The 2017 Iowa State Fair will display the red wagon belonging to missing newspaper carrier Johnny Gosch, who disappeared on Sept. 5, 1982 when he was only 12 years old.
Early one Sunday morning, John “Johnny” David Gosch was on his route delivering copies of The Des Moines Register near his home in West Des Moines. Witnesses said the boy was seen talking to a stranger and went missing shortly afterward. The only evidence left behind was his dog, some rubber bands strewn across the sidewalk and a red wagon bearing his last name. Despite a relentless search led by his parents Noreen and John Gosch, Gosch’s whereabouts are unknown and the mystery continues.
Nearly 35 years later, the Iowa State Patrol will display the wagon in an effort to honor Gosch’s memory and raise awareness of the plight of missing and exploited children for a younger generation of fairgoers. The wagon will be displayed at the Hall of Law and Flame, located in the East Hall of the Grandstand, for the duration of the fair (Aug. 10-20).
The idea to display the iconic wagon started with a conversation between a representative of the Iowa Department of Public Safety and Des Moines realtor Ron Sampson. Sampson befriended the Gosch family after becoming engrossed by the case. When Noreen and John were unable to store the wagon, Sampson acquired it to be used as a learning tool, given the iconic status the wagon gained over the years after the story made international headlines.
“Ron and his wife became friends and helped us so much during the early years of the kidnapping,”Noreen Gosch told Little Village. “He later became president of the Johnny Gosch Foundation. We have kept in touch through all the years.”
Along with being president of the foundation from 1982 to 1993, Sampson is the former editor and publisher of the Ankeny Press-Citizen, where he used his column “Optional Reading” to help champion Gosch’s case and those of other child victims. In preparation for the upcoming display, he has been working with Iowa State Patrol Captain Mark Logsdon, who was 18 at the time of Gosch’s disappearance and volunteered in the search effort to locate the missing child. The case helped inspire Logsdon to choose a career in law enforcement.
“I certainly understand the pain and angst that goes with never having any kind of closure to this case,” Logsdon said in an interview with TV station KCCI.
Gosch’s parents had originally proposed placing missing child posters for their son in the Hall of Law in 1983.
“We approached them to ask if we could bring out a quantity of missing posters (8 x 10) hoping someone might remember something and call with info. They refused saying it would be a ‘downer for fairgoers,'” Noreen Gosch said.
In the early 1980s, news reports of child abduction, child abuse and human trafficking were far from people’s minds during President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.” As Sampson wrote in a column dated January 20, 1983: “The statistics will astound you. The red tape will befuddle you. The treatment, the abuses and prices put on the stolen children as a commodity may be beyond your comprehension. It is an issue much more comfortably left alone than explored.”
Almost two years after Gosch’s abduction, another Register newspaper carrier named Eugene Martin went missing at the age of 13. Two years after Martin, 13-year-old Marc Allen of Des Moines also vanished. Although Allen was not a newspaper carrier, the circumstances were eerily similar to those of Gosch and Martin.
At that time, law enforcement was only required to investigate missing children 72 hours after they had been reported missing. That ended with the passage of what became known as the Johnny Gosch Bill in 1984, which was signed into law by Gov. Terry Branstad during his first term. This effort was spearheaded by Noreen Gosch.
“Since 1982, the epidemic of missing and abducted children has become a more regular part of the national conversation,” the special agent in charge of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, Adam DeCamp, told Little Village
In 2016, the FBI reported a total of 465,000 missing children in the United States. In the Hawkeye State, the Missing Person Information Clearinghouse (MPIC) July 17 report lists 457 missing people, 289 of them are juveniles. Those missing are victims of stranger abduction, family abduction, running away from home or natural disaster.
The Hall of Law and Flame are set up in order to allow the public an opportunity to engage with public safety professionals. The Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) manages the MPIC and the Sex Offender Registry, along with serving as a key player in AMBER Alerts, the Child Abduction Response Team and Iowa’s Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce.
“The hope is that the display will spark a conversation about missing children and the impact they have on families and communities,” DeCamp said.
For the past few years, the Iowa State Fair has been bringing in crowds of over a million people each season. In 2015, the fair’s attendance record was broken when 1,117,398 attended. The large number of people attending the fair annually makes it “a great venue for such a historical piece,” Sampson said.
In a statement issued to Little Village by Iowa State Fair Manager and CEO Gary Slater, he said: “It is a tragedy that Johnny Gosch has been gone for many years and there is no closure to his disappearance. We know it has been difficult on his family and our hearts and prayers go out to them.”
DeCamp said anyone with information about Gosch’s abduction or whereabouts can call the West Des Moines Police Department at 515-222-3321. Information on any missing person can be submitted to the Iowa Missing Person Information Clearinghouse at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling MPIC at 800-346-5507.