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Forty years after the Johnny Gosch disappearance, fear continues to fuel conspiracy theories in Iowa and beyond


Johnny Gosch in 1982 — National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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On Sept. 20, 1984, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Cedar Rapids as part of his reelection campaign. In it, he advocated for slashing taxes and “the simple values of faith, family, neighborhood and good, hard work,” which he said are endemic to Iowa.

“Not so many decades ago, this land around here was open prairie — rugged and unproductive. And then the pioneers began to settle here: Yankees, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and immigrants from many other nations — men and women as hardy as the land,” he said, omitting the state’s history of forced resettlement of Native peoples, racial segregation and other less idyllic chapters.

“As our economy grows, we’ll need to go forward with the bedrock values that sustained the first Iowa settlers and that nourish us today. … We must continue cracking down on crime. We say with no hesitation, yes, there are such things as right and wrong. And yes, for hardened criminals preying on our society, punishment must be swift and sure.”

The president namechecked Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin, Iowa paperboys that disappeared from the Des Moines area in the previous two years. “We’ve pledged our full support in the search for these two boys.”

Despite the attention of President Reagan, the formation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in 1984, FBI involvement, the hiring of private investigators, five America’s Most Wanted episodes on the Gosch disappearance, countless news segments and editorials, hundreds of called-in leads, thousands of letters mailed to elected officials, hundreds of thousands of fliers and milk cartons distributed featuring the boys’ faces, and a 2014 documentary on Gosch, the cases remain unsolved.

With his speech, Reagan tapped into — and perpetuated — a feeling very real to Iowa’s overwhelmingly white populace in the 1980s: fear. Fear of victimization, of invasion, of purity defiled.

“Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin epitomized boyhood innocence and vulnerability,” writes historian Paul M. Renfro in his 2020 book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State, which began as his history dissertation at the University of Iowa. “Their disappearances symbolized not just physical losses but also the losses of innocence, childhood, whiteness, middle-classness, and midwesternness.”

President Ronald Reagan delivers remarks on Sept. 20, 1984 during a campaign rally at the Gerald Ford Museum in Cedar Rapids. — White House photo

Amid a new 24-hour news cycle and the birth of the creepy, out-of-towner sex predator stereotype in the ’80s and ’90s, this fear coalesced into what sociologists and historians refer to as a moral panic, a particularly tenacious form of backlash to social progress — racial equity, feminism, sexual liberation, LGBTQ visibility — combined with rampant disinformation.

The paperboys’ names and faces, ubiquitous across Iowa and the nation, were used to pass legislation that continues to shape the U.S. justice system, popular culture, political movements and notions of what (and who) are considered threats to the American way of life. Every president since Reagan has found ways to uphold and expand policies passed in the name of child safety, from mandatory sex offender registries to surveillance programs to laws restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens that specifically exclude those convicted of sex crimes.

These laws are broadly popular with Americans, but “given the low recidivism rates of sex offenders,” Renfro notes, “these daunting mechanisms and the culture of fear that enables them demand reevaluation.”

Forty years after his disappearance on Sept. 5, 1982, Johnny Gosch in particular remains at the center of conspiracy theories. True crime podcasters, populist politicians and QAnon influencers have made a meal of the cold case, picking and choosing which wild explanation for the disappearance best suits their narrative.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother, in fostering this misinformation ecosystem around her son. Determined to keep Johnny’s case in the public consciousness, Noreen is regarded as a tireless, dauntless hero by those frightened for their own children’s safety, or distrustful of authority. But Noreen, who is convinced her son is still alive, has also elevated sensational theories that muddy the waters between fact and speculation.

“What I believe about the case seems to change everytime I deep dive about it,” wrote one Reddit user in the consistently active Johnny Gosch subreddit. “Logically, I know that there was very little chance Johnny survived long after being abducted. … I think it all goes back to Noreen. Either she should be institutionalized for the number of delusions and hallucinations she’d had as a result of her grief or she is truly onto something and owed a serious apology from those that never believed her.”

The disappearance

The wagon left behind by Johnny Gosch was on display at the 2015 Iowa State Fair to raise awareness of the cold case and other missing persons cases. — photo provided by Ron Sampson

Johnny Gosch was 12 years old. He enjoyed the outdoors, the Iowa State Fair and buying loved ones the perfect gift, his parents said. He took a job delivering newspapers for the Des Moines Register to save up for a dirt bike.

Just before 6 a.m. on Sept. 5, 1982, Johnny departed his home in suburban West Des Moines to begin his Sunday morning paper route, accompanied by his dachshund Gretchen. He collected his papers in the parking lot of a neighborhood church with fellow paperboys, who said a man in a blue car stopped to ask the boys for directions.

“Witnesses disagreed on what happened next,” according to Renfro. “Some insisted that a man followed Johnny around a street corner before snatching him. Others claimed they heard a car door slam and tires screech before watching a vehicle run a stop sign and travel northbound towards Interstate 235 ‘at a high rate of speed.’ In addition to the blue vehicle, another witness recalled seeing a silver Ford Fairmont around the time of the disappearance.”

But there was little physical evidence to be found, apart from Johnny’s red wagon full of rolled-up newspapers, abandoned two blocks from home, and Gretchen left behind.

News coverage at the time reported 25 to 30 law enforcement officials joined a search for Johnny in the immediate hours after he vanished. Within days, dozens of officers from the West Des Moines Police Department, Polk County Sheriff’s Department and Iowa State Patrol were part of searches, as well as an estimated 1,000 volunteers, combing local parks, woods, fields, lots and buildings. Police set up checkpoints on streets where Johnny was last seen.

“They are working overtime like I’ve never seen anybody in my life work before,” Johnny’s dad John Gosch Sr. told the Register in praise of the police.

The confidence wouldn’t last. In TV appearances and letters to the editor, Noreen and John Gosch became critical of law enforcement’s failure to locate either of the vehicles suspected in the abduction. Moreover, they resented being asked to submit to a polygraph test. But investigators said they had little to work with. Leads fizzled, and those coming in from callers across the nation proved bogus.

“There are stories about cops who wanted off this case so bad because they couldn’t handle this woman,” retired Register reporter Frank Santiago told the filmmakers behind the documentary Who Took Johnny.

West Des Moines’ Police Chief Orval Cooney made matters worse by antagonizing the Goschs in the press, specifically Johnny’s mother.

“I really don’t give a damn what Noreen Gosch has to say,” he complained to the Register. “I really don’t give a damn what she thinks. I’m interested in the boy and what we can do to find him. I’m kind of sick of her.”

To Noreen, such pushback represented a lack of regard for Johnny systemwide, despite the fact multiple local, state and federal agencies were investigating. “You can almost become catatonic. You can almost go into a state of mind where you don’t want to talk to anybody ever again, not trust anybody ever again,” she told reporters.

Noreen Gosch, interviewed in the 2014 documentary ‘Who Took Johnny’ — film still

Noreen was never going to stay home, crying into her handkerchief. Born and raised in eastern Iowa, she married young, lost her first husband to cancer and nearly lost her two oldest children when a tornado destroyed their home.

“That experience, it either makes you or breaks you,” she says in Who Took Johnny. “I had a choice. I either get up and start moving or go down in despair.”

Noreen showed a similar resolve after Johnny — her son with John, her second husband — went missing. The Goschs papered Iowa with fliers, made dozens of TV appearances and partnered up with politicians and national figures like John Walsh. When someone suggested to the Des Moines dairy Anderson-Erickson that they help in the search, Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin became the first missing children’s images printed on milk cartons in 1984.

The Goschs encouraged the public to call their home phone number with information. Hundreds of tips poured in and were shared with authorities, though none could be verified as true sightings.

Within two months of Johnny’s disappearance, the Goschs established the Help Find Johnny Gosch Foundation, holding fundraisers to hire private investigators, leading letter-writing campaigns to elected officials, and giving talks around the region focused on a central message: this can happen to you.

‘A sick and rotten society’

FBI special agent Herb Hawkins said drawing intense publicity to the case, as the Goschs had, is not generally advised. Too much attention can cause an abductor to panic, endangering the child. It can also make inside information that can be used to narrow down suspects part of the public narrative.

But the Goschs (who divorced in 1993) had other advisors telling them the opposite. In a rare interview in 2018, John Gosch Sr. recalled that Kenneth Wooden, who had written extensively on missing and murdered children and lectured on the topic at Iowa State University in 1981 and 1982, told Noreen, “Whatever you have to do to keep the story alive, do it, because if you don’t, law enforcement will move on with their lives and go on their merry way.”

“She really latched onto that,” John told podcaster Sarah DiMeo.

In her book, Noreen credits Wooden with setting her on the right course. Though there wasn’t evidence Johnny was sexually abused, Wooden convinced Noreen her son had likely fallen victim to a class of deviants known as pedophiles. He believed pedophiles were seeking to change the culture, and were gaining influence through organizations like NAMBLA — a barely existent group that never achieved notoriety outside of conspiracy theory circles and one memorable South Park episode.

Wooden taught Noreen how to write a press release and got her in touch with network TV producers, Noreen recalls in her 2000 memoir.

“He said, ‘it might get rough, the public and press will doubt you, laugh at you and try to discredit you, because the truth you will bring out will be difficult to accept.’ Then he looked at me and said ‘are you willing to fight for your son?’ I agreed to do what ever was necessary … All Ken warned me about and then some was about to begin.”

The missing person cases of Johnny Gosch, Eugene Martin and Marc Allen remain unsolved

Subsequent disappearances seemed to support the notion of a child kidnapping epidemic. Almost two years after Gosch went missing, another Register paperboy, 13-year-old Des Moines resident Eugene Martin, vanished as well, followed two years later by the disappearance of another Des Moines 13-year-old, Marc Allen. Allen was not a paperboy, but the circumstances were similar to the others. Still, investigators had no physical evidence tying the cases together, no serious suspects and no idea of the motives.

“We live in a sick and rotten society that is getting sicker and rottener every day,” an Iowa state senator proclaimed as legislators debated a bill named for Johnny Gosch. “I don’t know what’s happened to the United States, but it has become more animalistic, not more humanistic in recent years.”

The Johnny Gosch Bill, co-written by Noreen, was signed into law by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in July 1984. The bill bars police from enforcing a waiting period before investigating a report of a missing child. Despite claims from the bill’s supporters, such waiting periods were not part of the protocol for WDPD, nor state or federal agencies, and were rare on the local level. Similar laws were subsequently adopted by eight other states.

Later that same year, President Reagan invited Noreen Gosch to the opening and dedication ceremony for John and Revé Walsh’s project, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The Gosch case was “one of several” nationally famous cases that drove the formation of the nonprofit, NCMEC spokeswoman Barbara Chapman told the AP in a 1987 article.

In its first three years, she said, the center fielded reports of 14,735 [missing child] cases. Of those, 7,967 children were found alive and 90 were found dead. The rest remained unaccounted for.

Of the reports, almost all are either runaways or stealings by relatives, usually parents who don’t have custody. Only 432 were abducted by strangers. Of those, 179 have been returned and 63 are dead.

The rest are missing, including Eugene Martin and Johnny Gosch.

Noreen took an offer from Ted Gunderson to conduct a private investigation into the vanishings. Gunderson, who died in 2011, was a retired FBI agent and far-right figure who helped perpetuate the infamous allegations of satanic ritual abuse at the McMartin preschool in California, perhaps the definitive case of the satanic panic. Like Infowars’ Alex Jones, Gunderson believed government mind control and anti-Christian New World Order forces are behind America’s most deadly terrorism events.

In the Official Johnny Gosch Facebook group this summer, Noreen reflected on Gunderson’s work as a private investigator on Johnny’s case, saying he did “superb work” and deserves a “gold star.”

America’s most wanted children

Another national figure who connected with the Goschs was future America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, whose son Adam was kidnapped and murdered — likely by the serial killer Ottis Toole — a year before Johnny disappeared in a case that captivated and horrified America’s parents, setting the tone for the predator panic to come. The tragedy was adapted into a popular TV movie, Adam.

Though most crimes against children are committed by people the child knows, the Walsh case helped convince Americans that godless strangers posed the greatest risk. Walsh relayed unsourced, exaggerated statistics about the rates of missing and murdered children in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1983, claiming the nation is “littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, strangled children.”

“John Walsh was helpful,” Noreen told members of the Official Johnny Gosch Group on Facebook last month, claiming Walsh stood up to the FBI when they tried to block the airing of America’s Most Wanted episodes on Johnny.

Walsh’s rhetoric, echoed by other activist parents like Noreen Gosch, wormed its way into the American consciousness. A 1987 NBC survey of children found 76 percent were “very concerned” about kidnapping, more than nuclear war or HIV/AIDS. In a 1997 Newsweek poll of parents, the majority viewed abduction and murder as greater threats to their family than illness or accidents.

The modern concept of a “missing child” was virtually nonexistent prior to the stranger danger scare. The 33 young boys abducted in the ’70s by one-time Waterloo resident John Wayne Gacy, for instance, only made headlines once they were found dead. Even then, the predatory sexual proclivities that motivated Gacy were underplayed. “Pedophile” was not in the public lexicon, though of course pedophiles always existed; those who acted on such predatory urges were often brushed off as local creeps and weirdos. Those who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of relatives and acquaintances — 93 percent of sex crimes against young people — were virtually invisible.

‘Adam’ (1983), dir. Michael Tuchner

Runaway or “thrownaway” children comprise the overwhelming majority of missing youths, and kids in poverty, kids of color and those who identify as LGBTQ are far more vulnerable to predation — particularly after cuts to social services and increased community policing. Yet they are far less likely to be portrayed as victims in the media — even (and perhaps especially) when survivors come forward with credible accusations against prominent figures like Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly.

When at least 28 Black children, teens and adults, mostly male, were found murdered in Atlanta, Georgia between July 1979 and May 1981, police and FBI attributed most of the crimes to one man, Wayne Williams, despite the fact Williams was only convicted of two murders and maintains his innocence. Further, significant evidence was presented that Ku Klux Klan members were involved in many of the disappearances. Despite some media coverage highlighting the apparent injustice, the tragedies haunting Atlanta were not incorporated into the national child safety movement of the ’80s. (The investigation wasn’t reopened until 2019.)

Systematic violence and its victims are often overshadowed by crimes seen as more meaningful — signals of cultural, moral decay.

A comment by America’s Most Wanted producer Paul Sparrow in the film Who Took Johnny illustrates this well. Sparrow believes that a secret child trafficking ring abducted and sold “clean” Midwestern children like Johnny Gosch into sexual slavery — even (and especially) after Johnny became one of the most recognizable faces in America.

“There were two different kinds of kids” that interested the elite pedophile buyers, Sparrow said. “There were the throwaway kids, the runaways, drug addicts living on the street hustling for sex. And then there were the virgins, and [I heard] that some of these sick individuals would pay large sums of money to have clean kids to abuse. And that’s the part of the story that I found most horrific and most disturbing.”

In the absence of answers

In the pages of the Des Moines Register, Iowans lamented the “stain” the child disappearances left on the region — that a “once-quiet, ‘great-place-to-raise-kids’ city may become the crime capital of the world.”

“That was the most bothersome thing,” one Register interviewee said, “was that this kind of stole our innocence from us.”

A climate of frustration, fear and speculation fed by mass media coverage yielded the perfect conditions for conspiracy theories to bloom. Midwestern moms and dads were suddenly researching Anton LeVey, subliminal messaging and satanic holidays. The more sensational a theory was, the quicker it spread, especially once blogs and chat rooms entered the scene.

“Advocates were suggesting that child sacrifice was a daily event in North America; that clandestine alternative religion existed undetected and that its agents had infiltrated schools, kindergartens, churches, and police departments; that satanic rituals were commonplace in day care institutions; that women regularly bore babies for sacrifice; and that all these phenomena had occurred systematically in American society for decades, perhaps back to the seventeenth century,” historian Philip Jenkins recounted in his 1998 book Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America.

Since there was no person to convict, Iowans blamed whatever vague cultural ills they felt motivated the abductions.

“Another child has been snatched from our streets. Why? We are obsessed with sex!” wrote a Sioux City resident in a letter to the Register. “Nothing pinpoints its vulgarities and sadist pleasure more than porno material.”

The Register’s executive editor James Gannon published his own editorial proclaiming to be “mad as hell” about the spate of disappearances. He directed his anger at bureaucrats and liberalism, the antithesis to what he saw as the all-American Midwestern family, complete with a handsome paperboy son.

“I didn’t move my family to Des Moines to live in fear behind locked doors. I do not cede the night to shadowy figures who hide by day. … The sun should never set on freedom and personal security.”

The more fear gave way to anger and frustration, the more Iowans seemed willing to believe a force far more sophisticated than a John Wayne Gacy or Ottis Toole took the boys.

“God is speaking through [Noreen] to alert us of the growing operation of molesters and abductors,” a Story City woman wrote to Gov. Terry Branstad. “I have never heard of any incidents of this nature in Story City. Could it possibly be that this never happens here? I doubt it.”

Noreen and John Gosch Sr. hold an image of their missing son Johnny aged up four years, created and distributed by the FBI in 1986. — Nonpareil photo archive, Council Bluffs Public Library

Meanwhile, as the decades passed, the Goschs fell victim to fraudsters and trolls. A Michigan man who claimed to be imprisoning Johnny in Mexico swindled more than $11,000 out of the couple. Dozens of people over the years have claimed to be Johnny in scams/delusions reminiscent of QAnon’s John F. Kennedy Jr. impersonators.

A dollar bill was found in a Nebraska cash register with “I’m alive, Johnny Gosch” written on it, which Noreen considers authentic. In a spine-chilling twist, Noreen said an envelope of photos showed up on her doorstep in 2006 depicting young boys tied up and gagged — a seeming confirmation of her worst fears.

She turned them in to West Des Moines Police, and at least one officer initially agreed with Noreen that one of the boys appeared to be Johnny. But a retired Florida detective recognized the photos as part of a long-solved Florida case. WDPD were convinced, but Noreen continues to insist they are evidence of Johnny’s abuse.

“Disinformation,” Renfro writes, “grew out of unfathomable devastation and uncertainty, as the parents of missing and exploited children generally had no sense of where to turn following their respective losses.”

“Perhaps by transferring blame onto a faceless monster like a child prostitution ring or a religious cult operating outside the Midwest, Iowans could absolve their communities, their state, and their region.”

A witch hunt, one state over

It was one of the biggest scandals in Nebraska history. In 1990, businessman Lawrence E. King Jr., once hailed as a champion for working-class Black families in Omaha, was charged with looting $38 million from the credit union he operated in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

King lived a conspicuously lavish lifestyle — complete with luxury cars and extravagant parties — subsidized by the customers of north Omaha’s Franklin Community Credit Union, all while preaching a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps philosophy as an active GOP leader and former chairman of the National Black Republican Council.

Substantial evidence corroborated the charges of embezzlement and fraud. But more accusations rolled in against King, as well as other high-profile Republicans: sadistic sexual assault of youth in Nebraska’s foster care system, as well as those receiving help from the nonprofit Boys Town; the selling of children to other wealthy elites as sex slaves; flying kids around the country on private planes, “plied with drugs and alcohol as part of a bisexual bacchanal,” according to a 1990 Washington Post article on the allegations.

John DeCamp, a former Republican state senator, committed himself to the crusade against King and others accused. “The most powerful and rich public personalities of the state are central figures in the investigation,” DeCamp declared, and it’s got them “as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.”

As word spread, rumors surrounding the scandal grew even stranger. King, elected officials, local business leaders, and famous folks as high up as President Bush were said to be secretly dabbling in deviant pornography, homosexual cults, devil worship, cannibalism — the kind of terrors outlined in Geraldo Rivera’s infamous 1988 TV special Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground — as well as arms deals, MK Ultra mind control, blackmail and murder.

Half a dozen young people recorded 21 hours of testimony describing lurid crimes and naming names, but investigators were skeptical.

“It was difficult to tell whether some of these kids were playing upon the neighborhood and statewide hysteria, or were really telling the truth,” local attorney and former Secret Service agent James Martin Davis told the Post.

The Omaha police, a special prosecutor appointed by the county grand jury, the state attorney general and the FBI all independently investigated the allegations, and found no evidence tying King or others accused to any kind of sex ring. The grand jury concluded it was a “carefully crafted hoax” scaffolded to the Franklin Credit Union scandal. In 1991, the primary source of the sex ring stories was found guilty of perjury.

Journalists at the Omaha World-Herald also found no credible evidence to corroborate the testimonies or rumors. DeCamp accused the paper of being “timid.”

“Over these 16 or 18 months, we’ve had five of the best reporters in the Midwest on this story,” replied G. Woodson Howe, editor of the newspaper. “We’ve not been timid. We’ve run 700 stories and put 7,000 reporter hours into this… . What frustrated the sleaze mongers was that we never did confirm that these kids were procured from state custody and dragged into a sex ring with help from some kind of state power structure.”

But DeCamp was not dissuaded. In 1992 he published a paperback, The Franklin Cover-up: Child Abuse, Satanism, and Murder in Nebraska. He also participated in the filming of a documentary by filmmaker Tim Tate (who co-authored a 2018 book speculating hypnosis mind control played a role in the Robert Kennedy assassination) focused on the rape and trafficking allegations, titled Conspiracy of Silence.

DeCamp and the filmmakers say the doc was originally supposed to air on the Discovery Channel, but was pulled at the last minute — the cover-up strikes again. If Discovery did yank Conspiracy of Silence, it was most likely to avoid opening themselves to defamation suits; interviewees in the doc describe graphic, unimaginable crimes against children committed and facilitated by real people, presenting no verifiable evidence these flights to secret sex parties occurred.

DeCamp’s fixation on the scandal drew skepticism from even his most loyal former colleagues in the state legislature. But he would find a fervent ally in central Iowa.

Paul Bonacci and the visit

As the hubbub around the so-called Franklin scandal began to wane in 1991, one of the young people who claimed to have been abused by Lawrence King came forward with information on an unsolved missing child case in Iowa.

Paul Bonacci was an inmate at the Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Nebraska at the time, and through his attorney John DeCamp, declared in on-camera testimony that he had aided in the abduction of Johnny Gosch nine years before. He’d been roped into a prostitution ring that not only sold him to high-profile clients everywhere from Nebraska to the White House, but compelled him to recruit and even abduct other children to sell, he said. Drugs and sexual violence were used to brainwash and manipulate kids.

Paul Bonacci (right) is deposed alongside his lawyer, John DeCamp. Throughout the interview, the district attorney had to ask Bonacci to switch between his alleged split personalities. — video still

The 24-year-old Bonacci was serving a five-year sentence at the time on three charges of sexually assaulting a child. He was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and claimed he only remembered his role in Johnny’s kidnapping after he managed to recover memories from one of his dozen personalities.

Des Moines station WHO-TV Channel 13 traveled to Lincoln to interview Bonacci in prison, and seemed dumbstruck by his apparent ability to alternate personalities at will.

“Every time he would put his head down and call up somebody it seemed authentic,” cameraman Mike Borland recalled, wide-eyed, in Who Took Johnny. “It seemed to me that he couldn’t fake that. This guy probably wasn’t capable of coming up with all these voices and all these different things to say.”

Noreen said she was hesitant to meet Bonacci. Not only was he claiming to have chloroformed Johnny and helped steal him across state lines, Bonacci said he was the first one to sexually abuse Johnny while his handler, Emilio, took photos.

“Why did they want Johnny?” Noreen asked Bonacci in their first meeting in front of WHO-TV cameras.

Bonacci was crying, covering his eyes with his hand. “They wanted to get kids that weren’t used and they also liked to get kids that were close to their families.”

“Why?” she followed up.

“Emilio liked to hurt people.”

After meeting the thin, pale Bonacci and hearing his apology, Noreen began to find him credible. “I was anxious, I was upset, but I was grateful to him for going out on a limb to share it,” Noreen told the documentary filmmakers. “He didn’t have to. He didn’t get a better deal. He still had to serve his sentence. So I had to admire the young man for the courage to do that.”

Bonacci offered a mix of widely known and, according to Noreen, unknown information about Johnny to prove they’d met. For example, the fact Johnny had a large birthmark on his chest was highly publicized, but Bonacci also correctly guessed that he had a scar on his tongue, burn scar on his leg and a stammer when upset.

“These are all things that start to fit a puzzle,” Noreen told WHO-TV. “They might not be big things to the police department, but it’s forming a picture.”

West Des Moines Police reviewed the interview the TV station conducted with Bonacci, and sent investigators to Omaha to interview his siblings, who put their brother in Omaha at the time of Johnny’s disappearance. That was enough for police to rule him out as a suspect — but it was evidence of either negligence or a cover-up to those who found Bonacci credible.

As the 10th anniversary of Johnny’s disappearance approached, Fox’s America’s Most Wanted saw a story.

“Any excuse is a good excuse to keep it in the light,” host John Walsh remarked to the Who Took Johnny filmmakers.

Soon, the crew of AMW was back in the Midwest to investigate Bonacci’s claims. They found an abandoned house in Colorado where Bonacci said he encountered trafficked children in 1986, including a long-haired Johnny Gosch with a brand on his leg. Elements of the house matched Bonacci’s description, but leads-wise it was a dead-end. No individual in Bonacci’s stories, including “Emilio,” could be identified.

From Bonacci to the hundreds of fresh tips flooding in from around the world, no information could be separated from the national media coverage — both the facts and the popular theories. Still, for a while, the Gosch case was back in the national consciousness.

It would enter again in 1999, when Noreen took the witness stand in a civil case Bonacci and DeCamp brought against King. She was asked under oath if she’d seen or talked to her son since he disappeared. After an initial pause, she testified that she had, once — in 1997, he’d shown up at her front door in the dead of night accompanied by a friend, disguised with darkened skin and hair. But Noreen said she recognized his eyes. He’d escaped from a pedophile ring, he told her, where he’d been sexually abused, tortured and compelled to commit crimes as collateral to keep him under their control. He couldn’t reenter society as Johnny Gosch, or they would kill him or have him imprisoned. He beseeched Noreen not to tell a soul he’d come. And after an hour or so, he disappeared into the night.

The story was splashy, instant breaking news, but strained skeptics’ already stretched credulity. Noreen had spent years presenting law enforcement with any and all leads to investigate, but she hadn’t come forward with what would certainly be the biggest break in the case yet — hadn’t even told her ex-husband — until she was on the stand. Couldn’t Johnny see that millions had been looking for him for 15 years, and would protect him if he came out of hiding? Wouldn’t he be safer in the light? How could a mother accept this fate for her son?

Noreen countered with her own question in Who Took Johnny. “Why on earth would Johnny even want to come forward and be scrutinized like he’s some sort of specimen from another planet?” she said. “Whatever his life is now, assuming he’s alive, is working for him. Sometimes the better decision for a parent is to do what’s best for your child, not just what you want to have happen.”

Ask me anything

Four decades out, Johnny Gosch is still a flashpoint, a phrase synonymous with stranger abduction, child sex trafficking, Midwestern true crime, innocence lost.

“In the ideal world he is alive and he comes home and everybody’s happy,” Lt. Jeff Miller of the WDPD told WHO-TV in 2010. “But in the real world more than likely our best lead will come when his body is found. And at that point it becomes a crime scene.”

As online conspiracy theories festered and thrived during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mystery reentered the public consciousness anew.

If someone with only a passing knowledge of the Gosch case stumbled upon the official website for the Johnny Gosch Foundation in 2020, they’d likely be in for a shock. (One can’t actually visit johnnygosch.com anymore — the domain license was terminated in 2021 amid a crackdown on far-right conspiracy platforms post-Jan. 6 — but snapshots of it are archived online.)

A history-of-the-case page on johnnygosch.com, active as recently as January 2021, accessed through the Wayback Machine.

In white and green text on a black webpage typical of Y2K-era sites, facts about Johnny’s case and touching memorials are interspersed with Noreen’s tales of being blocked at every turn by the Powers-That-Be, targeted with death threats, told by Johnny himself that this conspiracy goes all the way to the top. Scroll past a photo of a glowing Johnny on the yellow dirt bike he bought with his paper route earnings, hit a paragraph of Ted Gunderson rants against government evil, complete with broken hyperlinks and video embeds “THEY don’t want you to see.”

Today, Noreen corresponds directly with followers in a private Facebook group of 3,500 members, Official Johnny Gosch Group. Ahead of the 40th anniversary of her son’s disappearance, Noreen agreed to the ultimate AMA: trying to answer 1,000 questions from the group before Sept. 5.

It appears Noreen’s perspective on the case has not shifted much since she published her book in 2000, Why Johnny Can’t Come Home: Kidnapped While Delivering Newspapers…… Forced into Pornography, Prostitution, Mind Control, Espionage, and the johnnygosch.com website shortly after.

“Yes I do believe it is linked to the large pedophile network in the U.S., Satanic abuse, MKUltra, all of these or a combination is at their finger tips [sic]. I was on the right track with my investigation from Day 1,” she declared in early August.

The Facebook group’s main moderator has posted Benghazi conspiracy theories, blamed “liberal agitators” for the Jan. 6 insurrection, and called the media “corrupt” on his personal Facebook page. At least a few members of the Official Johnny Gosch Group give credence to QAnon, one proclaiming that, “Q helped wake me up.” Noreen has expressed belief in the debunked PizzaGate conspiracy theory, and shared videos in the group from Liz Crokin, one of QAnon’s biggest influencers (and a University of Iowa alum).

Noreen’s most troubling associate is David Icke, a prominent British conspiracy theorist since the mid-’90s, whose belief in a race of shape-shifting interdimensional reptilian puppetmasters tends to overshadow his deeply anti-Semitic teachings, association with white supremacist groups and spreading of bogus health advice related to 5G and COVID-19. Noreen told her followers Icke is a “good source of information” on so-called satanic ritual abuse.

“Years ago I visited with David Icke and have read a lot of what he has written,” she said. “His information is very good and I am sure some people are frightened when they read about what is happening in our country.. World [sic]. But at the same time it is better to be informed about what is around us so we can protect those we love.”

When someone in a comment section calls a particular belief dumb or crazy, other group members tend to chide them for closing their minds. Still, the Official Johnny Gosch Group is far from the most toxic community on Facebook. Comments critical of Noreen’s narrative (“I feel for her but no way do I believe he showed up at her place.”) are allowed to remain. No one is calling for the eradication of trans folks or the defunding of public schools — even if the Iowans who do want these things will sometimes invoke Gosch, Martin and Allen in their fear-based arguments.

Members appreciate Noreen’s willingness to be open with them, the comfort she’s provided other parents of missing or murdered children, and her ability to shoulder enormous pressure, skepticism and grief. To her credit, Noreen has never tied her son’s case to a specific political movement, and doesn’t advocate vigilantism.

“I WOULD NOT take the law into my own hands,” she told the group. “It would be tempting when one learns the atrocities that were done to children to do so. But then the wrong person would be held responsible for a crime.”

Noreen frequently shows her ignorance on the science regarding pedophilia, claiming the death penalty is the only way to stop a sex criminal from reoffending, when in fact sex offenders have notably lower recidivism rates than other offenses, especially when an individual receives treatment during their incarceration. She says states are trying to legalize child sexual abuse or lower the age of consent to 8 years old — campaigns that are extremely fringe, if they exist at all.

While research into pedophilia as a psychological disorder has only just begun to scratch the surface, surveys suggest a large majority of self-identifying pedophiles do not act on their urges and observe what many would consider a “normal” moral framework.

But it’s hard for information to penetrate communities that have committed to the belief that organized pedophilia is the greatest threat to American youth, since according to its own rules, no journalist, official or institution can be trusted. Because this article doesn’t dive into the details of Gunderson’s investigation, DeCamp’s book or Bonacci’s testimony, for example, it will likely be roundly condemned by Noreen’s true believers as a hit job, evidence Little Village is subject to the same corruption as the mainstream media.

“There is always going to be an effort by the opposition to discredit human trafficking, pedophile rings, trafficking etc. Because they want a clear field to operate,” Noreen wrote last month. “They count on people to just believe the negative about someone who is trying to bring awareness and truth. I was in that role for many years… people practically were throwing rocks at me…saying I was making up all of this… […] People used to be shocked that it happened in Iowa. But since Johnny there has been a number more kidnappings [sic] and murders of children.”

Off the rails

Inevitably, conspiracy theory communities that say yes to too many ideas — that whittle the standard of proof down to “this sounds convincing” or even just “it could be true” — begin to eat their own tail. A single meme suggesting an influencer for, say, Flat Earth believers is actually a spy for the globalists can hit an image board’s front page within hours, leading to an online witch hunt and fractures within an already fringe movement.

This has happened in recent years among pedophile cabal believers. Meghan Walsh, daughter of John Walsh and an avid anti-government, anti-Child Protective Services conspiracy theorist, has led an online campaign calling her famous dad a deep-state goon after he and wife Revé Walsh won custody of Meghan’s children. Some Official Johnny Gosch Group members have expressed support for Meghan.

Theories that Jeff Gannon, the “mad as hell” editor of the Des Moines Register in the ‘80s, was personally responsible for the paperboy abductions or is in fact Johnny Gosch himself somehow, have taken off. Noreen has also cut ties with longtime ally Ron Sampson, president of the Johnny Gosch Foundation from 1982-93, saying he has “aligned himself” with “idiot theories.”

Her ex-husband has come under her magnifying glass in recent years, as well. Though they haven’t stayed in touch since their 1993 divorce, Noreen and John Gosch Sr. have long defended each other against theories that the other was involved in Johnny’s disappearance. But Noreen’s tone changed after John participated in a 2018 podcast interview in which he publicly admitted — for what appeared to be the first time — that he didn’t find Paul Bonacci a convincing witness. Faded Out host Sarah DiMeo asked him if he believed Noreen and Ken Wooden’s aggressive strategy may have hindered the early investigation into local suspects; he admitted he thought it had.

Questions about John have flooded the Official Johnny Gosch Group, and while Noreen has refused to confirm the more lurid gossip, she now maintains he acted suspiciously around the time Bonacci came on the radar, and could be keeping secrets.

A missing person flier for Johnny Gosch, including a sketch of the unidentified “Emilio” described by Paul Bonacci.

Though police and local journalists revealed in interviews that they became weary of Noreen’s PR tactics sooner or later and doubted many of her claims, she remains a widely popular and respected figure among online followers of the case, from Facebook to Reddit to the more unsavory conspiracy blogs. This hasn’t been the case for all grieving parents of missing or murdered children; the 1996 JonBenét Ramsey case is a particularly odious example of a victim’s parents receiving de facto blame from a bloodthirsty public after police botched their daughter’s murder investigation. Perhaps Noreen’s enduring status as a woman who speaks truth to power is a perk of making herself available to anyone who will listen since 1982, giving talks to parent groups, participating in podcast interviews with both renowned and controversial figures, and answering literally 1,000 questions on Facebook in a single month — all for little to no financial compensation.

Her narrative gives Johnny’s case the importance it feels like a missing child’s case should have. It is a convincing (enough) answer for those who’ve spent decades paranoid about faceless, aimless monsters. Secret pedophile organizations, however elite or satanic, are in many ways less frightening than the relatives, guardians, care providers and friendly neighbors on the local news arrested for harming a child who trusted them — much less the sacred, all-American institutions we know protected even the most prolific abusers, from Larry Nassar to Catholic priests.

Plus, in Noreen’s reality, Johnny is alive. We haven’t seen or heard from him because he isn’t safe out in the open, but according to his mother, he knows how many people care about him and even follows the activity within the Official Johnny Gosch Group.

“I have a friend who said to me once through all of this ‘you are lucky,’” Noreen replied to a question about the role faith has played in her activism. “I asked why she would say that and she replied ‘You know what your purpose is for being here.’”

A legacy of terror

On a recent weekend I drove up to my mom’s hometown of Waverly, Iowa for a visit. My mother and I decided to watch The Black Phone, a breakout 2022 horror film based on a short story by Joe Hill.

Though supernatural elements eventually come into play, the film begins with a gritty air of realism — or, at least, it feels real: North Denver, 1978; suburban kids run around without a care, shooting bottle rockets, riding bikes, delivering newspapers in a red wagon alongside the family dog. Then a black panel van turns onto the street, spooky music descends, and the opening credits begin amid images of black-and-white MISSING CHILD fliers.

The villain driving the van, played by Ethan Hawke, wears a white mask with devil horns and a hooked nose, his voice and mannerisms a mix of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and the queer-coded mustache-twirlers of old. He’s called “the Grabber” because, well, he grabs boys off the street, hides them in a basement and eventually kills them. While it’s never explicitly depicted or described, it’s heavily implied the Grabber sexually assaults them.

The satanic panic allusions are all very on-the-nose, the paperboy victim styled to look so similar to Gosch and Martin as to be insensitive. But it’s effective horror movie fodder; anyone raised during or after the ’80s has been conditioned to dread this very scenario. The frustration you feel knowing the boys onscreen are sitting ducks practically has you shouting “stranger danger!” at the screen.

“I will say this,” my gen X mom told me. “Having grown up in the time of Johnny Gosch, Eugene Martin and Adam, I was terrified for my children. I was a much different parent than I would have been.”

I can’t blame my mother for squeezing my hand purple when we walked through crowds, getting jittery whenever I disappeared under a rack of coats at J.C. Penny, or picking me up from elementary school every day when I could easily have walked the few blocks. Fear is rational when you’ve been told the Grabber could be lurking nearby — much less when the government, police, intelligence agencies and world leaders may all be complicit.

But fear has consequences beyond our own households. Mass surveillance and incarceration are consequences of fear. Creating a class of Americans that are permanently disenfranchised and unemployable is a consequence of fear. Giving credence to lies because they contain comforting affirmations is a consequence of fear. And justifying harm under the banner of protecting children’s innocence is a consequence of our culture of fear.

The missing-person cases of Johnny Gosch, Eugene Martin and Marc Allen remain unsolved. Their faces continued to grace milk cartons until the practice fizzled out around 1990, after too many parents complained it was scaring their kids at the breakfast table. (Milk carton campaigns weren’t especially effective anyway, it turns out, and the AMBER Alert system took over in 1996.)

But similar cold cases have cracked in recent years, bringing bittersweet closure to communities — and dumping cold water on decades of wild speculation.

The disappearance of Jacob Wetterling in Paynesville, Minnesota in 1989 generated much national attention, and led to the establishment of the first state sex offender registry. Police bungled the investigation, conspiracy theories swirled around the case, and a local man suspected of being involved became a pariah. But on Sept. 1, 2016, a pedophile from one town over, Danny Heinrich, confessed to kidnapping and killing Jacob. After 27 years, police recovered Jacob’s remains 30 miles from the Wetterling home, where Heinrich said they’d be.

Jacob’s mother Patty Wetterling has since become an outspoken critic of sex offender registries, regretting the role she and the Jacob Wetterling Foundation played in creating Minnesota’s.

“What we really want is no more victims. Don’t do it again. So, how can we get there? Locking them up forever, labeling them, and not allowing them community support doesn’t work. I’ve turned 180 [degrees] from where I was,” Patty told APM Reports in 2016.

Today, the Wetterling Foundation website (zeroabuseproject.org) offers research-based guidance to families. There’s even a special section explaining why the org does not recommend “stranger danger” rhetoric — in part because talking to unfamiliar adults is an important way for children to seek help if they’re feeling unsafe. “Teach children to trust their intuition,” they advise. “Remind children that most people in the world are good people who want them to be safe and strong.”

In the conclusion to Stranger Danger, Renfro paints a portrait of a nation that has shed its boogeymen — where every child is looked after.

“If American adults wish to ‘save our children’ … they will instruct children and adolescents not to fear strangers but to maintain a healthy skepticism of those they do not know — and those they do. They will care about young people as much when they are nonwhite as when they are white; as much when they are homely as when they are adorable; as much when they are born as when they are unborn; as much when they are found as when they are missing.”

Read by the author

Emma McClatchey was born in Iowa City in 1993. She can’t remember not knowing the name “Johnny Gosch.” A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.


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