I was swinging during recess at Mt. Zion Grade School in Mt. Zion, Ill. in 1987 when a suspicious van slowly and malevolently drove the perimeter of the chain-link fence that demarcated the safety of our playground from the outside world. Maybe it was instinct, or perhaps it was simply our parents’ cautioning put into action, but my playmates and I began to cluster around our teacher like zebras sensing an impending attack from a lion. Who first noticed the van, I don’t recall. I don’t remember if our teacher felt the same sense of alarm that we children did, but we knew: strangers can and will kidnap you.
Twenty-five years later I’m sitting in a restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa having a drink with a group of friends. We’re chatting about nothing in particular—who’s aged well and who’s selling their house—350 miles and over two decades away from my six-year-old self who huddled closely to a first-grade teacher on the steps of Mt. Zion Grade School and watched a white utility van dawdle by.
“You know, I was a paperboy when Johnny Gosch went missing,” my friend on my right leans in and whispers to the table in a tone meant to impart both his seriousness and apprehension in making such a statement. The chatter immediately ceases and I scan the faces of the men seated around me as each visibly struggles to craft a response. The atmosphere around the table has changed; what previously was loud and buyout banter has become hushed and contemplative. “His mother believes he is still alive,” the man on my left adds softly.
Until that night, I hadn’t heard of Gosch. I didn’t know he was a 12-year-old paperboy who disappeared from his delivery route in West Des Moines, Iowa on a September morning in 1982 leaving behind his dachshund Gretchen and a red wagon filled with newspapers. Nor did I know that this 30-year-old cold case was so fraught with conjecture and rumors of conspiracy that it would spur children of my generation to fear strangers and fuel tales of organized pedophilia rings and satanic ritual abuse.
Like many children who grew up in the 1980s, I was well versed on the topic of “stranger danger,” a concept that cautioned against talking to strangers, let alone divulging your name or accepting food from people you didn’t know. According to a popular public service announcement, a sinister man might try to lure me into his vehicle with the promise of candy or by claiming he needed help searching for his lost puppy, while another PSA advised me never to let a stranger know I am home alone.
The fear of child abduction had reached near mass hysteria and to keep me safe, my mother devised a secret code word that I was to ask for if she sent another in her place to pick me up from school. My brother nearly beat me senseless when he was sent to collect me and I refused to get into the car with him after he failed to give the correct code word.
Back at the restaurant, my friends tell me what they remember of the Gosch abduction and the similar disappearance in 1984 of Eugene Martin, who vanished while delivering newspapers on the south side of Des Moines. While authorities were never able to connect the two cases, many, like Gosch’s mother, are convinced the two are linked.
“Why kidnap a couple of paperboys,” I wonder aloud, suspecting a serial abductor, when my friend and former paperboy replies, “They’re alone at five in the morning.” The simplicity of his explanation smacks me, but he’s right.
These abductions remind me of a radio interview I heard with Nick Bryant, who authored The Franklin Scandal: A Story of Powerbrokers, Child Abuse and Betrayal. In his book, Bryant details an alleged nationwide child-trafficking ring out of Omaha, Neb. that furnished children to U.S. politicians and other high-level officials for both sexual and satanic abuse. If true, it’s explosive, but my friends seem dubious so I change the subject to the recent news reports of human feet mysteriously washing ashore in Washington state and British Columbia.
Returning to elementary school after summer vacation, one of our classmates was noticeable absent. Sarah, a mousy girl with long brunette hair, hadn’t returned and immediately rumors circulated among the monkey bars and teeter-totters that she had been kidnapped during the summer. One girl told me that Sarah fell for the old “would you like some candy” trick never to be heard from again. Sarah, in fact, was heard from again; I bumped into her at a party in college. She was alive and well and studying psychology.
Later in grade school, the police department lined up my classmates and me to be fingerprinted. A note went home to our parents a week before to inform them that we were to be fingerprinted as a precaution in case any of us would ever go missing. The officer explained to my class that our prints would help the police find us if a bad person ever took us. More likely, our prints would aid in identifying our bodies.
Police never turned up any serious suspects in the Gosch case, and 30 years later, they have yet to find a body. According to CNN, Gosch’s mother Noreen maintains that her son visited her early one morning in March 1997. Gosch, then 27, allegedly told his mother that he had been abducted and forced into child prostitution.
In 2006, an anonymous person left photos on Gosch’s mother's doorstep depicting three boys bound and gagged. According to CNN, Gosch’s mother believes one of the boys to be her son, but police are skeptical. Gosch’s mother states on her website “Johnny was subjected to severe trauma and torture of a satanic and sexual nature.” (I haven't linked to Noreen Gosch's website due to the graphic nature of the photos. A simple Google search will take you to her site.)
A moral panic erupted in the 1980s over allegations of satanic ritual abuse and media pundits convinced the public that Satanists, bent on abducting and indoctrinating America’s youth, had successfully infiltrated our schools, churches and government. At the height of the hysteria, rumors persisted that Satanists were making blood sacrifices in the woods near my home and a childhood friend of mine swears she would hear pounding drums and screaming emanating from those woods each Halloween.
By the 1990s, claims of satanic ritual abuse decreased as reports were continually disproved or met with skepticism. Still, given the prevalence of reports, one must wonder if there remains a kernel of truth to these allegations.
I leave the restaurant preoccupied by the tragedy of the Gosch abduction; this singular event is my childhood fear realized. Was Gosch abducted from his West Des Moines neighborhood only to be forced into an organized pedophilia network? Gosch’s case remains open at the West Des Moines Police Department and he is still officially considered a missing person. When Johnny Gosch went missing on that September morning in 1982, so did our security. Every time a child is frightened by an unfamiliar face at the door, or is wary of a car that drives a little too slowly, in some small way, it is a childhood abducted.