An Anguished Mother Refuses to Give Up Hope for the Son Who Vanished Six Years Ago

updated 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At 16 o'clock in the morning on Sept. 5, 1982, Johnny Gosch, a husky, freckle-faced 12-year-old, left his parents asleep in their West Des Moines, Iowa, home and set out on his Sunday paper route. His parents, Noreen and John Gosch, have not seen him since.

No sooner had the Gosches learned of their son's disappearance than their fear was compounded by fury and frustration with local police, who they felt were treating the case as that of a runaway. By the time police began a full-scale investigation 72 hours later, leads on two men who had been seen talking to Johnny had grown cold.

Today, partly as a result of the Gosches' insistent lobbying, such dilatory procedures are no longer followed, and police in many states—Iowa included—begin searching for a missing child immediately. "Also," says Noreen, 45, a secretary, "there are new guidelines that allow the FBI to enter a case immediately." In 1984 the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was set up in cooperation with the Justice Department to act as a clearinghouse for information on such children. Their active caseload today includes nearly 9,000 missing children, but the total number missing nationally is believed to be higher. (If you recognize Johnny Gosch's picture or have information about him or other missing children, call the center at 1-800-843-5678.)

Such advances offer only limited consolation to the Gosches and their other children, a daughter, now 25, and a son, 24, who in addition to living with continuing uncertainty about Johnny's fate have had to deal with crank calls, death threats and exploitation by people trying to capitalize on their desperation. The stress severely strained the marriage of Noreen and John, 44, a salesman for an agricultural supply company, and the expenses of publicizing the case and hiring a private investigator have depleted their savings. By holding fund-raisers and selling candy, friends and relatives have helped the Gosches raise the $200,000 they have spent on their cause so far.

The Gosches will not give up. Johnny's bedroom is just as it was the morning he disappeared, and a porch light is always left burning. "Nobody has presented any evidence that Johnny is dead," says Noreen, "and until they do, I will continue to believe he is alive." She spoke about her son's disappearance and its aftermath with correspondent Civia Tamarkin.

I never thought anything like this could ever happen to my child, especially living in the kind of quiet, peaceful neighborhood that we do. To this day, there are moments when I think it is all a bad dream, and then reality comes flooding back.

Johnny was in junior high school and wanted to have a paper route so he could start earning a little money of his own. During the week he delivered the papers in the afternoon, but on Sunday mornings he had to leave when it was still dark and the streets were empty. That concerned me, but my husband said he would go with Johnny, and that became the pattern.

On this particular Sunday, however, that's not what happened. The night before, Johnny complained that he was the biggest kid picking up papers and he wanted to do the route by himself. We said no, but the next morning Johnny went off alone without waking his father. We were awakened by the phone about 7 a.m. as neighbors called to say they hadn't got their papers. At first we assumed Johnny had overslept, but his bed was empty and our dachshund, Gretchen, was gone. Johnny always took her with him on his route, so we figured that's where he was, and John took off in the car to go help Johnny. A while later John returned to the house. His face was just white and he said, "Johnny's gone." A block and a half from our house he had found Johnny's wagon full of papers. The dog wandered home a little later.

My husband called the police, and I began phoning the other newsboys who picked up their papers at the same corner. They told me about a man who had pulled up in a car supposedly to ask Johnny for directions. A short time later, the man came back. The other boys said Johnny thought there was something weird about this guy, and he told them, "I don't like this. I'm taking my papers and going home." One of the boys heard our dog growling, and when he looked up, he saw a second, very tall man following Johnny and attempting to talk to him. The man followed Johnny around the corner and out of sight. Then the boys heard a car door slam. That noise also woke up a kid in a nearby house. He looked out of the window and saw a blue, two-tone car run the stop sign and speed away.

The whole abduction sequence took no longer than 12 minutes. By the time the police arrived at our house, I had all the information from the other delivery boys including a description of the car and a partial license-plate number. But the police told me they would not run a motor vehicle check until Wednesday, 72 hours later. Instead they asked whether Johnny was unhappy at home. We had all this evidence to support foul play, and they kept asking questions as though Johnny had run away.

Our friends helped us organize a neighborhood search that fanned out to the river bottoms and a state park five miles away. Nothing of Johnny's was ever found, not even his newspaper bag. On the second night it began to rain. It was a cold rain, and all I could think about was Johnny lying hurt somewhere in a field wondering if we were still looking for him. My heart was just breaking, and I kept thinking, "I'm not going to be able to handle this." Our whole family was desolate, but the idea that he might be dead never really hit us.

At first the shock of living without our child dominated every thought and feeling. John and I felt guilty for every comfort we had that Johnny might not have. John began to withdraw, and I felt that I had lost my husband as well as my son. His feelings were numbed from grief and despair. Finally I said to him, "Our son is out there and he needs our help." He realized I was right, and it rekindled his fighting spirit.

During the first week we contacted the FBI. When they told us they did not expect to be actively involved in the case, we contacted the press and gave out pictures of Johnny. We hired an artist to sketch the man in the blue car, and we had a first run of 10,000 posters printed with Johnny's picture, which we mailed to police, coroners, gas stations and bus stations around the country.

We knew that we had to be the ones to push the investigation. I kept in touch with people at various newspapers, and John and I appeared on television shows like Phil Donahue and Hour Magazine. But because of my criticism of the police, I became a public target. I was branded a hysterical mother by some policemen, and a few residents called me a kook. I cried myself to sleep many nights. I couldn't understand why people hated me so much for just wanting my son back.

A month after the kidnapping we decided to hire a private detective because we had so many leads coming in from around the country. Most of them centered in the Southwest—in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. There were sightings of a boy in the company of a man who resembled the composite drawing. We pursued each lead as though it were the one that would give us the answer. Our hopes would be built up, and then the bottom would drop out. It was devastating, but eventually we learned to approach each sighting aware that it might end up to be nothing. But at the same time I could feel my heart beating a little faster. I felt a little lighter, like we were going to get Johnny back.

Also in October a man phoned demanding $10,000 for Johnny's return. He said he would leave a note with instructions in a telephone booth several miles from our home. I found the note exactly where he said it would be. It said I was to drive alone to a certain area of the city and deposit the money by 1:00 a.m. I called the authorities immediately, but they didn't have enough time to set things up. We missed the deadline, and the man called again and said, "You waited too long, lady. You won't get your kid back now."

As we approached the first anniversary of Johnny's kidnapping, it just ripped our hearts out. It hurt to look at his pictures and know he had missed so much. What kind of conditions was he living under? Might we recover him and find that he had been put through so much that he would never be able to have a normal life? Those kinds of things just haunted us. To add to our stress, people would call and say Johnny was dead and laugh, or they would describe him as being in all sorts of horrible situations. The police traced the calls. Many were made by local people—some adults, some kids.

In June 1984 we got a call from a local man who claimed he had information about Johnny and wanted to help. We met with him and became suspicious because he knew so much about the case. The police started monitoring him. Soon, I started getting phone threats. A male caller with an unfamiliar voice said, "Why don't you drop the case before you get hurt, Mrs. Gosch?" The calls continued for months, with someone breathing on the other end and hanging up. Within 20 minutes of the call a man we didn't recognize would appear in our backyard and throw rocks at the windows. We called the police, but they could never catch him.

Then in August 1985 I heard from a Tulsa man who said he had information that could close the case. He told me to meet him at a Tulsa hotel and what airline to take. The FBI checked, and indeed the man had made a reservation for me. The decision was made to send a policewoman in my place. The man met her and was arrested, convicted of fraud and sent to prison. This incident made us feel all the more that our personal safety was now at stake, so with police consent I held a press conference and said we knew who Johnny's kidnapper was. The local man police had been watching left town and the threats and harassment stopped, a further indication of his involvement. This man is back in Des Moines now. The police can't prove anything against him, so it is still a waiting game, and it may be that way for years.

This past February we received a typed letter, postmarked from a western city, supposedly from Johnny. It starts out by saying he was forced to do many things that disgusted him and that he hopes we will never forget him and will continue to love him even though he will not be permitted to return home. He talks about his hair being dyed and his looks being changed. The thing that really hit us was the way the letter was signed, "Your son, Johnny Gosch." Johnny was the only one of our children who ever signed notes that way. We used to make it a family joke, telling him he didn't have to give us his first and last names and sign things "Your son," because we knew who he was. When I asked the FBI if they thought Johnny wrote, it, they said they were keeping an open mind.

At the time Johnny was taken, nothing much was known about children being trafficked through the country for prostitution and pornography or about organized pedophile rings. Now that we know about these things, it gives more credibility to the idea that Johnny may be alive somewhere, caught up in this awful chain.

Six months after Johnny was kidnapped, our private detective received information about an auction that was being held in Houston. He was told that American boys between the ages of 10 and 14 were being sold to foreign buyers. The detective had a contact who had gotten into the auction and agreed to buy Johnny back if he was on the block that night. But Johnny wasn't there. John and I have spent hours going through the porn magazines where missing kids have been known to show up. So far, nothing with Johnny's picture has surfaced. It still may. I have to have something to cling to.

There hasn't been a day when Johnny has been out of my thoughts. I keep wondering what he looks like. If he's alive, he's 18 and looks like a man, maybe with a beard. But in our minds Johnny will always be 12 years old, laughing and happy like he was. We've lived without Johnny a long time now. It's not new to us, but it still hurts.

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