Iowa Paperboy Johnny Gosch Vanished In 1982 — Then The Chilling Sightings Of Him Began

Published November 9, 2021
Updated August 5, 2022

Johnny Gosch disappeared while delivering newspapers in his West Des Moines neighborhood when he was 12 years old, but his mother claims he visited her late one night in 1997 to tell her he'd been the victim of a pedophile ring.

The Disappearance Of Johnny Gosch

Johnny Gosch was 12 years old in 1982. Like countless other 12-year-old boys across the country, he had a paper route to earn money. He would get up before the sun rose each morning and deliver newspapers in West Des Moines, Iowa, which then had a population of around 22,000. Gosch had never delivered a paper late, and when on the morning of September 5 his parents began receiving phone calls from neighbors asking what had happened to their papers, they realized something was amiss.

John and Noreen Gosch frantically alerted the local police. However, since there had been no note or demand for ransom, the police ruled that the case was not a kidnapping and waited 72 hours before declaring Johnny missing and beginning the search in earnest.

Johnny Gosch

A portrait of Johnny Gosch with his newspaper bag a year before he disappeared. Photo by Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

In the meantime, John had been combing the neighborhood for his son and found his delivery wagon filled with the undelivered newspapers around a block and a half away from the house. It was the last trace of Johnny Gosch that would ever be found.

The Search

Johnny Gosch’s disappearance quickly made headlines across the country thanks to the efforts of Johnny’s parents. Frustrated with the sluggish response of law enforcement, John and Noreen went on television and distributed over 10,000 posters with their son’s picture. Gosch was even one of the first children to be plastered on the side of milk cartons throughout the United States in an effort to raise awareness about missing children.

Although the Gosches’ massive efforts ensured word of their son’s abduction was spread, it also attracted unwanted attention in the form of cruel crank calls and false trails.

There seemed to be a lead early in the case when the private investigators hired by the Gosches found two witnesses who reported seeing their son talking to a man in a blue car on the morning of his disappearance. However, without a license plate to go on the trail quickly ran cold. Two years later, another paper boy, Eugene Martin, went missing in Iowa, but police were never able to connect the two cases.

No arrests or charges were ever made in the Johnny Gosch case, but the mystery was far from over.

Noreen Gosch

Noreen Gosch sitting in son Johnny’s room clutching his ski jacket. Photo by Taro Yamasaki/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Johnny Gosch Reemerges – Or Does He?

In 1997 — 15 years after Johnny Gosch’s disappearance — Noreen Gosch awoke to a knock on her door at 2:30 AM. Although the unexpected visitor pulled open his shirt to reveal a familiar birthmark on his chest, Noreen claimed she recognized the visitor right away. The man was her now 27-year old son Johnny.

According to Noreen, he was accompanied by a man she had never seen before. Although she spoke with her son for over an hour, “Johnny would look over to the other person for approval to speak.” The long-missing boy supposedly told his mother he was still in danger and refused to disclose where he was living before vanishing once again.

Noreen went to the F.B.I. and had them create a sketch of her now-adult son, but the lack of evidence besides her own word led the authorities to doubt that Johnny was still alive. Noreen firmly believes that Johnny was abducted as part of a child sex ring and that the investigation was hampered because of the big names involved in the scheme.

The authorities have not denied that this theory is impossible, but Des Moines police said they “have no evidence to suggest that Johnny was swept into a pedophile ring.” Noreen and her husband never gave up hope that their missing son was alive, once stating in an interview, “We’ve lived without Johnny a long time now. It’s not new to us, but it still hurts.”

Noreen Gosch was often dismissed as a grieving mother driven to outlandish conclusions and stories after the disappearance of her son. However, she and her husband certainly helped ensure that missing child cases were handled with greater urgency.

In 1984, Iowa passed the Johnny Gosch Bill, which required police to investigate missing-child cases immediately, rather than wait 72 hours as they had in Gosch’s case. Despite the important legislative changes and tremendous media campaign, besides his newspaper wagon, no trace of Gosch was ever found.

After reading about the disappearance of Johnny Gosch and his mysterious reappearance, read about the unexplained disappearance of Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon. Then read about Amy Lynn Bradley, who disappeared while on a cruise.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.