Face on the Milk Carton: What Happened to Johnny Gosch?

By Jessica Ferri

johnny gosch

It’s been 34 years since 12-year-old Johnny Gosch vanished while on his paper route in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. The case is heartbreaking, and made all the more haunting by the strange theories that now seek to explain his disappearance.

The morning of September 5, 1982 started out like any other for the Gosch family. Johnny set out on his local paper route. On this particular day, however, his father did not accompany him, as he usually did. By 6:00 A.M., the Gosches received calls from their neighbors complaining that their newspapers had not been delivered. Johnny’s father, John, set out to search the neighborhood. Just two blocks away from the family home, John found his son’s abandoned wagon, full of undelivered newspapers. Johnny was nowhere to be found.

There were no witnesses around at the time of Johnny’s disappearance, though a neighbor later claimed he’d seen Johnny and another paperboy talking to a man driving a Ford Fairmont convertible. Furthermore, because there was no evidence of abduction, the Gosches faced considerable obstacles in convincing the police their son had been kidnapped.

Want more true crime? Sign up for The Lineup’s newsletter, and get the creepiest cases delivered straight to your inbox.

After a 23-day search, authorities were unable to uncover any evidence as to Johnny’s whereabouts or any motive as to his kidnapping. His parents, in particular his mother Noreen Gosch, lobbied intensely to keep the case in the public eye.

The same year that Johnny vanished, Noreen established a foundation in her son’s name that would push for legislation that called for an immediate police response to reports of missing children. The bill became a law in the state in 1984, after receiving support from the likes of John Walsh, the host of America’s Most Wanted, whose own son was kidnapped and murdered in 1981. In addition, Johnny’s face appeared on a milk carton in 1984: one of the first missing children whose case was publicized that way.

Then, just a few years later, Johnny’s story went from tragic to downright bizarre.

In 1989, a man named Paul Bonnaci came forward with some shocking revelations. He claimed he had been abducted by human traffickers as a teenager and was forced to help in the kidnapping of Johnny Gosch. This sex ring, Bonnaci claimed, was the work of a man named Lawrence E. King, then director of the Franklin Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska.

Bonnaci claimed he knew Johnny—he identified a birthmark on Johnny’s chest and said that Johnny had talked about going to yoga classes with his mother, a fact his family had not shared with the public. Nevertheless, the FBI did not consider Bonnaci a credible witness. The believed his testimony was a hoax, and declined to seek an indictment against King.

Years went by, with no new leads. Then, in 1997, Noreen claimed that one early morning, at 2:30 A.M., she was awakened by the sound of knocking. When she opened her front door, her son Johnny, now 27, was standing there, with a man she had never seen before. Noreen claimed that the two entered her apartment and that they spoke for over an hour before departing. “Johnny would look over to the other person for approval to speak,” she told the Des Moines Register. “He didn’t say where he is living or where he was going.” Though Noreen worked with the FBI to create a new sketch of Johnny’s appearance, the case went cold again. She claimed that she did not contact the police when Johnny showed up, because he warned her that doing so would be detrimental to his safety.

The next bizarre development came on September 1, 2006. Noreen Gosch returned home to find several disturbing photographs at her doorstep. She claimed that one of the photos showed Johnny, bound and gagged, with a brand-mark on his shoulder. Another photo showed three boys bound and gagged. Just two weeks later, the Des Moines police department received an anonymous letter, which read:

Gentlemen,

Someone has played a reprehensible joke on a grieving mother. The photo in question is not one of her son but of three boys in Tampa, Florida about 1979-80, challenging each other to an escape contest. There was an investigation concerning that picture, made by the Hillsborough County (FL) Sheriff’s Office. No charges were filed, and no wrongdoing was established. The lead detective on the case was named Zalva. This allegation should be easy enough to check out.

In fact, there was a detective in Florida named Nelson Zalva, who confirmed that he had investigated the photo of the three boys and that nothing criminal had taken place. Despite this, Noreen maintains that the other photograph is indeed of Johnny, that he was the victim of a child prostitution ring run out of Omaha, Nebraska, and that there is a cover-up that stretches from local law enforcement all the way up to the FBI.

johnny gosch noreen gosch

Noreen Gosch. Photo: The Johnny Gosch Foundation

There were two similar disappearances in the area that could support an active child predator theory. In 1984, Eugene Martin, another young paperboy, vanished on his route in the early morning hours. In 1986, 13-year-old Marc Warren Allen disappeared on his way to a friend’s house just down the street. Perhaps the kidnappings of Gosch, Martin, and Allen were all related, and perhaps the perpetrator has yet to be brought to justice.

What really happened to Johnny Gosch on that fateful day in 1982? Sadly, the case will likely remain unsolved.

[via: The Johnny Gosch Foundation; Wikipedia; Iowa Cold Cases]

Want more true crime? Sign up for The Lineup’s newsletter, and get the creepiest cases delivered straight to your inbox.

Feature photo: Wikimedia Commons