WEST DES MOINES (AP) — It's been 24 years since Johnny Gosch disappeared from his suburban Des Moines neighborhood, leaving behind only his newspaper wagon and a mystery that still haunts parents across the country.
Now a puzzling new development offers hope that police could finally determine what happened to the 12-year-old boy, but experts say the fear engendered by this and several other cases from the early 1980s has forever changed parenting.
“The fear that parents now walk around with is unlike anything that we've experienced in the past,” said Paula S. Fass, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.”
Fass said the apparent abduction of Gosch on Sept. 5, 1982, from the affluent suburb of West Des Moines, left parents everywhere feeling vulnerable. That won't change even if investigators can unravel the mystery.
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Police got a break last week when a package, with no name or return address, was found at Noreen Gosch's front door. Inside were two photographs that Gosch says show her son shortly after he was kidnapped.
“When I saw them I could barely breath,” she said.
The images are horrific:
One is black and white and shows a boy, apparently Johnny, bound and gagged on a bed. He is wearing sweat pants — the same ones, his mother believes, that he wore the morning he disappeared.
The other photo is in color and shows the same boy in a similar pose with two other, unidentified boys who are also bound and gagged.
Investigators in Iowa's Division of Criminal Investigation are scrutinizing the pictures in search of fingerprints and DNA evidence as well as information about when the photos were taken, said John Quinn, the DCI's special agent in charge of the case.
“You have to be meticulous, methodical. You don't want to overlook anything,” Quinn said.
Analysts have determined the photos haven't been doctored, Quinn said.
“It's the source of the photographs that we're looking at,” he said. “Are they connected to any other cases, and is it Johnny Gosch in the photos?”
The latest development marks another odd twist in a case that in part spawned a national obsession with child abductions. In the era before amber alerts and 24-hour news coverage, Johnny Gosch literally became a face for missing children — his image was one of the first to be put on a milk carton.
Sarah Chase, a 29-year-old mother of two young children, grew up in Iowa and remembers the Johnny Gosch abduction and that two years later of Eugene Martin, also kidnapped while delivering newspapers in Des Moines.
Such high-profile cases are the reason she keeps a close eye on her kids.
“Those are always on my mind — people that are taken right from the street,” Chase said as she pushed her youngest in a stroller at a West Des Moines mall. “I think it is the high-profile cases that kinda get you nervous.”
Parents now must take a different approach to parenting than those in earlier eras, she said.
Fass, the author, blamed the changed motives for kidnappings for parents' fears. Whereas children once were abducted for ransom, now they seemed to be plucked from suburban streets for sexual perversion.
“Once every child becomes vulnerable, then it can become an obsession among all parents because it can happen to your child,” she said.
To a large extent, the fear of stranger abductions overlooks the fact that most kidnappings are committed by family members, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Justice. One of the studies released in 2002 found that in 1999 an estimated 797,500 children were reported missing, with 58,200 children abducted by non-family members.
The study said 115 children that year were the victims of the most serious, long-term non-family abductions called “stereotypical kidnappings.”
Rob Baller, a University of Iowa sociology professor, said widespread news coverage of cases such as Gosch's generate fear among parents and a message that kids should be wary of strangers.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children takes a different approach. It encourages parents to build children's confidence and self-esteem, qualities it says are needed for children to respond correctly to dangerous situations. The center also reminds parents that acquaintances often are the ones who hurt children.
Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based organization, said Johnny Gosch's case was one of a handful during the 1980s that prompted the nation to improve its response to abductions and forced parents to be more alert.
“Are America's parents more vigilant today than they were 24 years ago? Absolutely, and in my judgment, most of that's a good thing,” he said. “I don't believe we live in a time today where kids can basically be left to their own devices and parents not parent.”
In Iowa, the Gosch case led to passage in 1984 of the Johnny Gosch Bill, requiring immediate involvement of police when a child is missing. Previously there was a 72-hour waiting period. Similar laws were adopted in at least eight other states, according to The Johnny Gosch Foundation Web site.
Noreen Gosch, an assistant manager at a Des Moines-area store, says she is proud that her son's abduction may have helped protect other children. Still, she is haunted by Johnny's disappearance — feelings reawakened by the recent photos.
“I kept looking at Johnny's little face in the black and white photographs and I kept wondering if he was sitting there thinking, 'Are they going to kill me? Will they find me?”' she said. “It really is so hard. Every time I look at them I practically get sick.”
What happened to her son has been the subject of conjecture for years. Soon after the freckle-faced, gap-toothed boy disappeared, his wagon filled with Sunday newspapers was found near his West Des Moines home, but few other clues have been discovered.
Noreen Gosch believes her son was taken by child pornographers and forced into some form of sexual slavery. She has told authorities that her son showed up at her door in 1997 with a stranger, saying he feared for his life and wouldn't give details about his life.
No witnesses have corroborated Noreen Gosch's account. Johnny's father, now divorced from Gosch, has said he's not sure the visit ever occurred.
Gosch also believes her son's disappearance is connected with the apparent kidnapping of Eugene Martin, abducted two years after Johnny disappeared. Like Gosch, Martin was on his paper route in the early morning.
Authorities say they've never been sure if the two cases are connected.
Whatever happened to her son, Gosch doesn't know why the new photos have surfaced.
She believes the pictures are real but questions their purpose. They may be a clue that she can't quite understand.
“I have no idea,” she says. “I'm as shocked as anyone else.”
The Johnny Gosch Foundation: http://www.johnnygosch.com/
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com/
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