First in a series.
During her 30-year search for her son, Noreen Gosch has been called confrontational, emotional and delusional, all harsh words for a woman living through every parent’s nightmare – the disappearance and possible abduction of a child.
Gosch has deflected it, singularly focused on bringing her boy home.
“Your child is the true victim,” she told Patch recently. “You have been left with a terrible heartache, but if you always think of the child, you can’t allow yourself to be the victim.”
Thirty years after Johnny’s disappearance – on Sept. 5, 1982 – nobody knows for certain what happened to the mop-haired kid who started his day delivering the Des Moines Sunday Register and then, suddenly, was nowhere to be found.
But this much is certain: When Johnny Gosch vanished, Iowa’s innocence was abducted.
It changed everything.
The Gosch case illustrates a national problem, where some 2,185 kids are reported missing each day. Of the 5,354 people reported missing in Iowa in 2011, 4,593 of them were juveniles, according to an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation report.
Tomorrow: It isn’t a huge leap to believe that missing Iowa paperboy Johnny Gosch was kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, says an Iowa police detective overseeing the 30-year-old case.
While many are runaways, nearly half of missing Iowa juveniles in 2011 were classified as either “endangered,” meaning their physical safety may be in danger, or as “involuntary,” meaning they had been abducted by a non-family member.
While the number of missing children hasn’t measurably increased over the years, awareness has exploded. Images of distraught families and steely mothers like Gosch warning parents that children aren’t safe, even in the Heartland, bounce around the airwaves.
Jim Rothstein, a retired New York City police detective who has spent decades investigating missing kids, human trafficking and pedophilia, says children are easy prey in rural America, where an illusion of safety still exists.
Kids have been reported missing from every corner of the state, with no town, big or small, immune from the danger.
Even in Waukee, still small enough to have only one ZIP code and a triangle rather than a full-blown town square, children are vulnerable, which was illustrated chillingly last month when a stranger attempted .
When Kids Vanish: Now
The circumstances are especially chilling in light of a report issued last week by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization Noreen Gosch helped establish. Its analysis of more than 7,000 attempted abductions over seven years found that children are especially vulnerable at back-to-school time.
Among the findings from children who successfully escaped would-be abductors was that the suspect in a car tried to lure the child inside 72 percent of the time, and about one-third of the attempts occurred between 2 and 7 p.m., when children were least likely to be supervised and were walking to and from school or school-related activities.
Also adding to Iowans’ anxiety, residents in the small northeast Iowa town of Evansdale are still praying for the return of two cousins, in July while riding their bikes.
And, just last week, a mother reported running off a man in Clive who tried to snatch her toddler daughter.
'Iowa Has a Kidnapping Problem'
A West Des Moines police detective overseeing the Gosch case said among the worst fears is human trafficking, which is “happening closer to home than people want to believe.”
“I think it probably is nationwide and worldwide, and likely more prevalent in other countries, where it’s almost part of the culture,” Detective Tom Boyd said. “But people look at it and can’t believe it could happen here.”
Noreen Gosch said the Waukee incident was a wake-up call to parents everywhere that her nightmare could be theirs.
"This is a message and it means something,” she said. “Iowa has a kidnapping problem.”
The Morning Johnny Gosch Vanished
The ominous phone calls started about 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1982. Neighbors were calling the home Noreen and then husband John Gosch made with their son, Johnny, and her two children from a previous marriage, to report late papers.
In Johnny’s 13 months as a Register carrier, he’d earned a perfect service record for delivering papers on time, every time. Something had to be wrong.
And then Gretchen, the miniature dachshund that accompanied Johnny when he delivered, came home alone. “The dog sat there and was shaking,” Gosch said. “She shook for weeks after the kidnapping.”
When West Des Moines police arrived 45 minutes later, Gosch said she had already talked to newspaper circulation supervisors, paper carriers in the vicinity that morning and some of their parents.
A nugget of information came from retired attorney John Rossi, who had seen Johnny talking to a man in a car early that morning at 42nd Street and University Avenue in West Des Moines, a drop-off spot where carriers loaded their Red Flyer wagons with papers and set off on their routes.
Rivaled only by a few days during the Korean War, Rossi counts that day as one of the most traumatic of his life.
He’s spent three decades second-guessing himself, wishing he’d been more observant. What he saw may have meant something, he said, or it might have meant nothing at all.
He and his family were eager to leave town for the Labor Day weekend, so Rossi helped his son, Joe, bundle and distribute newspapers.
“I wasn’t observant enough,” he said, his voice hushed to the tone people use when they speak of tragedies. “I saw a car parked on 42nd Street and Johnny having a conversation with the man. Somewhere along the way, Johnny asked me, ‘Can you help? He wants to know where 86th Street is.’ ”
Rossi provided directions, the driver made a U-turn and took off.
Police “interrogated the daylights out of me,” Rossi said. “They tried to hypnotize me to see if I could remember anything. … The police worked their tails off on this case.”
A Runaway or Something More Sinister?
But Gosch said that and other information – a suspicious looking van in the area, a report of someone taking photos of Johnny in the days before he disappeared, which in retrospect didn’t quite add up – was never properly pursued by police.
Instead, she said, police insisted her son was likely a runaway, a response that still unleashes a sharp tongue that underlies Gosch’s acrimonious relationship with law enforcement for the past three decades.
Gosch admits that she poked at police. At one point, she threw hot coffee in the direction of a police officer and ordered him to leave.
“If you’re not going to help me find my son, then get out,” Gosch recalled saying after a few days had passed and FBI agents reportedly said they lacked sufficient evidence to enter the case. “Get out of my house.”
Rossi understands that.
“If that had been my boy, I would’ve done more than Noreen did,” he said. “Until then, missing children were more or less ignored.”
Sept. 5, 1982, was the last day Rossi’s son worked as a paper carrier.
It was also the day that Noreen Gosch says she knew that if anyone was going to find out what happened to Johnny on that street corner that morning, it would have to be her. “I didn’t know finding my son would be a do-it-yourself project,” she said.
So, Gosch waded into the dark underworld of human trafficking, where children are shuttled around the globe like cargo and traded to supply the seemingly insatiable appetite of pedophiles.
About this series:
When Iowa’s Johnny Gosch vanished on Sept. 5, 1982, while delivering the Sunday newspaper in his quiet West Des Moines neighborhood, everything changed – for law enforcement, for the newspaper business and certainly for his mother, Noreen Gosch.
It changed everything.
That Norman Rockwellian image of a boy delivering the newspaper has been replaced with that of Johnny’s face on milk cartons, the low-technology equivalent of today’s Amber Alert system.
Though Johnny is still listed as missing on the registry of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids, the cold case is for all practical purposes closed.
In the days ahead, Iowa’s Patches in Ames, Ankeny, Cedar Falls, Iowa City, Johnston, Marion, Urbandale, Waukee and West Des Moines look at how his and other abductions changed laws and police protocol, and what Johnny’s mother learned -- and what we all should know -- from her journey to find her son.