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Boy Still Missing After 5 Years, But Attitudes Change

August 31, 1987 GMT

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ Late one recent night, Urbandale police got a breathless call from a man saying a hitchhiker had made off with his new luxury car and had taken his 7- year-old son as well.

Police jumped to action, and instantly even the FBI was notified.

Several years ago, the procedure might have been different. Then, reports of runaway or missing children were filed, but police assumed the children would soon show up unharmed, and they were usually correct.

That was before Johnny Gosch, a West Des Moines paperboy, turned up missing five years ago Sept. 5.

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The lonely search continues for Gosch, now 17 if he’s alive, but the legacy of the case has made police keenly aware of missing children cases.

After the call in Urbandale, police instantly flashed descriptions of the car and driver to law officers in the area. Soon, they were broadcast statewide. Nearby states were notified and the descriptions were put in a national crime computer.

As a matter of policy, FBI agents rushed to the Urbandale station and agents of the state Division of Criminal Investigation also converged there. The news media were notified.

The hunt was on.

″We used to wait 24 hours,″ said Lt. Delbert King, who handled the Urbandale case, ″But then with the Johnny Gosch case, we kind of saw the falacy in that.″

As it turned out, the Urbandale case was a false alarm. Six hours after it began, the boy was safely with his grandmother. The father, a discouraged drifter, was charged with filing a false report.

There have been no happy endings for the Gosch family, however.

″The pain doesn’t diminish,″ said his mother, Noreen Gosch, who has given up her publicity campaign to get Johnny back. ″A lot of people say to us, ‘I suppose it’s easier now that it’s five years.’ But it isn’t. You hear a particular song that was his favorite ... it pierces the heart.″

She remembers the last time she saw him, the night of Sept. 4. ″He walked up to me, he was already taller than me, and he said, ‘Mom, I’ll always love you, remember that.’ I’ll never forget it.″

The next morning, Johnny left to deliver the Sunday Des Moines Register. His wagon full of papers was found but the boy disappeared without a trace.

Mrs. Gosch blames slow police response for letting the abductors get away. Police have been reluctant to respond, and Lt. Lyle McKinney, the West Des Moines detective who has coordinated the investigation, said only, ″We did what we thought was right.″

Soon, however, there were massive searches and huge rewards, along with a sustained media campaign by Mrs. Gosch and her husband, John, to find the boy.

Not one solid lead has been found.

The case was made all the more painful with false reports. Dollar bills bearing the message ″I am alive″ were found, and the Gosches were swindled of more than $11,000 by a Saginaw, Mich., man who claimed the boy was being held prisoner in Mexico. Robert Herman Meier, now 21, was convicted of fraud and is in prison.

Posters bearing Johnny’s picture were sent across the country. Enormous pictures and messages were pasted on the sides of semitrailer trucks.

The Gosches blasted police, saying they were dragging their feet.

″There have been critics who were outraged with us because we fought for our child,″ said Mrs. Gosch recently. ″Does this mean they wouldn’t fight for their own children?″

In the spring of 1984, the Iowa Legislature approved what was known as the Johnny Gosch Bill requiring police to respond immediately to missing children cases. A month after it went on the books, Aug. 12, there was a second disappearance with eerie similarities.

Eugene Martin, then 13, vanished while delivering the same newspaper to a southside Des Moines area. Again, it was a Sunday morning. As in the Gosch case, there were no witnesses.

Police responded rapidly this time, but no trace was found. The boy’s father, Don Martin, said recently he is convinced his son is alive and has been forced to be someone’s slave, perhaps overseas. Because of similarities between the cases, many investigators suspect a connection, but it has never been proven.

Mrs. Gosch said she is convinced she knows the name and address of a man who was involved. ″He is under observation. We’ll wait until he makes a mistake,″ she said.

″Someone who would steal one child and then come back and steal another could very well take a third one.″

Sam Swaim of the DCI declined to say whether there was a suspect.

″We continue to pursue leads in the Gosch case, although they’re getting few and far between,″ he said.

The Gosches testified before congressional hearings and worked toward creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in June 1984.

″The Johnny Gosch case was one of several cases that gained national attention and made it clear that the issue of missing children was a national issue,″ said Barbara Chapman, spokeswoman for the center.

In its first three years, she said, the center fielded reports of 14,735 cases. Of those, 7,967 children were found alive and 90 were found dead. The rest remained unaccounted for.

Of the reports, almost all are either runaways or stealings by relatives, usually parents who don’t have custody. Only 432 were abducted by strangers. Of those, 179 have been returned and 63 are dead.

The rest are missing, including Eugene Martin and Johnny Gosch.