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Police More Prepared For Abductions Today, But Threat of Sexual Predators Greater

The longtime director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation says police officers do a better job of taking care of their own.

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.

Meyer’s advice:

“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.

NOREEN GOSCH September 08, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Following the kidnapping of Johnny Gosch and constantly being told " your child is a runaway" when 5 witnes's report otherwise is unaceptable. No FBI came, so we called them ourselves. When they arrived, they said " we will not be entering Johnny's case because the police chief does not want our help". I reminded them that kidnapping is a Federal Crime. Once agin, the FBI Agents stated " we will not be entering Johnny's case because the police chief does not want our help". I told them to leave my home.... There was no choice left but to hire private investigators after repeatedly being told your child is a runaway and the police chief does not want our help. Again that is unacceptable police and FBI procedures. Once the private investigators were on the job, we began to get the answers as to the how and why Johnny was kidnapped. At this point after 30 years, we know exactly what happened to Johnny and why. This information was provided by Private investigators, who are retired Poice Detectives and Retired FBI agents. They dug out the truth on Johnny's case. We now know !
Dallas Davis September 08, 2012 at 03:21 AM
I have to laugh about the FBI not wanting to get involved. Every time I left my home or had dinner with Noreen, we were followed by the FBI. Our phones were tapped also. Why, I do not know. Did they think noreen and I did something to Johnny? If that is the reason, they must be complete idiots. Sorry, but I tell the truth.
Susan L. McAtee September 08, 2012 at 08:29 AM
Noreen, Thank you for all your diligent work to get changes made to a system that obviously did not work. This situation made me and a lot of other parents more diligent about checking on the whereabouts of out kids. I'm so sorry that this happened to Johnny and commend you for your bravery and fortitude inpushing to get things changed within the system. Thank you to Beth as well for reminding us that we should continue to be diligent.
NOREEN GOSCH September 08, 2012 at 12:44 PM
Thank you Dallas and Susan for your comments. We encountered many issues we never knew existed. In America we are lulled into the idea through our TV shows that when this happens, authorities rush in, take over, set up a command post and work the case. Surprise it became the biggest DO IT YOURSELF PROJECT IN MY LIFE. As obstacles surfaced, I made a decision to create laws where none existed and set a precident so other parents would not go through the same. In addition to the Johnny Gosch Law, our foundation also passed the following: 1. The decision to declare a victim dead after being missing. Iowa had nothing in it's code, which meant a police dept. could seek a court order and declar the victim d dead, the parents would then read about it in the newspaper. The parents now make the decision. 2. Federal Legislation to protect parents from the IRS. The IRS had been terrorizing parents for declaring their missing child on tax forms, upon the advice of their tax preparer. Years later the IRS tried to overturn this legislation in the year 2000 and lost. 3. A Children's Bill of Rights, for the sexually abused child in the courtroom. Little children were expected to sit on the witness stand, with their attacker glaring at them and deliver testimony. Children would freeze, often the men would go free for lack of evidence. Now children are protected in this situation. These laws are vital to protect parents and children.

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