who were able to determine the boy in the picture was not Johnny. The photographs had been investigated by police in Florida in the late 1970s and they were able to identify the boys and confirm that no foul play was involved. The boys claimed they were simply having a contest to see who could escape their bindings the quickest.
A retired detective in Florida told Des Moines police that he remembered investigating the pictures in Tampa in either 1979 or 1980; he was adamant that no crime had been committed. Yet Noreen disputed this, insisting her son was one of the boys in the photograph. She claimed she was contacted by the mother of one of the other boys in the picture, who said her son had gone missing around the same time as Johnny.
September 2022 marked the 40th anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance. Detectives admitted they knew little more than they did on the day Johnny was reported missing. Although there were dozens of theories about what might have happened, there was no solid evidence to support any of them.
Noreen was convinced she knows exactly what happened. “He was kidnapped off the street for the purposes of putting him into a pe*dophile ring.” Even after four decades, she was still angry about the way the investigation was handled and didn’t trust the police. She refused to provide a sample of her DNA for a national missing person database because she was suspicious of what police would do with the information.
John had no such qualms; he had no problem submitting his DNA and hoped it would eventually help identify his son. He admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure what happened to Johnny; he believed he had been kidnapped but wasn’t sure if his abduction had anything to do with child pornography. He just knew that he had been robbed of getting to see his only son grow up.
Noreen said she wanted nothing more than to see her son one more time but not if it meant risking his life. “If he is still alive…I want Johnny to know that I love him, but I’m not going to try to force him to come home to something that would get him hurt. And that hurts.”
As of August 2023, Johnny has been missing for nearly 41 years and detectives have no idea if he is alive or de*ad. His mother, who has always been his greatest advocate, remains convinced that it was Johnny who visited her in 1997; if true, it’s certainly possible that he is still alive and living somewhere under an assumed name. The truth may never be known.
John David Gosch was just 12 years old when he vanished from West Des Moines, Iowa in September 1982. He was a smart and popular boy who got along well with his classmates and parents, and no one who knew him believed he would run away. Johnny has blue eyes and light brown hair, and at the time of his disappearance, he was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 140 pounds. He was last seen wearing black sweatpants, a white sweatshirt with “Kim’s Academy” written on the back, and blue flip-flops. He has a birthmark on his chest and a scar on his tongue. If you have any information about Johnny’s disappearance, please contact the West Des Moines Police Department at 515–223–3211.