His mother, Noreen Gosch, maintains that Johnny Gosch escaped from his captors and visited her in 1997, but now fears for his life and lives under an assumed identity. Gosch's father, John, divorced from Noreen since 1993, has publicly stated that he was not sure whether or not such a visit actually occurred. Authorities have not located Gosch or confirmed Noreen Gosch's account, and his fate continues to be the subject of speculation, conspiracy theories, and dispute.
The case received publicity in 2006 when his mother claimed to have found photographs on her doorstep depicting Gosch in captivity. Some of the photos received were proven to be children from a case in Florida, but one boy in the photos was never identified. Noreen Gosch insists that boy is her son Johnny.
On Sunday, September 5, 1982, in the suburb of West Des Moines, Johnny Gosch left home before dawn to begin his paper route. Though it was customary for Johnny to awaken his father to help with the route, the boy took only the family's dachshund, Gretchen, with him that morning. Other paper carriers for The Des Moines Register would later report having seen Gosch at the paper drop, picking up his newspapers. It was the last sighting of Gosch that can be corroborated by multiple witnesses.
A neighbor named Mike reported that he observed Gosch talking to a stocky man in a blue two-toned Ford Fairmont with Nebraska plates; Mike did not know what was discussed because he was observing from his bedroom window. As Gosch headed home, Mike noticed another man following Gosch.
John and Noreen Gosch, Johnny's parents, began receiving phone calls from customers along their son's route, complaining of undelivered papers. John performed a cursory search of the neighborhood around 6 a.m. He immediately found Johnny's wagon full of newspapers two blocks from their home.
The Gosches immediately contacted the West Des Moines police department, and reported Johnny's disappearance. Noreen, in her public statements and her book Why Johnny Can't Come Home, has been critical of what she perceives as a slow reaction time from authorities, and of the policy at the time that Gosch could not be classified as a missing person until 72 hours had passed. By her estimation, the police did not arrive to take her report for a full 45 minutes.
Police came to believe that Gosch was kidnapped, but they were unable to establish a viable motive. They turned up little evidence and arrested no suspects in connection with the case.
A few months after his September 1982 disappearance, Noreen Gosch has said her son was spotted in Oklahoma, when a boy yelled to a woman for help before being dragged off by two men.
Over the years, several private investigators have assisted the Gosches with the search for their son. Among them are Jim Rothstein, a retired New York City police detective; and Ted Gunderson, a retired chief of the Los Angeles FBI branch.
In 1984, Gosch's photograph appeared alongside that of Juanita Rafaela Estavez on milk cartons across America; they were the second and third abducted children to have their plights publicized in this way. The first was Etan Patz.
In 1984, another Des Moines-area paperboy disappeared under similar circumstances. Eugene Martin disappeared while delivering newspapers on the south side of Des Moines.
Authorities were unable to prove a connection between the two cases, yet Noreen Gosch claims that she was personally informed of the abduction weeks in advance by a private investigator who was searching for her son.
The 1990 discovery of a body in Mexico, soon identified as John E. Gosch of Washington State, was similar enough to that of Johnny Gosch that it renewed interest in the case at that time.
According to Noreen Gosch's account, she was awakened around 2:30 a.m. one morning in March 1997 by a knock at her apartment door. Waiting outside was Johnny Gosch, now 27, accompanied by a man she had never seen before. Gosch said she immediately recognized her son, who opened his shirt to reveal a birthmark on his chest. "We talked about an hour or an hour and a half. He was with another man, but I have no idea who the person was. Johnny would look over to the other person for approval to speak," says Gosch. "He didn't say where he is living or where he was going."
In a 2005 interview, Gosch said, "The night that he came here, he was wearing jeans and a shirt and had a coat on because it was March. It was cold and his hair was long, it was shoulder-length and it was straight and dyed black." After the visit, she had the FBI create a picture she says looked like Johnny.
Gosch self-published a book in 2000 titled Why Johnny Can't Come Home. The book presents her understanding of what her son went through, based on the original research of various private investigators and her son's visit.
On September 1, 2006, Gosch reported that she found photographs left at her front door, some of which she posted on her website. One color photo shows three boys bound and gagged. She claims that a black-and-white photo appears to show 12-year-old Johnny Gosch with his mouth gagged, his hands and feet tied, and an apparent human brand on his shoulder. A third photo shows a man, possibly dead, who may have something tied around his neck. Mrs. Gosch alleged the man was one of the "perpetrators who molested [my] son".
Gosch later said the first two photos had originated on a website featuring child pornography.
On September 13, an anonymous letter was mailed to Des Moines police.
Someone has played a reprehensible joke on a grieving mother. The photo in question is not one of her son but of three boys in Tampa, Florida about 1979-80, challenging each other to an escape contest. There was an investigation concerning that picture, made by the Hillsborough County (FL) Sheriff's Office. No charges were filed, and no wrongdoing was established. The lead detective on the case was named Zalva. This allegation should be easy enough to check out.
Nelson Zalva, who worked for the Hillsborough County, Florida Sheriff's Office in the 1970s, said the details of the letter were true and adds that he also investigated the black-and-white in "1978 or 1979", before Gosch's disappearance. "I interviewed the kids, and they said there was no coercion or touching. ... I could never prove a crime," Zalva says. When asked for proof that this was indeed the same photo from years before Zalva could never provide any. Noreen Gosch still believes the pictures to be of her son.
The case generated national interest as Noreen Gosch became increasingly vocal about the inadequacy of law enforcement's investigation of missing children cases. She established the Johnny Gosch Foundation in 1982, through which she visited schools and spoke at seminars about the modus operandi of sexual predators. She lobbied for "The Johnny Gosch Bill", state legislation which would mandate an immediate police response to reports of missing children. The bill became law in Iowa in 1984, and similar or identical laws were later passed in Missouri and seven other states.
In August 1984, Noreen Gosch testified in Senate hearings on organized crime, speaking about "organized pedophilia" and its alleged role in her son's abduction. She began receiving death threats. Gosch also testified before the U.S. Department of Justice, which provided $10M to establish the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Gosch was invited to the White House by President Ronald Reagan for the dedication ceremony.
In 1989, Paul Bonacci told his attorney John DeCamp that he had been abducted into a sex ring with Gosch as a teenager and was forced to participate in Gosch's kidnapping.
FBI and local police do not believe that Bonacci is a credible witness in the case.
Bonacci accused Lawrence E. King, the director of the Franklin Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska, of running an underage prostitution ring and victimizing him since an early age.
In 1990, a county grand jury declined to charge King, finding the allegations to be "a carefully crafted hoax". Paul Bonacci and Alisha Owen were indicted on state perjury charges. A federal grand jury also declined to indict anyone for child prostitution but did return indictments against Owen for perjury and King for fraud related to the credit union.
On February 27, 1999, the U.S. District Court of the District of Nebraska awarded Bonacci $1 million in compensatory damages and punitive damages. Bonacci had sued King, who failed to respond to the civil lawsuit. Thus a default judgment was entered against King, who ceased his appeal attempt in early 2000.