Forty years ago, I stumbled into one of Iowa’s great mysteries

August 30, 2022 8:00 am

Johnny Gosch, a Des Moines paperboy, went missing Sept. 5, 1982. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch using photos from Iowa missing persons poster and Canva)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Through sheer happenstance, I was the first journalist to stumble upon the scene of a tragic set of circumstances, that 40 years later is still a deep wound on our state that time has not healed.

On the Sunday morning before Labor Day, my wife and I were driving to church in West Des Moines. One block from the church parking lot, I saw some people and a few police officers standing on a corner. It all looked calm. I didn’t see any wrecked vehicles. Nothing on fire.

So, I pulled into the lot, and as my wife walked into church, I – ever the nosy reporter -strolled down the block to ask one of those bystanders what was going on. He told me the paperboy hadn’t come home from his morning delivery route. In fact, the Sunday Registers were still stacked on the corner. Did he run away, I asked. Nobody knows – the neighbor said.  What’s his name?  Johnny Gosch.

Well, I thought, kids run away every now and then. They usually come home after a while.  But, to be careful, I called the newsroom and suggested they send somebody out to get video and ask more questions. Then, I went to church.

It was Sept. 5, 1982. Forty years have gone by, and nobody knows where Johnny is – at least the police don’t, and his parents don’t. Neither do the rest of us.

I was the Sunday night anchor on KCCI-TV in those days. I reported for my shift at 2 p.m. that day and found out the paperboy still hadn’t come home. I grabbed the phone book – yes, the phone book – looked up the Gosch home in West Des Moines and placed a call. Johnny’s mom, Noreen, answered the phone. I asked if we could send out a reporter and photographer to interview her about her son.

She answered firmly – I’ve never forgotten this – something to the effect that we could come out and get a photograph of Johnny, but she wasn’t doing any interviews. She said, “We not turning my son’s disappearance into a media circus.”

A few years later, I sat in the newsroom watching a documentary on national television about the disappearance of Johnny Gosch. Noreen didn’t know that first Sunday afternoon – she couldn’t know – how awful things would get for her and her family. How Johnny’s disappearance would at times become the media circus of all media circuses.

This story had it all.  An unsolved mystery.  A little boy.  A grieving family.  A slow-to-react police department. Pictures on milk cartons. Private investigators. Psychics.  Jailhouse hints dropped by a guy with multiple personalities. A mother who quickly figured out that the way to keep the case in the public eye, and to keep pressure on police, was to keep her son’s story alive as long as possible. She became adept at using media outlets’ competitiveness with one another to feed stories and watch others try to catch up. In my view, some reporters in town exploited Johnny’s story to bolster TV news ratings.

Forty years later and we still don’t know the answer to “Where’s Johnny Gosch?”  Noreen claims that he dropped by the house at 2:30 a.m. about 15 years after his disappearance, to say he was alive and had been taken by a child sex ring. It could be true. Who knows?  If he’s alive, he would be 52 years old today.  I’ve often wondered why a grown man couldn’t do more to assure his parents he’s okay, but that assumes a lot. It assumes he’s okay. It assumes he hasn’t suffered some psychological trauma. It assumes he’s alive.

Noreen is not your typical grieving mom. She’s assertive. She got under law enforcement’s skin with her demands. She can rub people the wrong way. But she’s also been a supportive person to other families who have had loved ones disappear. She’s gotten laws changed for the better. She has adapted to an unthinkable tragedy. And she has never given up hope.  I’ve always had the utmost empathy for her. She held it together far better than most of us would have under such circumstances.

How life has changed in 40 years. When Register paperboy Eugene Martin disappeared on a Sunday morning two years later, we all had to face the fact of something awful going on.  Something we’d prefer not to think about. Some dark corner of society had visited our town and taken two kids.

They say time heals all wounds. Not this one. Life has moved on since Johnny and Eugene disappeared, but it’s still a deep wound on our community.

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Dave Busiek
Dave Busiek

Dave Busiek spent 43 years working in Iowa radio and television newsrooms as a reporter, anchor and the last 30 years as news director of KCCI-TV, the CBS affiliate in Des Moines. In that role, he planned coverage of the Iowa caucuses, the floods of 1993 during which 250,000 central Iowans lost drinking water for 12 days, and organized the first national debate between Democratic candidates for president in 2015. He served as national board chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. In 2014, he was Broadcasting and Cable Magazine’s News Director of the Year. He was inducted into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2018 and is a recipient of the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s Jack Shelley award. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He retired at the end of 2018. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collaborative and his blog, "Dave Busiek on Media" appears on Substack.