On the morning of September 5, 1982, 12-year-old Johnny Gosch vanished while on his regular paper route in Des Moines, Iowa.
He went missing before the creation of Amber Alerts, before police were obliged to begin immediately searching for a missing child.
Johnny was last seen talking to an unknown man in a car while out delivering papers. A few moments later, the vehicle’s tires were heard screeching on the pavement and he was nowhere to be found.
Initally, the local police failed to treat his vanishing as a kidnapping because there were no demands, and they didn’t even classify him officially missing until 72 hours after it was reported.
However, his parents, John and Noreen, were quick to summon the media’s attention surrounding their missing son. The live broadcasts of their pleas for him to come home instilled a new sense of fear in families across the country.
Johnny became the first missing person to ever be featured on a milk carton.
Very little is known about what really happened to the boy, though family members and investigators believe he was kidnapped. Two years after his disappearance, another local child went missing, but police were never able to make a connection between the two cases.
Investigators have been unable to uncover any evidence to support that he was, in fact, kidnapped, have never brought in any suspects, and have never made an arrest in the case. There are theories that he was forced into a human trafficking or pedophile ring.
Johnny’s mother and her supporters were eventually able to rally together to pass a law in Iowa that forces police to investigate missing children immediately, a practice that is now standard nationwide.
I think people today would be shocked at what the real situation was in 1982. Police were required to wait 72 hours before investigating a missing child’s case. The FBI would track your stolen car across state lines, but it would not track your stolen child across state lines. There was absolutely no national infrastructure to support the hunt for missing children.
A true-crime documentary about Johnny’s disappearance was recently released after a successful Kickstarter campaign. It tells the story of his mother’s 30 year quest to try and locate him. The film examines what might have happened to the paperboy and the strange circumstances surrounding his disappearance.
Below is the trailer for the documentary, Who Took Johnny?