Part 3 of a Series.
Thirty years of studying the sinister world of human trafficking and child pornography have made Noreen Gosch a person of dark corners and shuttered windows, places she can sit in semi-seclusion and see what’s going on before anyone sees her.
That’s what can happen to a mother whose son has been missing for 30 years, 30 years of wonder and fear about what may have happened to her 12-year-old son, Johnny, who vanished while delivering papers in his West Des Moines neighborhood.
Gosch is just one mother of many: 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.
Gosch’s eyes are puffy and red-rimmed, as if from three decades of crying. Still striking, her ravishing beauty has faded into lines tracing a journey that no mother in America – or anywhere – should have to make.
“I’m not as trusting,” said the West Des Moines mom who has spent 30 years searching for the truth about her son Johnny’s likely abduction while on his paper route. Gosch guards the details, holding them close with memories of her son, cognizant that her words have been used as a weapon against her and her cause – a crusade, really – to awaken the country to the abduction of innocence in the Heartland.
Gosch planned to spend yesterday, Sept. 5 — the 30th anniversary of the day then 12-year-old Johnny didn’t come home — away from the spotlight she used to try to bring her child home.
Half a Lifetime of Advocacy for Children
Gosch said she’s still amazed that she found the strength to survive in the days after Johnny vanished.
“I hit a void where it was very hard to manage day-to-day living and combine it with any kind of optimism,” she said. “Each day I would get up thinking ‘maybe today will be the day …’ and at the end of the day, if nothing new had been discovered, it could be very, very discouraging.
“I’d go to bed at night and pray that I would be given some inspiration to find the answers, something that would give me hope.”
Hope came by standing up and fighting back.
She’s spent half her life trying to shake people out of complacency so they won’t have to take the horrific journey she’s taken.
“Families need to be aware of how strong the pedophile and human trafficking networks are,” she said. “Just because you do not want to believe something, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.”
Johnny Gosch Bill Means No More Waiting
Thanks to her efforts, police both locally and nationally respond differently than they did 30 years ago.
The Johnny Gosch Bill, as the Iowa legislation she championed is known, struck down the provision that let authorities wait 72 hours before declaring a child missing, as Gosch claims police did when her son disappeared. Now, they’re required to issue a report immediately, even if it seems likely the child will return home before dinner.
The law, cloned by at least eight other states as national awareness grew about dangers predators pose to children, took effect July 1, 1984. It was used for the first time 43 days later, 24 days shy of the second anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance, in an eerily similar case.
Eugene Wade Martin, another Des Moines Register paperboy, vanished early in the morning on Aug. 12, 1984. That, and the 1986 disappearance of Marc David Allen, made Gosch more determined than ever to get answers to the questions that stole her sleep and transformed her life.
Because of her efforts, Johnny’s and Eugene’s pictures were among the first to be printed on milk cartons, yesterday’s low-tech version of today’s Amber Alerts.
Among her accomplishments, Gosch’s U.S. Department of Justice Department testimony was instrumental in establishing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which provides expert resources to families with missing children and has assisted in the safe recovery of more than 175,200 children in the past 28 years.
In 1984, she was invited by former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter to share what she had learned about mob involvement in child trafficking before a U.S. Senate hearing on organized crime, and she was one of the leading advocates for the Children’s Bill of Rights, an Iowa law that allows for video testimony when juvenile victims of sexual abuse testify against their offenders.
What Would You Do If It Was Your Kid?
A tragic figure? A protective mother-bear type vilified for challenging the status quo? Or, as retired New York City police detective Jim Rothstein, noted for his work unraveling human trafficking networks, says, is Gosch a saint, a humanitarian and heroine?
Gosch gave up caring how people answer those questions about the same time she gave up believing the police and the FBI would help her find her son.
“What would you do if it was your child, if it was your kid?” she said. “Would you go with the way the police department wants you to go, or would you want me?”
Her infamous caustic tongue engages, but only briefly. It’s the ebb and flow of a woman who lost her son; believes fervently he would come home to West Des Moines if it wouldn’t get him, his mother and the rest of the family killed; and has lost credibility with some because of it.
“I have no regrets,” Gosch said. “I made the best decisions at the time with the information at my disposal. I’m only disappointed that I wasn’t taken more seriously.”
West Des Moines Police Detective Tom Boyd, who’s now in charge of Johnny’s case, said he thinks Gosch has performed a valuable public service.
“She’s very proactive about getting involved and putting herself out there to families going through these similar things,” Boyd said. “I think her intentions are very well meant. I don’t think … that she is putting herself out there for self-recognition.”
Gosch a Pioneer in Protecting Children
That Gosch was criticized at all – and is still criticized – is puzzling to Eileen Wixted, who covered Johnny’s disappearance extensively as a Des Moines television reporter.
She said Gosch’s advocacy plowed the ground for Amber Alerts systems and other tools that improve the chances of a child returning home unharmed.
“She was a pioneer in the milk cartons, she was a pioneer on the 72-hour wait and all of her hard work paved the way for everybody else working to keep children safe,” Wixted said. “It was fascinating to me that people were critical and surprised by her actions. People have not been appropriately appreciative of her efforts, and they have also failed to recognize the profound tragedy that occurred to that family.”
Others might approach it differently, Gosch said, kicking off a pair of black slippers, but their kids weren’t plucked from their beautiful, carefree lives and dropped into a sleazy world of snuff films, pornography, prostitution and servitude to some of the nation’s most powerful, as she believes Johnny was.
“They haven’t walked in my shoes. I’ll be happy to take them off and they can walk in them for a while,” she said, fierce eyes snapping along with her fingers. “But the deal is, they have to give up their kid.”
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.