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Aug. 22, 2022

Terrifying & True | The Missing Paperboys of Des Moines

Terrifying & True | The Missing Paperboys of Des Moines

Tonight we are going to dive into the details of the most famous incident of "Stranger Danger" in American history. The disappearance of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin captivated and terrified millions of family and change the way policing is handled...

Tonight we are going to dive into the details of the most famous incident of "Stranger Danger" in American history. The disappearance of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin captivated and terrified millions of family and change the way policing is handled in the midwest and eventually the rest of the United States.

Learn all the details this infamous incident and listen right now!

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Produced by Daniel Wilder

Executive Producer Rob Fields

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In the early 1980s, two young boys went missing under eerily similar circumstances. 12-year-old Johnny Gosch disappeared after delivering copies of the local newspaper on his usual route in Des Moines, Iowa. Two years later, 13-year-old Eugene Martin disappeared while also working as a paperboy in Des Moines. 


Both boys vanished without a trace, only leaving behind their carrier bags full of undelivered newspapers. While these two cases can easily be seen as being connected, the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s saw a drastic increase in missing children. After one million children went missing from their homes and neighborhoods, the term “stranger danger” was coined, along with the attempt to broadcast the missing on milk cartons; Johnny Gosch being one of the first ones. 


This wasn’t the only national change, though. Because of the two missing paperboys, new laws and practices were adopted that would lead to an increase in children being rescued and even prevent them from disappearing at all. 


This is the revolutionary case of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin. 


Section 1: Johnny Gosch’s Disappearance

Just like the countless other boys at 12 years old in 1982, Johnny Gosch would deliver newspapers to earn money. Each morning he’d wake himself before the sun rose, grab his canvas delivery bag, and begin his morning paper route—with the help and company of his dog Gretchen. The morning of Sunday, September 5, was no different. 


Around 5:45 a.m, Johnny walked out of his suburban home in West Des Moines, Iowa. By 6:00 a.m, he’d arrived at a street corner to meet a delivery van who’d drop off bundles of the Des Moines Register. He and another young boy began sorting through the papers and folding them. After this, the boys went on their separate routes, tossing papers onto the porches of their well-known neighbors. 


About an hour and a half later, a Des Moines resident phoned Johnny’s parents asking where their morning paper was; they hadn’t seen Johnny pass by their house. 


Johnny was incredibly punctual and this call was certainly concerning. So, Johnny’s father, John Sr., left his home to search for his son, himself. Just a few blocks from his home, John discovered Johnny’s red wagon, piled high with newspapers, and abandoned on a street corner. After his dog, Gretchen, returned home alone around 8:30 a.m, his mother, Noreen, called the police. 


Section 2: The Investigation and Search for Johnny

In the early 1980s, law enforcement agencies across the United States were still using the 24-to-72-hour mandatory waiting period rule before officially filing a missing person report. This practice even stood with cases of missing minors and the police, very often, treated these adolescents as runaways if there were no clear indications otherwise. Johnny, unfortunately, fell under this practice. 


Officers from the West Des Moines Police Department didn’t arrive at the Gosch family home until 45 minutes after Noreen had made the concerning call. Once they did arrive, the interviewer asked the most frustrating questions a parent can hear when their child’s gone missing. “Has your son ever run away before?” 


After Noreen’s motherly instincts pushed for police involvement, 30 officers were summoned to the area to help friends and neighbors search for the missing boy. However, they treated it as something of little importance. The police department and Department of Criminal Investigation were opposed to involving the FBI. They were even quoted as telling the Gosch’s, “We do not consider Johnny to be in danger, until you prove his life is in danger.” 


Even after witnesses came forward with information about strange vehicles asking Johnny for directions at 6:00 in the morning, the police were reluctant. Johnny was spotted giving directions to a motorist just after receiving his bundle of newspapers. Shortly after this, John Rossi, a local, watched as a man in a blue car drove up to Johnny and began conversing with him. John thought this was a strange interaction because of how early it was, but after the car left, so did John Rossi. And that was, supposedly, the last time Johnny was seen before vanishing. 


Johnny’s case grew colder as the weeks passed. No trace of Johnny, no leads, and no suspects. Noreen and John launched their own program to help fund searches for Johnny: The Johnny Gosch Foundation. Along with this, they launched an organization called the “In Defense of Children” program where they would share child safety information in an attempt to prevent Johnny’s fate from happening to others. 


Johnny’s case quickly made headlines across the nation, solely from the efforts of Johnny’s parents. Law enforcement were still acting as if Johnny was a runaway, so Noreen and John pushed for airtime on television and distributed over 10,000 missing person posters with Johnny’s picture. 


Although the Gosch’s were receiving a tremendous amount of support through the media, they also received a number of unwanted calls. False trails and cruel troll calls became normal for them. Numerous tips also came in with the caller claiming to be a psychic and knowing exactly what happened to Johnny, but each lead turned up nothing. 


In June of 1984, the Gosch’s, along with other parents of missing children, helped to establish The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; the program that now leads the fight against abduction, abuse, and exploitation. Shortly after this, the Gosch’s lobbied for The Johnny Gosch Bill in Iowa, which forced police to immediately respond and take action when a child was reported missing. It was signed into Iowa on July 1, 1984. 


Just 43 days later, this bill would become of use. 


Section 3: Eugene Martin’s Disappearance

In the early morning hours of August 12, 1984, 13-year-old Eugene Martin began his day just as Johnny had, though he was delivering on the southside of Des Moines, rather than the west. Around 5:00 a.m, Eugene walked out of his house and made the short commute to the corner where he’d meet the delivery van driver. At around 5:15 a.m, he collected the bundles of The Des Moines Register and began sorting and folding them. 


It would later be discovered that several passersby witnessed Eugene talking to a man while he stuffed his delivery bag with papers. This was reported as seeming to be a “friendly” interaction and lacked strangeness. 


Close to 6:00 a.m, a local woman from Des Moines called Eugene’s paper route manager to ask why Eugene hadn’t delivered her paper yet. Assuming 

The 13-year-old had overslept, the manager went to the corner where Eugene met the delivery van and found his delivery bag filled with rolled papers inside. The manager finished the task and delivered the papers himself, thinking Eugene had simply bailed. 


After this, the manager went to Martin’s family home to report this to Eugene’s father, Don. Once he relayed the information, Don was immediately concerned. This behavior was certainly unlike Eugene who was a responsible and timely young boy. Don quickly left his home and began searching the southside neighborhood, but to no avail. At around 8:40 a.m, Don phoned the police. 


This was the first time The Johnny Gosch Bill was put to the test. The Des Moines Police Department immediately responded by sending out all-point bulletins, setting up roadblocks, and canvassing the neighborhoods; all within less than an hour. By the afternoon, the FBI became involved. 


The now retired Officer James Rowley was one of the first officers on the scene. He recalled how quickly the department reacted and how, in his words, “a lot of shoe leather went into the canvases.” 


The search stretched from Iowa all the way to Mexico and Canada. Officer Rowley followed and chased down between 2,000 to 3,000 leads, but none were credible. As did Johnny’s, Eugene’s case grew colder as the months went on. And although the two cases closely resembled one another, authorities never formally connected the two. 


A few months after Eugene’s disappearance, a local Des Moines grocery store began printing Eugene and Johnny’s photos along with reward information on their paper bags, in an attempt to attract tips and leads. This sudden spark in Johnny’s case gave Noreen Gosch hope that somebody would come forward with something, but she never received that call. 


Section 4: The Milk Carton Program

Shortly after this, Anderson Erickson Dairy, a local Des Moines milk company, was the first dairy business to print photographs of missing children on its milk cartons. An employee and friend of the Martin family suggested this and the photos were displayed on the sides of their half-gallon cartons. Next to Eugene’s and Johnny’s photos were short bios of them and reward information. 


The following week, another Des Moines dairy company began printing the same information, as well. The campaign spread from Iowa to Illinois and all the way to California. By January of 1985, the National Child Safety Council began a nationwide “Missing Children Milk Carton Program.” By this time, 700 of the 1,600 independent dairy companies adopted the practice. 


Although this trickled into the mid-1990s, the milk carton campaign was short-lived and only was widely known and practiced for about six months. 


The timing and logistics that went into the printing process played a huge role in why the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children abandoned the program. The production and distribution time was painfully slow and many times missing children returned home before their photos appeared on a milk carton. This along with the companies converting from paper cartons to plastic jugs halted the campaign.  


The program did, however, serve as an important precursor to the Amber Alert System, which was more effective and still used today. This system helps law enforcement agencies and media outlets distribute news of child abductions immediately. 


Section 5: Sightings of Eugene and Johnny?

Though the milk carton program gave neither of the boys’ investigation any new leads, Noreen Gosch continued to hold out hope for Johnny. After 15 years of advocating for her son and other missing children, she reported a shocking story to the police. 


One early morning in March of 1997, Noreen told authorities she heard a knock on her door around 2:30 a.m. When she answered the door, she claimed she immediately recognized the man, who was then in his late twenties with long, grown-out hair. To prove he was her missing son, he lifted his shirt to reveal a birthmark on his chest, the same one Johnny was born with. 


Noreen reported Johnny was accompanied by another man, whom she didn’t know, and who didn’t speak. She spoke to her son for an hour and a half, but only with the approval of the man. Noreen didn’t go to the police with this information right away because Jonny told her it would put both of their lives in danger if she did. However, she was too desperate for answers. 


The West Des Moines Police Department wouldn’t comment on this sighting. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone told reporters that he is glad that Noreen believes her son is alive, but he thinks Johnny would be safer coming to the police.


Dozens of people came to police claiming to have seen the boys as far away as Africa, Canada, and Mexico. And Noreen Gosch insists to this day that she believes her boy was taken by a ring of international child sex traffickers. 


 A man from Michigan, Robert Meier, came forward with information for the Gosch family and claimed to be able to find their son. After a secret meeting in a Kansas City, Missouri airport on July 14th, the Gosch’s gave Robert $11,000, after he promised he’d locate their son. After failing to deliver, Robert was suspected of defrauding the family. And though he wasn’t arrested, reporters were able to obtain a 45-minute long interview with him where he told an unbelievable story. 


Robert claimed to have been in Mexico, for reasons he wouldn’t release. He told the interviewer that at the house he was staying in, there were many kids beaten and chained in the basement. He claimed to have information that was unknown to the public, like Johnny’s scar on his ankle from a car accident and details of the blue car that was seen next to Johnny before he disappeared. However, it’s believed this information was obtained from the Gosch’s when they met at the airport. 


Although Robert Meier was adamant about seeing Johnny Gosch inside this house thousands of miles away, the tale was far too unbelievable for the police department or FBI to investigate. 


Conclusion / Outro

Today, Johnny Gosch has been missing for 40 years and Eugene Martin for 36. Both cases are still technically open in the Des Moines Police Department, but both are considered cold. And although Noreen Gosch still believes her son is alive, after the sighting of him in 1997, it’s believed by many, and the authorities, that both boys aren’t alive anymore. 


Nearly two decades after Eugene disappeared, his parents passed away, both of them believing Eugene likely wasn’t still alive. Noreen, however, still fights for her son, along with other missing children and their parents, today. She still holds out hope that one day she’ll learn the answers about her son’s fate. 


Although it took such tragic disappearances, the two missing paperboys revolutionized the way authorities handle missing person cases. Many have never heard of these two names from the small Midwestern city, but many lives have been saved because of them.