Who Took Johnny: The Temptation of Conspiracy and the Power of Denial
On September 5, 1982, 12-year-old paperboy Johnny Gosch arose before sunup and set about his work delivering the Sunday Des Moines Register to the good folks of sleepy, suburban West Des Moines, Iowa. Most times young Johnny would roust the elder John, his father, to accompany him on his route, but Johnny was 12 now and the time had come for him to test his mettle and go it alone, notwithstanding the pleasant company of Gretchen, the family dachshund, scurrying alongside as the two made their way past one quaint split-level after another. With his nifty clapboard wagon in tow, the slats painted a gleaming cherry-red, GOSCH neatly spelled across its front in bold black font, Johnny and Gretchen arrived at the paper-drop, set at the corner of 42nd and Marcourt, no more than a minute down the street from the Gosch family home. There Johnny scooped up the thick bundle of papers, loaded up his wagon, and carried on currying the news to familiar faces in familiar homes.
He hasn’t been seen since.
American parenting hasn’t been the same since, either. Johnny’s disappearance triggered mass hysteria and moral panic among parents nationwide. If a child could vanish without a trace in a place as unremarkable and benign as Des Moines, Iowa, then any parent anywhere could lose their child in the blink of an eye. The abduction marked the advent of “stranger danger,” and in the aftermath, a story would unfold as chilling as it was unbelievable, and one that haunts families in Iowa to this day, perhaps for good reason.
The lurid saga is presented in full in the 2014 documentary, Who Took Johnny, as compelling and spellbinding a documentary as you’ll ever see. The film centers on Johnny’s mother, Noreen, moving from extensive newsreel footage in the days and weeks following her son’s abduction, to interviews in the present, with the aggrieved mother reflecting on the various whipsaw twist and turns the case has taken. Though Noreen more or less functions as the narrator, shepherding the storyline along its disorienting, convoluted chronology, the film will wander off on its own to places you never hoped to go, to meet people you never wanted to meet, and it does so with all with the dizzying inertia of an indescribably sinister conspiracy that will tantalize even the most skeptic viewer.
Watching Who Took Johnny is a nauseating exercise in connecting dots within a maze of other dots. It is best viewed alone, with the lights off, and requires the wearing of sturdy a tin-foil hat, which will be uncomfortable precisely because it fits so comfortably.
Unfortunately, sobering reality returns once you flip the lights back on. Indeed, once light is shone under the rock you knew better than to turn over but did so anyway because morbid curiosity is always so deliciously indulged, you find little more than the usual fetid micro-ecology of insects and parasites.
The film’s dirty secret is that there is no conspiracy, and we’ll probably never know who took Johnny. Still, the what-if’s nag and gnaw. What if any of this is true? This is the only question required to sustain a fanatical following of internet sleuths who will likely never lay the mystery to rest, and Noreen Gosch is as responsible for this increasingly crackpot faction as anyone, breathing new, illusory life into the cold case every few years. Who Took Johnny gives voice once more to her often unfounded, sometimes legitimately nutty claims. It does so under a facade of objectivity, the kind implicitly earned by and associated with documentary filmmakers. It never implies you, the viewer, should be ready to suspend disbelief. But you should. Here’s some reasons why. First though, brew yourself a hot cuppa tea and check on the children.
On the morning in question, several witnesses, mostly in the form of fellow newsboys, report seeing a car pull-up beside Johnny as he begins on his route. The man behind the wheel stops to ask Johnny for directions, spooking the fifth grader, who decides in his unease to return home at once. The car, a blue, two-door Ford Fairmont, speeds away, leaving Johnny unscathed. Seconds later, however, a man emerges from between two houses, snatches Johnny and tosses him into the returning car, which then runs the corner stop sign and disappears into the cover of dawn. By 7 a.m., neighbors begin phoning the Gosches, wondering why their papers haven’t arrived. Alarmed, John Sr. hops in his car and speeds to the street-corner, where he discovers the last known clue of Johnny’s presence: a red wagon sitting inert and unattended, brimming with undelivered newspapers.
Noreen calls the police immediately, beginning what will be an infuriating and constantly adversarial relationship with investigators. For reasons understood by no one, law enforcement in 1982 followed protocol that dictated a 72-hour wait before launching investigation into missing children cases. By the time police get around to searching for clues, they turn up nothing. No crime scene, no remnants of foul play, and no indicator of where to go or what to do next. The presence of absolutely zero evidence or leads of any kind proves to be the one consistency in the case, as even after decades of exhaustive investigation, Des Moines PD remains at a complete loss as to what happened to Johnny Gosch.
Barely two years later, the case takes an unexpected, if not nightmarish turn, when 13-year-old Eugene Martin is plucked off a Des Moines street while delivering papers in the early hours, a bag left behind, half-full of abandoned newspapers, the lone proof that he was ever there. As with Johnny and his father, Martin normally has his step-brother along, but on this morning he works alone. The Gosches latch on to the unmistakably similar case, sinking their hopes in the belief that a break in the latest investigation will lead them to their Johnny. The break never comes, the heightened hopes of the frantic parents crashing back down to a reality devoid of their son.
Eugene Martin’s case has long gone cold, and not unlike Johnny, no one knows where he went or what fate he met.
Ask Noreen Gosch though, and she’ll assert with placid certainty that one is with the other. There is a kind of dazed assuredness about Noreen noticeable from her earliest appearance in Who Took Johnny. Her quiet conviction and staid demeanor betray the look of someone who knows something, something none of the rest of us are privy to. She believes she’s in on a secret, and she backs up her belief with a middle-distance gaze cast forth on a faint ember of confident knowing that you will come to recognize as the film progresses. It’s when she alternates between this — Noreen as sole owner of comforting, dispositive knowledge proving what she wants to believe about Johnny, and Noreen the subject of a self-inflicted brainwashing-as-defense-mechanism, wearing a lifeless, vacant 50-yard stare that belongs more to a lost wanderer groping in the dark for a guide that isn’t there — that you start looking for a place in the story to cast denial as central character. Be patient, as denial will once more prove its formidability and efficiency in insulating incredible beliefs from the credible world. Wait a while and watch as it becomes the star.
In 1985, Noreen will claim, Johnny leaves a handwritten note on a dollar bill taken as change by a grocery clerk in Sioux City, Iowa. “I am alive,” three words enough to pluck the taut string of credulity holding Noreen Gosch together, scribbled just above the signature — “Johnny Gosch.” Three handwriting experts resurrect the Gosch’s hopes for good when they authenticate the signature as Johnny’s. Meanwhile, Noreen receives the occasional phone call she believes to be either from Johnny himself or someone that knows her son’s whereabouts, including one from a man claiming to be Johnny’s kidnapper, calling to boast, “I have Johnny. He’s alive. You can look for him all you want, but you’re never going to find him.” The calls increase proportional to notoriety, which is now nationwide in scope, but authorities can trace none of them. So too with reported sightings of Johnny, concentrated mostly in the South and Southwest. All of the chatter and innuendo, the sporadic and unpredictable hints at proof of life, galvanize the Gosches in their belief that Johnny lives. Especially Noreen.
“When you don’t know, your mind kind of imagines what might be,” Noreen observes, sitting in the living room of Drew and Heather Collins. Noreen’s come to advise and commiserate with the young parents, whose eight-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, vanishes during the filming of Who Took Johnny. On July 13, 2012, Elizabeth and her 12-year-old cousin, Lyric Cook, go for a bike ride and never come home. Before the documentary wraps filming, both girls are found dead in a remote Iowa wildlife area. The case remains unsolved. The timing of the girls’ abduction and murders offers Noreen another opportunity at advocacy, which she has been consumed by since Johnny’s disappearance. Her comment to the Collins parents distinguishes itself as a bit of cryptic foreshadowing. It’s most revealing in its suggestion that like everyone else, Noreen only knows with certainty that Johnny is gone, and little else. Imagination comes in to do the heavy lifting, restoring order from chaos, making sense of the senseless.
Several people would help Noreen in carrying the backbreaking tonnage of uncertainty. Some people would even help her connect the perceived dots, while still others would show up, uninvited, to give her a picture of the whole entire puzzle. One such person is convicted sex offender, Paul Bonacci, who comes out of nowhere in 1991 to claim he was there when Johnny was abducted, working as an accomplice, and that he knows for a fact that Johnny is still alive. While imprisoned in Lincoln, NE, Bonacci goes on tape to tell investigators he helped physically subdue Johnny, forcing him into the car, before chloroforming him to unconsciousness in the back seat. This wasn’t merely a criminal confessing his crime, however. Bonacci’s sudden admission from behind bars pulls back the curtain on an endlessly layered, labyrinthine conspiracy that would implicate high-level power-brokers around the country. Formally diagnosed as having what was then known as Multiple Personality Disorder, Bonacci channels Mark Anderson, his 15-year-old alter-ego borne out of coping with years of sustained sexual abuse. Anderson, glazed over, ashamed, and as fidgety as you’d expect a nervy teen to be, tells police that his role in Johnny’s kidnapping was only one of countless crimes he’d been coerced into at gunpoint by his own abductor, a man known only as The Colonel. The Colonel, it turns out, is the nom de guerre of a high-level operative in a vast organization of predatory pedophiles operating a very lucrative human trafficking operation. Johnny, Bonacci says, was just one of countless small boys swallowed up by the network, and had been bought and sold around the country since his abduction, as Bonacci himself had. Rarely did the overlords of this child-sex ring ever kill their hostages, because they represented valuable property. They needed to be kept alive to generate more pornography that pedophiles would pay high dollar for, to say nothing of auctioning them off to the highest bidder, often wealthy elites ready to shell out a premium for fresh, young flesh. Bonacci’s tale, however incredible, gave final validation to Noreen’s increasingly wishful belief that Johnny was still alive.
Assessing the veracity of Paul Bonacci’s story requires a close look at an explosive scandal unfolding in Omaha, Nebraska between 1988 and 1991, contemporary with Bonacci’s confession. And like Bonacci’s bombshell, the revelation would turn salacious conspiracy at allegations of child prostitution, with young sex slaves pandered to Omaha high society.
Prominent businessman and political figure, Lawrence King, was head of the Franklin Community Federal Credit Union in Omaha from the late eighties to the early nineties. King was a star around town, a bon vivant dressed in designer suits who kept up appearances with all the upper crust. He was also a rising political figure, holding various prominent positions within the Nebraska GOP, even appearing twice at the Republican National Convention to sing the National Anthem. By all accounts, King lived lavishly. Luxury cars, private flights, decadent banquets to cavort with fellow influencers. In hindsight, it must have been apparent that he had some secondary income, and he did — $38 million’s worth, all embezzled from the credit union he was tapped to run. The ensuing investigation and indictment came with allegations no one could have anticipated. According to several witnesses and alleged victims, King was the facilitator of an enormous pedophile operation. Franklin Credit Union had been established as a benefactor of Omaha’s Boys Town, a hallmark of the city widely lauded as one of the world’s best charities for disadvantaged youth. Accusers claimed that King used the partnership with Boys Town to pimp out poor, homeless adolescents to wealthy donors and shot-callers. A two-year investigation followed, examining the validity of claims that span everything from drug-addled orgies to satanic rituals. Multiple plaintiffs testify, under oath, that they were forced into sexual slavery and torture at the hands of paying customers, often at raucous sex parties happening in and around Omaha. The charges dovetail seamlessly with those of Paul Bonacci, who not only says he was lured into the Franklin network himself and sold off to wealthy elites for sexual gratification, but also that Franklin was the hub of a national trafficking network that reached all the way to the White House.
Noreen drives to Lincoln to interview Bonacci herself, and believes every word, with good reason.
Though two of the Franklin accusers would be indicted on perjury charges, with one going to prison for her role in what would finally be dismissed as a hoax, many people still smell a cover-up. Perhaps the most alluring factor about the Franklin scandal is Paul Bonacci himself. So long as you get the story from Bonacci, you’ll find it at least slightly believable. The man is a master raconteur, and when listening to him recount all the horrors, you’re forced to reconcile one of two possibilities: he’s either an amazingly gifted actor, or he’s telling the truth. He cries on command, and has a handle on granular-level specifics of every chapter. He rarely answers with hesitation, is calm and composed, and has been shown ready to back-up his claims with what may pass as proof. Bonacci’s outlandish retellings gained enough traction by 1992 that America’s premier true-crime show came calling. America’s Most Wanted gave Bonnacci a full segment, and the footage is nothing less than bonkers.
Bonacci was sticking to his claim that he and Johnny, along with several other boys, were confined to a hole dug beneath a ranch home in rural Colorado. He doubles down on this claim when he takes AMW to the house. Upon arrival, Bonacci breaks down on cue and nearly hyperventilates, unable to revisit the site of so many unspeakable horrors. Composing himself, he leads the film crew into a scene shown exactly as he’d described it; a pit dug beneath the home, where he says he was stowed away for safe keeping until the next buyer showed up. What Bonacci showed American viewers next was even more harrowing: names and messages carved into wooden joists, which he claimed were desperate breadcrumbs left behind by the victims of commercial pedophilia. But that wasn’t all. There was another alleged victim there that day, a runaway by the name of Jimmy. Jimmy had previously described the house in fine detail, said he too had been stashed there, and bore a branding on his skin to prove it. Known as “The Rocking X,” the brand was seared into the flesh of trafficked children. Bonacci had previously mentioned it to investigators, well before they’d ever heard of Jimmy. As usual, Noreen hung on Bonacci’s every word, even though both the Des Moines PD and the FBI refused to interview him, deeming the felon an un-credible witness. In Noreen Gosch’s eyes, in 1992, that fact probably made Paul Bonacci more credible as a witness, as conspiratorial intrigue had ratcheted up full-throttle.
During the course of all of the stranger-than-fiction developments, Noreen hired a private investigator. Completely distrustful of law enforcement by now, she wanted her own inquest done by her own, handpicked investigator. She settled on Ted Gunderson, a sound choice to be sure. Gunderson had a dazzling resume — an exemplary 30-year career as an FBI special agent, even being interviewed in 1979 as a candidate for FBI Director. He initiates his own investigation into Johnny’s kidnapping with all the sincerity you’d expect from a career gumshoe. His findings, however, were not what anyone would’ve expected, save for Noreen. The former G-man would make incendiary claims of a shocking conspiracy of silence, implicating major figures in everything from rape, human trafficking, putting children up for auction as sex slaves, to ritualistic satanic sacrifices. Today, the conclusions reached by Gunderson read more like an exercise in affirmation than information. Even so, his presence in the timeline bespeaks the supporting pillar of Johnny Gosch Conspiracy: serious men with serious jobs lending serious credibility whenever necessary.
There’s the effusive, ebullient John deCamp, for example, Nebraska state Senator and Paul Bonacci’s attorney. He wrote this. There’s Nick Bryant, an articulate and thoughtful person who authored this (both speak at length in the documentary). And maybe most of all, Ted Gunderson. What Who Took Johnny doesn’t bother to tell you is that all of these men are questionable for one reason or another. Not least Gunderson, who, putting it mildly, did not age well, going to his grave in 2011 as a certifiable crazy person who believed, among other insane things, that the government was behind the 1993 World Trade bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 (of course), chem-trails, mass satanic sacrifices at the highest levels, and, most relevantly, that Johnny Gosch was smuggled into a sophisticated child-sex trafficking network.
In 1999, Paul Bonacci, transformed into a bona-fide cult figure, sues disgraced banker and alleged sadist, Lawrence King. The documentary makes mention of this only to tell you that Bonacci is awarded $1 million as a result. What it, again, conveniently neglects to tell you is that the ruling was a default judgement, as King never bothered to respond to the suit. Bonacci’s never seen a dime, and never will. True to form, though, the case required testimony from Noreen, and she blew it open with a heretofore unheard bit of sensationalist information. Asked by the judge whether she had seen Johnny since his disappearance, Noreen paused, glanced at deCamp, the attorney, and answered yes, she had seen Johnny herself. She hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, she said, because she knew doing so would further endanger Johnny. Her story was that Johnny had knocked on her door in the wee hours of the night, sometime in 1996. He hung out for over an hour, detailing to his mother all of the abuse and torture endured during 14 years of sex slavery. He made sure Noreen understood she could say nothing to anyone, before disappearing into the night once more. The drama had come full circle. Johnny hasn’t been since for the second time.
The most recent bizarre wrinkle in the case comes in 2006, when a mysterious envelope is dropped on Noreen’s door-step. The contents are grotesque — several photos of male juveniles bound and gagged, staring wide-eyed and helpless at the camera. One of the boys vaguely resembles Johnny, and Noreen is once again unwavering in her belief that the clue involves her son. She knows without a doubt that one of the photos depicts her son. The origin of the ghastly photographs has never been traced, but its implications have been debunked. The boys are from Florida, and were part of a case worked by Florida detective, Nelson Zalva, in 1979. Zalva vividly remembers when the photos first surfaced, and his inquiry leads him to discover that they’re merely the result of innocent child’s play, the kids hog-tieing one another to see which was the better Houdini. That doesn’t make them any less chilling to look upon, however.
Conspiracies flower from a seed of truth. In this case: Johnny Gosch was abducted. From there, the grand conspiracy metastasizes, malignant, in a factual vacuum. As always, a conspiracy worthy of its name will reach its zenith with the old conspiracy standby — the Central Intelligence Agency. When it comes to the CIA, its actual, very real mind control operation, known as MK Ultra, is an easy catch-all for just about any conspiracy theorist. Ultimately, for a Gosch truther, a nationwide child sex trade must top-out at the Oval Office.
Sometimes seeds end as seeds, without the requisite environment to fulfill their full potential as flora. Sometimes, terrible, senseless things cannot be explained or comprehended.
Science journalist Maggie Koerth-Baker took a deep-dive into the psychology of conspiracy, noting conspiracy’s counterintuitive immunity to the light-speed proliferation of information. While we might assume that the internet would extinguish the flames of spurious speculations, the opposite seems to be true. A deluge of countervailing information only influences conspiracy subscribers insofar as it emboldens a deeper distrust and trench mentality. Perhaps more importantly, Koerth-Baker notes the profile of your average conspiracy watchdog:
“Conspiracy theories also seem to be compelling to those with lower self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.”
How disconcerting then, that some 63 percent of the American voting populace puts stock in at least one political conspiracy theory.
Lower self-worth, no sense of agency, uncertainty and powerlessness. All of these surely paint a portrait of a mother helpless to protect her son. For these, Noreen Gosch is not to be blamed. Where her fault may lie, along with the film so loudly and uncritically amplifying her voice, is perhaps finding singular succor in notoriety and publicity. I still can’t say I blame her, even while begrudgingly awaiting the next invisible shoe to drop attached to the next invisible boogeyman. Even while being steadfastly convinced that if Johnny Gosch ever makes his way back home, it will be in a small box.