John David Gosch – known as Johnny – disappeared in 1982 aged just 12 while working as a paper boy, having vanished while completing his paper round.
While most accept he was kidnapped, accounts of Johnny reappearing and strange events in the case mean that there are many unanswered questions. Johnny remains missing.
This article reviews this disappearance. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we hope you vote on. We will all be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened in this case.
Johnny was born in 1969 and was aged 12 at the time he disappeared. The Gosch family lived in the American state of Iowa.
Johnny’s parents were John Gosch and Noreen Gosch. He worked as a paperboy in the mornings, distributing papers to those in the area of West Des Moines.
On Sunday 5th September 1982, Johnny left his home early to begin his paper round. Johnny would often wake his father John to get him to help, but on this fateful day, Johnny decided not to and instead took the family dog – Gretchen – with him.
Johnny made it to the paper drop location, where he loaded up his bag with newspapers. Over the next hour, what happened to Johnny is open to speculation – with multiple accounts provided by others.
At some point over the next hour, Johnny disappeared. The Gosch parents were first made aware of something being amiss when they started to receive calls from customers that had not had their newspapers delivered as scheduled.
Johnny’s father John reacted by searching around the area at approximately 5am. Just two streets away, he found his son’s wagon, with it full of undelivered newspapers – but no sign of Johnny.
The Gosch family then called the Police to report Johnny’s disappearance. The Police responded to the call, albeit at a slow pace, resulting in valuable time being lost.
The Police initially believed Johnny had simply ran away from home. However, they later changed their stance and declared their belief that Johnny had been kidnapped.
The investigators tried to piece together what had happened. They appealed for witnesses, and received plenty of help. Many people corroborated the sighting of Johnny at the paper drop location. This turned out to be the final confirmed sighting of Johnny.
Fellow paper boys were very useful to the investigation. Two particular accounts were important – as they both mentioned the same blue car. These paperboys were Mike and John.
The first account came from Mike – who said that near the paper drop, he witnessed Johnny speaking to what he described as a “stocky” man in a blue car. Mike walked away, presuming that all was in order.
The other important account came from John Rossi. Rossi came forward to say that he had seen a man in a blue car talking to Johnny, believing that something was strange about the situation. After Rossi approached, he said that Johnny told him the man in the blue car was asking for directions.
Rossi noticed the license plate number, but was unable to recall it when asked. With this being one of the most promising leads, Rossi underwent hypnosis and was able to recall some of the numbers, and that the license plate was from Warren County, Iowa. Warren County is approximately 45 minutes drive from West Des Moines – making it a driveable distance.
Unfortunately, the Police were unable to trace anything from the numbers provided. This came as a major blow to the Police, with the sighting from Rossi being the main avenue of their investigation.
Meanwhile, after growing frustrated at the Police’s slow investigation, the Gosch family hired a private investigator. The investigator was able to uncover an alleged third sighting. This sighting involved another paperboy allegedly seeing a man following Johnny.
Moreover, the investigator also found that a neighbour in the area heard a door slam and saw a silver car speed away from where Johnny’s wagon was later found. Unfortunately, the private investigator was unable to uncover more specific details about these alleged sightings.
As the weeks and then months passed, there was no sign of Johnny. What had initially been seen as promising leads had turned out to be dead-ends. There was simply no concrete evidence on what had happened to Johnny.
The Police were unable to make any progress in the case – and at no point were able to arrest anyone in connection with the disappearance. The investigation was gradually wound down.
Over the next few years, the case often brought up unexpected twists. These twists have helped this mystery to be catapulted into a regular topic of conversation for many.
In 1985, Johnny’s mother Noreen received a letter from a man claiming to be called Samuel Forbes Dakota. The man said that he had knowledge that Johnny had been taken as part of a slavery ring that was operating at a motorcycle club that he had worked at. In the letter, it claimed that Johnny had been sold to a drug dealer living in Mexico.
The man requested $11,000 from the Gosch family for further information. The payment was made. However, the man then asked for a further $100,000 to provide the safe return of Johnny.
“Dakota” turned out to be a 19 year old man from Michigan called Robert Meier. Meier was arrested by FBI agents and was charged with fraud. However, Noreen would later criticise the FBI, suggesting that Meier was telling the truth.
In 1993, John and Noreen Gosch divorced. Owing to the immense pressure caused by a missing child – the Gosch’s split, as many parents in similar positions have done.
The next major development came in March 1997. Noreen said that she was awakened by a knock at her door at 2.30am. Upon answering the door, Noreen said that Johnny was there – albeit accompanied by another man.
Noreen said that Johnny proved it was him by showing a birthmark on his chest. Noreen said that she spoke with Johnny for over an hour. However, she said she noticed Johnny often looked to the other person for approval to speak.
Johnny allegedly told Noreen that he had been the victim of a child exploitation ring and that he had recently left after being seen as “too old”. Johnny said that he feared for his life and that he did not believe it was safe to return home.
Following the two men leaving, Noreen said she contacted the FBI, who created a picture that resembled Johnny, before it was circulated around the United States. Unfortunately, it failed to bring about any leads.
It is unknown as to whether or not this interaction actually happened. Other than Noreen’s word, there is no other proof. In 2000, Noreen authored a book titled Why Johnny Can’t Come Home – which involved her take on the case and her beliefs on what Johnny had been through.
John Gosch – Johnny’s father – said that he doubted the actual visit occurred. Instead, he reasoned that it may have been someone pretending to be Johnny, or that the visit never happened in the first place.
In 2006, an unknown person left photographs at Noreen’s front door. The photographs depicted three boys bound and gagged, with the implication that one of them was Johnny.
However, the Police received a letter that said the pictures were three boys from Florida – who had been playing a game to see who could escape from their bound position the first. Moreover, it was revealed that the pictures had been taken at least two years before Johnny vanished.
The letter named an investigator called Nelson Zalva as someone that originally worked on the case. Zalva was asked about the photo, and said that between 1979 and 1980, when the photo in question had first been discovered, he had investigated it, only to find that there was no crime involved.
However, there are doubts over whether or not the photo that was shown to Zalva was the same photo he had originally investigated. He was unable to produce any proof to show that the photos dropped off at Noreen’s matched the case from the late 1970s that he had investigated. Therefore, questions have remained over whether or not investigators were talking about the same photo. Noreen has always stated that she believed it was indeed Johnny was in the pictures.
The case has remained well-known across the United States. Several “internet sleuths” have attempted to solve the case. Private investigators also continued for many years to try and locate Johnny.
One such reason why the case is remembered is that Johnny appeared alongside a child called Juanita Estevez on milk cartons across the United States. This was done to raise awareness of missing children.
Within two years of Johnny’s disappearance, a boy named Eugene Martin vanished in Des Moines while delivering papers. Eugene was never seen again. These two cases have often been linked, with the suggestion that the same perpetrator abducted Eugene.
Noreen Gosch has often criticised the Police for what she believed was an inadequate effort to find her son. She would found the Johnny Gosch Foundation in 1982, aiming to raise awareness of sexual predators and abductions.
In 1984, the state of Iowa passed a bill named after Johnny which mandated an immediate Police response to reports of abducted children. Other states have passed similar bills.
As of 2023, the investigation into Johnny Gosch’s disappearance remains open. Even though Johnny would now be in his 50s, hope remains that this case will be solved.
Most believe that Johnny was abducted. But what exactly followed is unknown, though there has been a lot of speculation. There are a few possible theories.
We take a look at the evidence for each:
Theory One: Johnny Gosch was abducted and sold into slavery or abuse
By the way that Johnny’s wagon had been left, it is pretty clear that he was abducted. There are some suggestions that Johnny was then sold into slavery.
The main supporting evidence for this theory is Noreen Gosch’s account. Many have questioned why she would make up the visit from Johnny. In this alleged visit, Johnny said he had been a victim of a slavery ring.
Moreover, Noreen also believed that the account from Samuel Forbes Dakota, or Robert Meier, was accurate. Despite being charged with fraud, Meier’s account was seen as legitimate by Noreen.
Then there are the photographs that were left at Noreen’s house. Noreen was adamant that Johnny was in the pictures. Some form of child abuse ring would commonly involve children being bound and gagged – which is what the photos showed.
The second abduction of a Des Moines paperboy may also point to some sort of abusive ring taking place. Perhaps Johnny, like the second paperboy Eugene Martin, was a victim of this ring.
If these various accounts are true – then it does point a picture that Johnny was abducted and then sold into slavery. This may have happened, although there are many “if’s” and “but’s” with this theory. But still, it is certainly a possibility.
If this theory is accurate, then Johnny may well have lived for some time following the abduction, although the suffering he would have surely went through would have been miserable. Noreen for her part, believes that Johnny is still alive.
Theory Two: Johnny Gosch was abducted and killed
As mentioned above, the evidence points towards Johnny being abducted. Many believe that after he was abducted, that he was then tragically killed. The fact that there has been no confirmed sighting of Johnny supports this theory.
For this theory to be accurate, it would require Noreen’s account of the 1997 visit from Johnny as being incorrect. Could Noreen have used the apparent meeting as a chance to reignite interest in the case? Or did she dream it? If this meeting never happened, then it would point to an earlier death of Johnny.
Most abductions do sadly result in the death of the child. They are often abused by the warped abductor, before being killed. Johnny’s body then may have been disposed of – which would explain why he has never been seen.
Some may see the theory of a slavery ring as rather far-fetched. The photographs and the account of Robert Meier can also potentially be dismissed. It does seem as if the most likely explanation is that Johnny was killed soon after an abduction.
Theory Three: Johnny Gosch intentionally ran away from home
The only other realistic possibility is that Johnny Gosch intentionally ran away. This is what the Police initially thought, although they did quickly change their stance on this.
Johnny may have staged his disappearance, using his paper round and the early morning to evade any suspicion. He may have ran away and potentially lived on the streets for a while.
However, there is virtually no evidence to support this theory. Johnny had no history of problems, was said to be enjoying his life, and would have found planning a successful staged disappearance incredibly difficult aged 12.
All of the evidence points towards an abduction, and it is hard to doubt this. But still, if an abduction didn’t happen, perhaps Johnny ran away from home.
Now that the above theories have been discussed, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
The disappearance of Johnny Gosch is very mysterious – and all the facts following his disappearance are not known. Instead, the case is shrouded in mystery.
No arrests were ever made in the case, and Johnny tragically remains missing. While hope fades with every passing day, if ever there was a case where nothing seems certain, this is the one. Hopefully one day the truth will come out.