Innocence Abducted: From Johnny Gosch to Evansdale Cousins, 30 Years Have Brought Many Changes to Missing Children Investigations in Iowa City and Beyond

Investigators say better relationships with media and faster response times have improved how missing children investigations are conducted.

Part 4 of a Series.

Within hours of the disappearance of Elizabeth Collins, 9, and her cousin Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, the town of Evansdale was crawling with people searching for the girls.

The girls went on July 13. They were last seen at 12:30 p.m., and the family reported them missing at 3 p.m.

That afternoon, officers knocked on doors across Evansdale and conducted an extensive ground, air and water search. Hundreds of volunteers helped canvass the town and surrounding woods, continuing into the night and picking up again the next morning.

It was a huge contrast to the response to a missing Iowa boy 30 years ago.

When Johnny Gosch didn't come home from his West Des Moines newspaper route in 1982, Noreen Gosch was told her son, 12 at the time, had probably just wandered off and would soon turn up.

During the crucial window of time when a missing child is most likely to be found - some authorities now say that window is about four hours - she said she had trouble getting law enforcement to take the case seriously.

"Johnny’s case was probably not handled that well. Law enforcement at the time was still working under the presumption of runaway," Jon Rabun of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said. "If that happened today, you’d be fighting law enforcement off."

Rabun was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for 28 years. He is now the center's director of infant abduction response.

He said at the time Johnny Gosch went missing, the pervasive attitude - in Des Moines, in Iowa and in the nation - was that before 24 hours had passed, there wasn't much to worry about, especially in the case of an adolescent like Johnny.

"To be honest, there weren’t all the answers at that point in time about how long was too long. It was just kind of foreign turf for most law enforcement agencies back then," he said. "If you went into that case now, as an investigator, you'd know that clock is ticking. You'd know you’ve got to do a lot of things, and you’ve got to do them quick."

Two years after Gosch's disappearance, another Des Moines Register paper boy, Eugene Martin, 15 at the time, went missing while on his route. Rabun said the eerie similarity of the cases - and the knowledge that Johnny had never come home - lit a fire under the Martin investigation.

"When Eugene disappeared - oh man what a difference hindsight makes," he said. "Jeepers, it was non-stop. The police and media, they were just buzzing."

Despite that, he has never been found.

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Rabun said the Gosch and Martin cases, along with about five other high profile cases across the country in a two year period, helped reshape how the public and authorities think about and respond to missing children reports.

Much has changed since then.

The Johnny Gosch Bill, a 1984 Iowa law that was adopted by eight other states, mandates immediate police involvement when a child is reported missing. Nationally, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children was established to act as an information clearing house and resource center for such cases.

Additionally, in 1996 the Amber Alert program was established to get the word out quickly when a child is believed to be abducted. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children credits AMBER Alerts with the safe recovery of 572 children between 1997 and March 2012. 

The Amber Alerts partner law enforcement with the media to quickly distribute a missing child's photo and information, along with information about suspects or vehicles that may be connected to the case.

No Amber Alert was issued in the Evansdale case because there was no suspect or vehicle information. Heather Collins, Elizabeth Collins's mother, has been collecting signatures in support of a "Cousins Law" that would make it easier to issue alerts and set up vehicle check points when a child is reported missing.

Despite no Amber Alert being issued, the media were quickly informed of the missing girls, another thing several investigators said is a huge change from 30 years ago.

Rabun had previously worked as a police officer in Louisville, Ky., where he helped investigate the never-solved missing persons case of Ann Gotlib, another of the incidents that garnered national attention alongside Gosch and Martin.

"If you’d have said to me as a cop in Louisville, we’re going to partner with the media, I’d have fallen down," he said. "We were cordial to the media, but didn’t see them as a partner."

Today that has changed, he and several others said.

"You relied more on word of mouth. Thirty years ago, something like that might have made the evening news," said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson. "But the flow of information was so slow."

Thompson and his department have been working with local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case of the missing Evansdale girls.

Thompson said partnering with media has been vital to the information flow of that investigation.

"Within 24 hours, we had over 2,000 people helping us search for those two kids," Thompson said. "In the past it could have taken us a week to get that much information out."

Sadly, even with the fast response times and media partnerships, the Evansdale girls remain missing and Johnny's mother looks back on thirty years of heartache.

But investigators aren't giving up. Dozens of tips are still received each day in the Evansdale investigation. The tip-line, which anyone with information is encouraged to call, is (319) 232-6682.

And Rabun said the Gosch and Martin cases, even today, aren't closed.

"Leads that were already worked into the dirt are reworked," he said. "Every three or four years our guys will go to take a fresh look with a new set of eyes. We’ve done that and done that, and we’ll keep doing it."

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