The case of missing paperboy Johnny Gosch is one investigation longtime Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation director Gene Meyer wishes he could have closed before ending a 38-year law enforcement career last year.
It’s a bit like a pesky gnat. Brush it away, but it keeps coming back.
“I’d love to have an answer, as would his parents, but I’d also like to know what happened to Eugene Martin and who killed Evelyn Miller,” Meyer said. “It’s the ones you don’t solve that you think about. That’s how it is in law enforcement. Anyone in this business will tell you that. They don’t happen as a matter of course, thank God.”
Meyer’s stake in the case goes beyond that of a police investigator. About two years after then 12-year-old Johnny failed to come home from his paper route on Labor Day weekend 1982, Meyer and his young family moved to a cul-de-sac down the street from where the Gosch family lived in West Des Moines.
The Iowa paperboy’s disappearance ripped a veneer of safety from a community that, paradoxically, would receive national accolades for being among the safest and best places to raise a family two decades later during Meyer’s 10-year tenure as West Des Moines’ mayor.
Walking a Thin, Blue Line
Meyer and other police officers involved in the highly emotional and widely publicized case walked a thin, blue line of sorts – reassuring the public that, statistically, they were no less safe than they were before the paperboy disappeared, while also communicating a sense of urgency to parents to always keep close tabs on their children.
“The disappearance of Johnny Gosch caused parents – as it should have – to be more concerned about safety,” Meyer said. “Certainly, my wife and I had a higher sense of ‘where are they?’ and talked to (our children) about strangers, and I think most parents did the same thing.”
Thirty years later, when a case pops up such as theon an afternoon bike ride this summer, police are still trying to achieve that balance between heightened vigilance and outright panic.
West Des Moines Police Detective Tom Boyd, now the lead investigator on the Gosch case, said that while danger may not lurk around every corner, it’s no time for parents – or anyone – to let their guard down.
“Quite honestly, it’s more of a threat today than 30 years ago,” Boyd said. “Kids nowadays are on the Internet and cell phones, using devices they didn’t have 30 years ago, and involving themselves in risky behavior.”
The good news is that police have a greater arsenal of tools to track predators available today, some of them coming about as a direct result of the Gosch case.
Besides the Johnny Gosch Bill requiring police to immediately launch an investigation when a child disappears, the nationwide Amber Alert system gives police extra sets of eyes by involving truckers and other drivers using the same highways kidnappers use.
Boyd said analytics are more sophisticated, manpower has been increased and greater awareness of sexual predators, especially since the advent of sex-offender registries, all make his and other police officers’ jobs easier.
“For the most part, once they’re caught and tracked, we know right where they are,” he said.
Agony and Grief “Not Lost On Us”
Meyer said that after Johnny vanished, reporters were camped out at police stations demanding answers for a story that dominated the headlines for weeks. As leads dwindled or failed to pan out, “there was a lot of pressure for all of us involved in the investigation,” he said.
Some of those reports painted police as incompetent and uncaring, Meyer recalled, but “the agony and the grief that the parents and people who knew Johnny were going through was not lost on us at all,” he said. “
“You have got to stay focused, and you have got to stay rational, but it’s never lost on you the emotional trauma the victim’s families are going through,” he said.
“You just deal with it within your own environment, within the environment of your family, the environment of your community or your church,” he said. “You can’t let it become the focus of your life.”
Recognizing the need to provide mental health assistance to officers, “whether they’re investigating a child’s disappearance, a horrific traffic accident, the crash of Flight 232 or a number of murder scenes” is one of the things law enforcement has gotten better at since the paperboy disappeared, Meyer said.
A 2009 landmark study published in the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health called into question assumptions about police suicides, finding that “exposure to psychologically adverse incidents” increased the risk of police suicide, which occurs at statistically higher numbers among police officers than civilians.
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