He was the first of the missing children whose photo was printed on a milk carton, his mother never gave up looking for 41 years

'I tried everything because I'm still his mum'

33 mins read

On the morning of September 5, 1982, Johnny Gosch left home to deliver newspapers to the neighbors, as he did every morning, and never returned. Since 1982, his mother Noreen has done everything in her power to find her son. But what had happened to Johnny? Here is a 41-year story of mother and son full of unknowns…
It was a hot Sunday morning in late summer. It was almost 6 o’clock and the sun was slowly rising. 12-year-old Johnny Gosch last left his house that morning.

He was the first of the missing children whose photo was printed on a milk carton, his mother never gave up looking for 41 years

The neighbors heard the rattling of the wheelbarrow on the stones in the yard and thought, “Johnny is going to deliver the newspapers, like every morning.” Another paperboy remembered seeing Johnny near where they were picking up the papers. Johnny was talking to the stranger in the blue car that pulled up next to him.

What happened in the next few minutes would reverberate for more than 40 years, not only in Johnny’s home state of Iowa, but across the United States. Johnny’s photo, printed on milk cartons, became a cautionary tale for thousands of children delivering newspapers and led police to change the way they investigate missing children cases.

The cause of Johnny’s disappearance has been hotly debated and theories have been put forward. Some saw it as an unsolvable mystery, while others said the police investigation had failed to uncover a shred of the truth.

Johnny’s mother, Noreen Gosch, continued to fight for 41 years to find her son.

Four decades later, Noreen Gosch is still investigating her son’s disappearance. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)


Those who examine the evidence in the Johnny Gosch case tend to adopt one of the following two theories.

According to the first theory, Johnny was murdered shortly after his disappearance. However, the fact that no murder suspect or trace of Johnny’s body has been found to date calls this theory into question.

The second theory belongs to Noreen Gosch. Noreen says that she saw Johnny alive and well years after he disappeared and that they chatted enough to understand why he had to disappear again.

Speaking to CNN International recently, just days before her 80th birthday, the grieving mother once again explained this theory and her meeting with her son.

Noreen Gosch has been trying to find her son for 41 years


Noreen lost her first husband to cancer at a young age in 1965 and later married John Gosch. The couple’s child Johnny was born in 1969.

The day the light and dark blue car approached Johnny was September 5, 1982. According to police records, Johnny was walking to where the newspapers were sold when the car drove past him, then stopped, came back and asked him how to get to 86th Street. Witnesses described the person behind the wheel as “a white male in his 30s, maybe with a mustache or dark skin.”

The stranger in the car asked at least three people for directions within 10 minutes, and a second stranger appeared near the newspaper distribution center. This person was following Johnny, who was walking north on 42nd Street.

A few minutes later, two paperboys saw Johnny on Marcourt Road. For some reason not mentioned in the police report, Johnny had stopped pulling the cart and sat down on the ground. When the other paperboys returned to the same spot with their newspapers, Johnny’s wheelbarrow was still there, but he was gone. Another eyewitness reported seeing through the window a gray-black car run a red light, turn onto 42nd Street, and head toward the interstate.

About two hours later the Gosch family’s home phone rang. Subscribers were asking why Johnny hadn’t brought the newspaper. Noreen said, “His father came out of the house and handed out the papers. Then I called the police.”

He was the first of the missing children whose photo was printed on a milk carton, his mother never gave up looking for 41 years
Johnny Gosch’s wagon was found less than five blocks from his house. His papers had not been delivered. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)


At the time, the police chief of West Des Moines, where the Goschs lived, was Orval Cooney. Cooney had some controversial incidents on his record. For example, in February 1951, when he was 17 years old, he and four friends had beaten to death a boy they had picked up in their car. Cooney pleaded guilty in court and spent 30 days in jail. After joining the Marine Corps and working as an upholsterer, Cooney finally chose police work and was appointed West Des Moines Police Chief in 1976 after 8 years.

In early 1982, the Des Moines Tribune, a local newspaper, published an incredible story. Eighteen employees of the West Des Moines Police Department told the newspaper that Cooney had beaten a handcuffed prisoner, had mishandled a robbery investigation in which one of his sons was a suspect, and had threatened and harassed his own officers. He was also repeatedly observed drinking on the job. The article also stated that Cooney was racist against blacks and sexist against women.

An investigation cleared Cooney, but one of the sources who spoke to the newspaper was found guilty. Two police officers were fired and several reprimanded for alleged mistakes they made months ago. It was also alleged that the purpose of the investigation was to exonerate Cooney. Cooney was still police chief when Johnny Gosch disappeared in September.

According to Noreen, when the police interviewed the Goschs, they asked, “Had he run away from home before?” They did not believe the child had been abducted. “Police Chief Cooney told the volunteers looking for Johnny in the woods to go home because ‘the boy had probably run away,'” Noreen said, adding that the police did almost nothing in the first 72 hours.

The West Des Moines Police Department declined to comment for this story, as the Johnny Gosch case is still open to state and federal law enforcement. “We will continue our investigation until we find out what happened to Johnny Gosch,” a spokesperson for the police department said in a written statement.


Six months after Johnny disappeared, a sighting was reported in Oklahoma. A woman had come across a child on a corner, gasping for help. After saying, “My name is John David Gosch,” the boy was grabbed by two men and dragged away.

Her identity was not made public. However, in the following days an anonymous interview with her appeared in the Chicago Tribune. According to reports, the woman was not actually aware of the Johnny Gosch case. Months after meeting the boy, she saw Johnny’s photo on television and realized that this was the boy who had asked for her help.

At the time, The Associated Press reported that the woman had contacted a private investigator working with the Gosch family. A spokesperson for the detective agency told the newspaper, “We checked and the FBI checked. We are convinced that the child in question is Johnny,” an FBI official declined to comment.

Starting in the late 70s in the US, cases of missing children began to receive widespread media coverage. In September 1984, a milk producer in Des Moines began printing photos of Johnny and another boy named Eugene Martin on milk cartons. The practice soon became a national program. The practice became less widespread in the late 80s and was completely phased out in 1996 with the introduction of the AMBER alert system.

/He was the first of the missing children whose photo was printed on a milk carton, his mother never gave up looking for 41 years
Volunteers searched for Johnny, but he was nowhere to be found. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)


On February 22, 1984, more or less a year after the incident in Oklahoma, the Gosch home phone rang. Noreen answered. The voice on the other end said, “Mom?” Noreen thought it sounded like Johnny’s voice.

The boy who was slurring his speech was asking for help. When Noreen asked, “Where are you?” someone hung up. In the next few minutes, the same voice called twice more. These calls were also short. After Noreen told the caller, “Ask a policeman for help,” the line went dead. Noreen reported the incident to the police but was told that the caller ID could not be traced.

A month later, the Associated Press reported that Johnny had been sighted, this time in Texas. Guy Genovese, the sheriff’s detective quoted in the report, said, “I believe the boy is alive and can be found, but I’m not saying anything about the timing or anything like that.”

In the years that followed, others claimed to have seen Johnny. At some point, Noreen would also believe that she had seen her son, even testifying under oath.

But before that, a confession came out. who claimed to be one of Johnny’s kidnappers.


One day in 1991, Noreen received a call from a private investigator from Nebraska. This detective, named Roy Stephens, was working with a lawyer. One of his clients was in prison for child molestation. This inmate said he had played a role in Johnny’s kidnapping. Stephens had questioned him for hours and wanted Noreen to listen to the tapes of the interviews.

The voice on the recordings belonged to Paul Bonacci, who was 23 years old at the time. Bonacci had a nightmarish childhood full of abuse, and in 1982, when he was 15 years old, he met a boy named Mike in a park in Omaha and told him about his experiences. Mike introduced Bonacci to Emilio, a criminal who made and sold pornographic images of child abuse. Emilio and Mike were traveling to Iowa and invited Bonacci along.

According to a 1999 affidavit, Bonacci accepted the invitation and set out with Mike and Emilio in September 1982. During the trip, while staying at a hotel west of Des Moines, they were joined by a man carrying a bag of photographs. One of the photos in the man’s bag was of Johnny Gosch. Bonacci testified that Johnny may have been chosen as a victim because of his hair and eye color.

Realizing that he was part of a kidnapping plot, Bonacci tried to escape but was forced to back down when Emilio pointed a gun at his head and threatened him.

Noreen Gosch says Johnny used his paper-route money to buy her roses. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)


Bonacci said that they kidnapped Johnny early in the morning as planned, chloroformed him and put him in a car, and that they changed cars several times after leaving the city, with the car carrying Johnny heading first to Omaha and then to Sioux City.

Bonacci said that the men videotaped him and Mike with Johnny that night, and that he was taken back to Omaha the next day, while Johnny remained in Sioux City. He also suggested that Johnny, whom he saw a second time a few months later in Colorado, was being held in a secret underground room in the ranch house of a man known at the time as “The Colonel.”

Bonacci’s allegations have sparked much controversy. In 1993, a camera crew from the program “America’s Most Wanted” entered the farmhouse in question. The producer of the program, Paul Sparrow, confirmed that there was a secret underground room in the house and that the children had carved their initials into the walls. (However, the room was not in the footage.)

A few weeks later, however, the Omaha World-Herald reported that sheriff’s detectives had investigated allegations about the house but had “found no basis to believe that Gosch was being held there or that any laws had been violated.” However, the details of this investigation were never made public.


Bonacci’s claims were somewhat hopeful, as they indicated that Johnny might still be alive.

After listening to the audio recordings Stephens had, Noreen went to the prison in Lincoln, Nebraska. She was accompanied by Stephens and reporters from a local television station in Des Moines.

Noreen was convinced by Bonacci’s story. The details he shared and the map he drew of the crime scene indicated that he had indeed played a role in Johnny’s abduction.

The convincing detail for Noreen was that Bonacci had told her that Johnny had a birthmark on his chest, similar to the South American continent. She also knew that he had fallen out of a tree and bitten his tongue, and that he had a burn mark near his ankle.

Reporter Jim Strickland, who traveled with him to the prison, told CNN International that he too found Bonacci credible, saying, “It was strange that the police didn’t take this man’s statement. Wouldn’t you have traveled two hours to talk to him, do you want to solve this or not?”

He was the first of the missing children whose photo was printed on a milk carton, his mother never gave up looking for 41 years 1
Johnny’s parents spent years looking for clues and trying to keep the case in the public eye. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)


According to the police, Bonacci was either mentally unstable or lying. In 1991, the young man filed a child abuse lawsuit against more than 10 people, including influential figures such as Omaha businessman Lawrence E. King. While the defendants denied the allegations, the court ruled in absentia in 1999 to award Bonacci $1 million in damages.

During the testimonies taken for this case, Bonacci said contradictory things and explained this by the fact that he suffered from dissociative identity disorder. His alter ego, West Lee, even surfaced at one point and was recorded as a separate witness.

West Lee claimed it was created under a secret government program called Monarch.

The existence of the Monarch program has never been confirmed, and a lawyer who questioned Bonacci called it “absurd”. CNN International’s appeals to several government agencies under the Freedom of Information Act have also been unsuccessful.

According to him, the program involved sexually abusing children, creating a split in their identities, and then using them for espionage missions, such as blackmailing influential people. According to Lee’s testimony, King was both one of Monarch’s targets and the person who directed Bonacci in his espionage missions.

The extremes and inconsistencies in his testimony formed the basis for the West Des Moines police to dismiss Bonacci as a reliable witness. Noreen, on the other hand, always believed Bonacci was telling the truth. This belief was even confirmed by Johnny himself on March 18, 1997.


It was early 1997, Johnny had been missing for almost 15 years. Her parents had divorced and Noreen had moved into her own apartment. One night, as she slept in her bed, Noreen was awakened by the sound of a knock at the door. Through the binoculars on the door, she saw two men in the hallway. One of the men looked like Johnny.

Noreen has recounted that night repeatedly in Bonacci’s trials, in her statements to police, in her book “Why Johnny Can’t Come Home” and in her statements to CNN International.

“Who is it?” Noreen asked after looking through the binoculars at the door, and received the answer, “It’s me, Mom, Johnny.” Noreen was trembling. She had dreamed of this moment for years. At that point Johnny was 27 years old and a grown man. But his eyes were the same.

Opening the door, Noreen hugged Johnny and was once again convinced that this was her son. She invited the men in. The one who said he was Johnny opened the front of his shirt to reveal a birthmark in the shape of the South American continent.

The other man didn’t say much. From time to time he and Johnny looked at each other. Noreen wondered if this man was controlling her son. When Noreen asked Johnny where he lived, Johnny looked at the man. When the man said, “Don’t answer,” Johnny fell silent.

At home in West Des Moines, Noreen kept thinking about Johnny. (Taro Yamasaki)


Noreen asked her son where he had been for 14.5 years, what he had been doing. Johnny’s story matched Bonacci’s.

She was pulled off the sidewalk into a car, lost consciousness, then woke up in a basement with her hands and mouth tied. A boy named Paul calmed her down as she cried with fear. After being kept in this basement for days, a man called the Colonel came and bought him from his kidnappers. Johnny also said that he was used in blackmail schemes against various influential people.

According to Noreen, the visit lasted about two hours. Johnny couldn’t tell everything, but he said that he had run away from his kidnappers, that he was in hiding and that he was barely getting by. The men had also told Johnny, “If you see your mother, we will kill her,” so Johnny wondered if he had made a mistake. But he had no one to turn to. Johnny couldn’t move on with his life until the men after him were caught and brought to justice.

Noreen would later be criticized for not preventing her son’s departure, but there was nothing she could do but hug him goodbye. Because Johnny was old enough to make his own decisions. It was up to Noreen to uncover the truth and force the authorities to do what was necessary.


Another 26 years have passed and Noreen still hasn’t made it.

Noreen, who now lives in East Dubuque, Illinois, has since remarried. Her husband, George Hartney, has become Noreen’s biggest supporter in her fight. Noreen suspected many people in Johnny’s disappearance, but her evidence was very limited.

As Noreen, who had shared her information about Cooney, the former West Des Moines police chief, with Bonacci’s attorney, John DeCamp, was preparing to file a lawsuit for investigative misconduct, something unexpected happened. Cooney died of a heart attack in early 2003 at the age of 69.

Tom Boyd, now retired, was once a detective with the West Des Moines Police Department. After more than 20 years investigating the Johnny Gosch case and having a friendly relationship with Noreen, Boyd said that even today people ask him the question: “Do you believe Johnny went to Noreen’s house?”

Boyd told CNN International that he did not want to accuse Noreen of lying, but that he had no way of knowing the answer to the question: “Noreen is probably mourning her son. Yes, it’s a strange situation. I always answer people who ask me with a question and say, ‘I don’t know, do you believe it?


In the intervening time, Noreen’s credibility has been repeatedly disputed. Some have suggested that Johnny’s 1997 visit was a complete fabrication. For example, the 2018 podcast “Faded Out” argued that Noreen’s theory was completely false.

The podcast’s host, Sarah DiMeo, suggested that other pedophiles in the area may have been responsible and brought up the name Wilbur Millhouse. Millhouse, a former distribution manager for the Des Moines Register newspaper, pleaded guilty in 1987 to sexually abusing boys.

But Noreen said that private detectives she hired investigated Millhouse in the 1980s and found that he was visiting a relative in Kansas City on the day Johnny disappeared. In 1986, the Der Moines Register reported that police had found no connection between Millhouse and Johnny’s disappearance. Boyd said he was aware of Millhouse, who died in 2015, but did not consider him a possible suspect.

In her testimony to Boyd in 1999, Noreen listed one by one the names of people she thought were involved in Johnny’s disappearance. Boyd, who recorded all of this, said that Noreen had said things in her statements that could not be investigated, confirmed or proven, “There was always a gray area where I couldn’t say it happened or it didn’t happen. That’s how this investigation has been for me over the years.”


“I’m not perfect, I admit my mistakes,” Boyd said, adding that Noreen had made a mistake in not digging deeper into the dark records of those on her list of suspects and should have done more.

It was also a mistake that Bonacci was not questioned. Officers from the West Des Moines Police Department questioned some of Bonacci’s relatives and received the answer “He was with us in Omaha at the time” and concluded that he could not have played a role in Johnny’s abduction. However, these statements were made 10 years after the incident and it was not easy for family members to remember the exact dates.

Boyd said it was wrong for the West Des Moines police to immediately exclude Bonacci from consideration, adding, “I would have talked to him today if I could.”

Years passed, and then decades. Noreen Gosch kept looking for her son. (Taro Yamasaki)


Not Boyd, but a CNN International reporter managed to talk to Bonacci. Bonacci, now 56 and living near Omaha, declined to be interviewed by reporters but did answer a few questions.

When asked, “Do you think Johnny visited Noreen in 1997?” Bonacci replied, “Yes,” and continued: “I know it happened because Johnny told me that. After visiting his mother, he came to this house and visited me.” Bonacci added that as far as he knows, Johnny is still alive and has started his own family.

Bonacci said that he did not know the surnames of Tony and Emilio, Johnny’s kidnappers, but that he stood by the testimony he gave years ago, and when asked, “Do you have any photographs or documents to back this up?” he replied, “Everything that happened was lost in the flood of 2019. I was taking notes to write a book, about 2000 pages. But they all became unreadable,” he said.

Bonacci also claimed to have seen Johnny 15-20 times in his life, most recently in 2018, and said, “He’s hiding, afraid to come out and tell what he knows. They would kill him. He’s afraid of that. Of being silenced…”


Noreen echoed Bonacci’s sentiment, saying she believed her son was still alive, using a different name and living with his own family. George, on the other hand, suggested that if he was alive, Johnny, who turned 54 in November, could have been forced into the crime, just like Bonacci.

Noreen stated that Bonacci told her, “Johnny knows what you’re doing, he’s keeping track of it,” and said, “If Paul says he believes Johnny is alive, then the two of them are communicating. I am sure of that.” George said, “They are in communication, they are all in communication with each other.”

The number of survivors of these abuses is unclear, but Noreen claimed to have spoken to more than 100 people who claimed to have experienced something similar to what her son and Bonacci went through. George said he had met some of these people and that when they lived in West Des Moines, some of them knocked on his door and asked to talk.

“They knew details about Johnny that were not in the press,” Noreen said, adding that six of them said they had seen Johnny.

From day one, Noreen talked to every single neighbor in the neighborhood, reviewed crime scene plans over and over again, knocked on the doors of the police and the FBI, appeared on television repeatedly to keep the case in the spotlight, was accused of not crying at all and crying too much, was criticized for falling apart and moving on, and gave more than 800 speeches at schools and other venues, He wrote letters to President Ronald Reagan, testified before the Senate, helped pass an Iowa state law requiring the search for missing children to begin immediately, worked three jobs to raise money for private investigators across the country, woke up in the middle of the night with ideas and jotted them down in a notebook by his bedside.

“I did all this because even though he is gone, I am still Johnny’s mother,” Noreen said, stating that she wanted her son to know this, “I tried everything, everything.”

Compiled from CNN International’s news titled “An Iowa paperboy disappeared 41 years ago. His mother is still on the case”.



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