After his disappearance in 1982, Johnny Gosch became one of the first “milk carton kids.” (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)

An Iowa paperboy disappeared 41 years ago. His mother is still on the case

By Thomas Lake, CNN
Published December 15, 2023

After his disappearance in 1982, Johnny Gosch became one of the first “milk carton kids.” (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Johnny Gosch left home for the last time on a warm Sunday in late summer, in the pale morning light before sunrise. He was 12 years old, and he liked building model rockets. Just before 6 a.m., a neighbor heard a wagon rattling through the yard and figured it was Johnny taking his usual shortcut on his way to pick up his newspapers. Another paperboy recalled seeing Johnny near the newspaper drop site. The boy saw a blue car pull up, and saw Johnny talking to a stranger.

What happened in the next few minutes would resonate for the next four decades, far beyond the rolling green hills of Iowa. Johnny would become a tragic abstraction, a face on a milk carton, a story that warned other kids away from paper routes and changed the way police handled missing-children cases.

The reasons for Johnny’s disappearance would be fiercely debated. Theories would proliferate. Some would call it an impenetrable mystery, insisting that countless hours of police work had led nowhere near the truth.

Johnny’s mother would open a parallel investigation, one that continues to this day. In August 2023, not long before her 80th birthday, she pointed to her own skull and said, “I’ve got pretty much all of it in the file cabinet up here.”

By then she had named the names of more than half a dozen alleged perpetrators or potential suspects, none of whom had been arrested in her son’s case. She’d been ignored and dismissed, threatened and ridiculed, but Noreen Gosch kept searching for answers. The loss of Johnny changed the way she saw America. She said it convinced her of the corruption in our institutions, the injustice in our justice system, the breathtaking power behind the men who took her son. A force none other than evil itself.

The Gosch case is a vast labyrinth, full of wonder and terror, a place so dark you can barely see your hand in front of your face. I spent several months there while reporting this story, trying to reconcile Noreen’s findings with those of the authorities, hoping to gather all the objective facts. Many of those facts remain undiscovered.

And so, a warning: Any conclusion you make about the fate of Johnny Gosch will require some combination of guesswork and faith. Most people who study the case eventually settle on one of the following two theories.

You can choose to believe that Johnny was murdered soon after his disappearance, even though no killer has been identified and no remains have been found.

Or you can believe Noreen Gosch, who says she saw Johnny years later, very much alive, and talked to him just long enough to know why he had to disappear again.

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Four decades later, Noreen Gosch is still investigating her son’s disappearance. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

A stranger in a blue car kept asking for directions

About 41 years after Johnny vanished, his mother rode through the wide, quiet streets of what used to be her neighborhood. A summer afternoon was getting on toward dusk. Noreen Gosch wore dark sunglasses, and her nails were painted a glittering blue. She had the calm resolve of a farm girl from the northern prairie.

She had once survived a tornado that destroyed her house, and she became a widow at a young age when her first husband died of cancer in 1965. Noreen married another man, John Gosch, and their son Johnny was born in 1969. She had gotten very good at controlling her emotions, even when talking about the worst thing a mother could imagine.

“There,” she said, on Marcourt Lane, just off 42nd Street, “that’s where Johnny was kidnapped.”

By now she could talk about Johnny’s case for hours on end: the twists and turns of her investigation, the compounding horrors and astounding revelations. On this drive down memory lane, she’d also been imagining what might have been, if not for that one morning. Noreen had other stories about Johnny. Better ones.

He would ask his older sister to drive him to the mall, where he’d use his paper-route money to buy supplies for model rockets. And then, if he had some money left, he’d go upstairs to the flower shop to buy a single rose. Johnny did this a few times. He’d walk up to Noreen with the rose behind his back. And then he’d pull it out and hand it to her and say,

This is for you, Mom.

There was also the time Johnny took on the bullies. Four boys in their neighborhood liked to terrorize smaller children, steal and smash their lunchboxes. One day Johnny walked by and saw the bullies picking on a little kid. Johnny was big for his age. He knocked down the bullies and led the little boy home. Then he went to his own house and said nothing about what he’d done. The little boy’s mother told Noreen about this a few days after that terrible morning, when Johnny was outnumbered again.

It was September 5, 1982, when the stranger in the blue car pulled up near Johnny. Witnesses would later say the car was two-tone blue, perhaps a Ford Fairmont. The driver “was described as a white male in his thirties, possibly having a mustache and somewhat dark complected,” according to a police report. Johnny was on his way to a newspaper drop site when the man stopped the car, backed up, stopped again near Johnny, and asked for directions to 86th Street.

In the span of about 10 minutes, the stranger in the blue car asked at least three people for directions. And near the newspaper drop site, another stranger appeared.

As Johnny walked north on 42nd Street, a very tall man was seen walking behind him. It seemed he was following Johnny.

Moments later, two other paper carriers saw Johnny on Marcourt Lane. For reasons not made clear in the police report, Johnny stopped pulling his wagon and sat down. When the other carriers picked up their papers and returned to the same place, Johnny’s wagon was still there.

But Johnny was gone.

Another witness looked out his bedroom window and saw what may have been a silver and black Ford Fairmont running a stop sign, turning left on 42nd Street, and heading north toward the interstate.

Crucial minutes passed. Almost two hours after Johnny was last seen on the streets of West Des Moines, the phone started ringing at the Gosch house. Subscribers were asking why Johnny hadn’t delivered their papers.

“His dad went out and delivered all the papers,” Noreen said, not far from the place where Johnny’s wagon was found. “And then I had put a call in to the police, but we waited almost an hour for them to come.”

Noreen had lived more than half her life with a strange relationship to time. Even as she grew older she was frozen in one place, reliving the same day, trying to make sense of the moments that tore her family apart. She looked at their old house at the end of the cul-de-sac, noticed it had been repainted, remarked on how much the trees had grown. It was 2023, but it was still 1982, and Noreen repeated a central finding of her long investigation.

“The police chief was corrupt,” she said. “I know a lot more about him.”

Johnny Gosch’s wagon was found less than five blocks from his house. His papers had not been delivered. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)
Johnny’s parents eventually divorced and moved away from what was once his home. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

A police chief’s questionable record

Orval Cooney’s name and photograph appeared on the front page of the Des Moines Register on February 27, 1951, when he was 17. The story said he was among five youths accused of taking a teenage boy for a ride and “severely beating him.” In June, he pleaded guilty to assault with intent to inflict great bodily injury; he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, the paper said. Later he served in the Marines and worked as an upholsterer before becoming a police officer. In 1976, after eight years with the agency, Cooney was appointed chief of the West Des Moines Police Department.

Early in 1982, the Des Moines Tribune published an astonishing piece of investigative journalism. The reporters interviewed 18 employees of the West Des Moines Police Department, including 14 of the 20 patrol officers, who alleged that Cooney had “beaten a handcuffed prisoner, compromised a burglary investigation implicating one of his sons and threatened and harassed his own officers. They say they have smelled alcohol on his breath when he was on the street at night checking up on them and that they’ve seen beer cans in the vehicle he uses.”

The report said the department had no Black employees, and cited three employees who said they heard Cooney say “he would never hire a Black or a woman as an officer.” The sources also accused Cooney of repeatedly using the N-word.

The city opened its own investigation, which spared Cooney and instead found wrongdoing by the whistleblowers. Two officers were fired, allegedly for misdeeds committed months earlier, and several others were reprimanded. A Tribune editorial complained that “the city officials who launched the investigation might have had a whitewash in mind from the beginning.” Cooney kept his job. He was still chief that September, when Johnny Gosch disappeared.

Noreen believed in the system until that day. She says an officer asked her if Johnny had ever run away before, even though it was obvious to her that Johnny had been kidnapped. She says the police did far too little to investigate the case in the first 72 hours. And she says that as volunteers searched the woods and fields for Johnny, some reported that Chief Cooney had told them to go home, because “the kid is probably just a damn runaway.”

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Volunteers searched for Johnny, but he was nowhere to be found. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)

She kept examining the puzzle in her mind, arranging and re-arranging the pieces. And she kept thinking about the incident at the football game.

Two nights before Johnny disappeared, the Gosches went to Valley High School to watch their older son’s JV football game. Johnny left to get some popcorn from the concession stand. When he didn’t return right away, his father went looking for him and found him under the bleachers, talking to a police officer.

Noreen says she questioned Johnny about the encounter. He didn’t seem upset about it — in fact, he told her the officer was very nice — but it seemed strange to Noreen that a cop had called to her son from under the bleachers so they could have a private conversation in the dark.

Why did you go? she asked.

He was a policeman, Johnny said. Don’t you have to do what he says?

After the game, as they were leaving, Johnny pointed out the officer. Noreen got a good look at his face. And after Johnny disappeared, Noreen wanted to question the officer. But first she had to find out who he was.

Noreen made an appointment at the West Des Moines Police Department and then went to the school board office and obtained a list of cops who’d been hired to provide security at the football stadium. She brought it to her meeting with Chief Cooney, where pictures of the department’s officers were laid out on a table.

None of the pictures resembled the man who’d been under the bleachers with Johnny. Noreen insisted that some pictures must be missing. Finally an official left the room and came back with more pictures. Noreen says she recognized one as the cop from the football game. And with the roster of officers who worked security, she figured out his name.

It’s possible there was an innocent explanation for the encounter. Other officers told me the cop in question was interviewed by investigators after Johnny disappeared, and that he’d done nothing wrong. But Noreen felt stonewalled.

She had two copies of the roster, and handed one to the police chief. She says Cooney started yelling and stamping his feet. Noreen asked if she could question the officer, but Cooney told her that wouldn’t be possible. She wondered if the chief was hiding something.

(The West Des Moines Police Department declined to release its full investigative case file, because the Gosch case is still an active investigation involving state and federal authorities, and declined to make any current investigators available for an interview. It also declined to answer my extensive list of questions about the case. But the agency did send me a statement, which read, in part, “We understand how deeply this case has affected the family, the community, law enforcement officials and the nation. This case will remain open, and we won’t stop investigating until we have closure and answers as to what happened to Johnny Gosch.”)

In 1982, after more disagreements with Chief Cooney about Johnny’s case, Noreen’s suspicion grew. Her son, a responsible paperboy who’d kept the route for almost a year, had vanished without delivering a single paper. Witnesses had seen two strange men nearby, including one who talked to Johnny, and had seen a car run a stop sign and leave the area where Johnny was last seen. And the police would not even call it a kidnapping. It seemed to Noreen that the failure to solve the case could not be solely explained by a lack of evidence.

The Gosch case stayed in the news for years after Johnny vanished. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Johnny may have been seen in Oklahoma and Texas

Four days after Johnny disappeared, a picture of his mother and father was published on the front page of the Des Moines Tribune. They were holding hands. John Gosch stood on the front porch, and Noreen sat on a brick ledge in front of him, looking mournful. Behind them, the porch light burned. They kept it on for Johnny, just in case he ever found his way home.

If he’d been killed in those early days, as some people suspected, no such evidence came to light. In fact, there were signs that Johnny might be alive.

About six months after he vanished, he may have been seen in Oklahoma. A woman reported that she’d seen a boy on a streetcorner, out of breath and asking for help.

My name is John David Gosch, he told her, before two men grabbed him and dragged him away.

It’s not clear whether the woman told police about what she’d seen. Her name was not made public, although a reporter for the Chicago Tribune later interviewed her on condition of anonymity. In any case, according to news reports, the woman was apparently unaware of the Gosch disappearance until months after her encounter with the boy, when she saw a story about Johnny’s case on TV and recognized his picture.

According to a story from the Associated Press, the woman got in touch with a private investigator working for the Gosches. A spokesman for a Chicago-based firm called the Investigative Research Agency was quoted as saying, “We and the FBI checked it out. And we’re both convinced it positively was Johnny.” The AP story said an FBI spokesman declined to comment on an ongoing investigation. Decades later, when I inquired with the FBI about this incident, a spokesperson replied, “We don’t confirm or deny investigations.”

Just after midnight on February 22, 1984, about a year after the possible sighting in Oklahoma, the phone rang at the Gosch house in West Des Moines. Noreen picked up. Someone said, “Mom?” She thought it sounded like Johnny.

She later said his words were slurred, and he was asking for help. When she asked where he was, someone hung up the phone. She answered two more brief calls in the next few minutes, again from someone who sounded like Johnny. Noreen told him she loved him, and that he should try to get away to a police officer. The line went dead. She informed the police but said she was told the calls were untraceable.

About a month later, the AP published a story on more reported sightings of Johnny, this time in Texas. Guy Genovese, a sheriff’s investigator in Nueces County, was quoted as saying, “I believe the boy is alive and I believe he can be found, but I’m not saying when or anything like this.”

It seemed possible that Johnny was out there, in the hands of bad men, hoping to be rescued. Other sightings would be reported in the years that followed. Noreen herself would eventually swear under penalty of perjury that she’d seen Johnny again.

But first, a man came forward with new information about the case. He claimed to be one of the kidnappers.

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Noreen Gosch says Johnny used his paper-route money to buy her roses. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Was Johnny taken by kidnappers from Nebraska?

One day in 1991, Noreen got a phone call from a private investigator in Nebraska. He worked with a lawyer whose client was in prison for child molestation. This prison inmate said he’d taken part in kidnapping Johnny. The investigator had several hours’ worth of recorded interviews with the supposed kidnapper. He offered to visit Noreen and play the tapes.

By then, almost nine years after Johnny disappeared, Noreen was desperate for reliable information. And she was used to going about the mundane business of daily life even as she contemplated the awful details of what happened to her son. So she told the investigator to come over on a Saturday. They would spend much of the day going over the tapes. And Noreen would make Italian beef sandwiches for lunch.

Johnny used to love those sandwiches. Noreen put a beef roast in the slow-cooker, along with broth and garlic and oregano and pepperoncini and some juice from the pepperoncini jar. It was all simmering when she and the investigator, Roy Stephens, sat down at the kitchen table. He put in a tape and pressed play.

The voice on the tape belonged to Paul Bonacci, then 23 years old. He had endured a miserable childhood, full of sexual abuse and other horrors, and once told a psychiatrist that his first stepfather chopped up toys with an axe.

Adrift, Bonacci met a boy named Mike in a park outside Omaha. Bonacci told him about some of the abuse he suffered. Mike seemed interested in this, and introduced him to a man named Emilio, who produced child pornography, according to Bonacci. It was 1982. Paul Bonacci was 15. Just before Labor Day weekend, Mike and Emilio invited Bonacci on a trip with them. They were going to Iowa.

Bonacci has told the story many times since the early 1990s. This account is drawn from sworn testimony he gave at a court hearing in 1999.

In September 1982, Bonacci said, he accepted the invitation to go on a road trip with Mike and Emilio. They stayed at a hotel on the west side of Des Moines. Another man came in, holding a paper bag full of photographs.

This is the one, he said, pointing to a picture of Johnny Gosch.

Bonacci said he wasn’t exactly sure how Johnny was chosen, but “a lot of it had to do with the fact of the way he looked. Because the color of his hair and his eyes and everything. It could make them more money, I guess.”

Once he realized he’d been drawn into a kidnapping plot, Bonacci said, he tried to back out. But then, he said, “Emilio took me for a little drive, stuck a gun in my head on a dirt road and told me I either did this or he was going to blow my brains out right there and then.”

So Bonacci agreed to help with the kidnapping. Back at the hotel, the conspirators rehearsed the plan, which involved three vehicles and about half a dozen people. They arranged chairs to serve as models for seats in the kidnap car, and practiced where they would sit. Paul and Mike would be in the back. The driver would pull up to Johnny, ask him a question, then drive around the block. Then Paul would get out and ask Johnny a question. He was small and nonthreatening. As he later said, children are sometimes frightened by strange adults. “But [when] kids your own age are talking to you and stuff you normally aren’t frightened by them.” Paul said he was there to “lure him or get him close enough to the car where we could get him in.”

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Marcourt Lane in the suburban community of West Des Moines, Iowa. The Gosch family lived around the corner. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Early the next morning, they carried out the plan. Paul got out and asked Johnny a question. He said a man named Tony pushed Johnny into the car. Paul helped incapacitate Johnny by putting a chloroform-soaked rag over his face. They drove out of town.

Once they’d made their getaway, the kidnappers switched Johnny from one vehicle to another. The original kidnap car apparently drove east toward Chicago. A station wagon went south. Out in the country, where the corn would have been high in late summer, the kidnappers put Johnny into a van that drove west, toward Omaha, and then north, to a house near Sioux City.

“That night at first Emilio and this couple other guys went into town to drink,” Bonacci said, according to a court transcript. “And they left me, Mike and Johnny in a room that had no windows on it. That they had locked from the outside of the room and stuff. They lock us all three in this room. And that night when they got back they ordered me and Mike to do some things with, sexual things with Johnny. And they filmed it so that they could sell the film or whatever they were going to do with it.”

Bonacci said he was driven back to Omaha the next day. Johnny stayed behind in Sioux City.

“And then a couple of months later I got a chance to take a trip out to Colorado,” Bonacci said. “And that’s where I seen Johnny Gosch the second time. And at that point he was staying with a guy that I only knew as The Colonel. And it was a kind of a ranch house but it was out, had a raised floor, underneath there was a space that had been dug out. And that’s where they kept some of the kids at and stuff when they caused trouble or were bad.”

There have been plenty of questions about Bonacci’s claims. In 1993, the Fox TV show “America’s Most Wanted” depicted Bonacci leading a camera crew to an abandoned house in Colorado where he said Johnny had been kept. Producer Paul Sparrow said on the film “Who Took Johnny” that the house had a secret underground chamber with what he thought were children’s initials carved into the wood. (The film did not show independent confirmation for that claim.) Weeks after that episode of “America’s Most Wanted” was broadcast, the Omaha World-Herald published a story that said sheriff’s investigators in Colorado had examined Bonacci’s claims about the house and “don’t have any substantiation that Gosch was ever held there or that any laws were violated.”

It’s not clear how they reached their determination. I requested documents of that investigation from the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office. Even though the agency found and provided records dating back to 1982 in response to a related request, a records manager said she could find nothing in the system about the 1993 investigation of Bonacci’s claims.

If there was any good news in Bonacci’s account, it was that Johnny might still be alive. But the story made it sound as if he was living in captivity.

Johnny’s parents spent years looking for clues and trying to keep the case in the public eye. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)
As the news spread, letters of support poured in. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)

Noreen visits a prison to see the man who says he helped kidnap Johnny

On that day in 1991, Noreen sat at the kitchen table, not far from what used to be Johnny’s room. She was listening to the tapes from the private investigator, thinking about the little boy who gave her roses. And she was forced to imagine him pulled off the street, drugged, imprisoned, corrupted, tormented, afraid.

It was the sort of story no one would want to believe. But Noreen believed it. She thought Paul Bonacci could not have made it up. It was clear to her that he’d talked extensively to Johnny. He knew that Johnny had bought a dirt bike to ride around the vacant lot near their house. He knew that Johnny sometimes went to the yoga classes that Noreen taught. And he knew where Noreen and Johnny liked to go afterwards: a Mexican restaurant called Chi-Chi’s.

The private investigator had a question for Noreen: Would you like to go to the prison and talk to Bonacci yourself?

Noreen said yes. But she needed a few weeks to prepare. This man said he’d done horrible things to her son. Before she faced him, she had to work through the anger.

Noreen had thought a lot about forgiveness. She’d read about positive thinking in a book called “Rays of the Dawn,” by Thurman Fleet. And Noreen had come to realize that when you’re angry with someone, forgiveness isn’t for them. It’s for you. Because the anger and hatred can poison you. Letting them go is a gift you give yourself.

As the meeting with Paul Bonacci drew nearer, this was all easier said than done.

“When something so vile hits you,” she recalled, “and you’ve got to face it, there were times I had to read the chapter on forgiveness five times over and over in one sitting, in order to be able to get up from the chair or the couch and not feel the anger anymore.”

The day arrived. She’d made arrangements to go to the prison in Lincoln, Nebraska, with the private investigator and a news crew from WHO, a TV station in Des Moines. Some of the footage would later appear on newscasts and in the documentary film “Who Took Johnny.” Bonacci, thin and pale in his prison jumpsuit, did not know in advance who he’d be meeting. When someone told him this woman was Johnny’s mother, he nearly broke down.

“Just tell me what happened,” Noreen said. “Please.”

“I feel so — I feel so bad about it,” he said, fighting back tears. “Because — of what they made me do.”

Noreen did not hate him. He was a lost boy, similar in some ways to her own son, and she was filled with compassion. Jim Strickland, the TV reporter who went to the prison, was struck by Noreen’s quiet composure.

“She was strong,” he told me in an interview.

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At home in West Des Moines, Noreen kept thinking about Johnny. (Taro Yamasaki)

Bonacci had previously accused others of sexual wrongdoing in Omaha, Nebraska, during a wide-ranging investigation that involved the collapse of the Franklin Community Credit Union and widespread allegations of child abuse. But state and federal authorities found little or no veracity in the most salacious of those claims. A grand jury called many of the allegations a “hoax.” One witness was convicted of perjury, and Bonacci was also charged with perjury in that case, though a prosecutor later dismissed the charges against Bonacci “in the interests of justice,” according to a court document.

Since the late 1980s, other people have examined some of Bonacci’s claims and determined that he was likely telling the truth. Loran Schmit, who investigated the Franklin scandal as a Nebraska state senator, wrote in a 1991 affidavit that “this Senator now believes that Paul Bonacci did tell the truth to the Franklin committee and the Committee Investigator.”

At the prison with Bonacci in 1991, Noreen Gosch was also convinced.

In those conversations, Bonacci shared more details about the crime, and about Johnny. He drew what Noreen thought was an accurate map of the crime scene.

“Did you ever see any marks or anything on Johnny’s body?” Noreen asked.

“When we got him in there, he had a birthmark on his chest,” Bonacci said, “or a something on his chest, it was like a — looked like South America.”

Noreen knew he was right about that. Bonacci also knew about the scar on Johnny’s tongue, a reminder of the time Johnny bit his tongue after falling from a treehouse. And he knew about a burn mark on Johnny’s leg, near the ankle, from the time it touched the tailpipe of his older brother’s motorcycle.

“Credible,” Strickland said, when asked how Bonacci came across during that interview 32 years ago.

It seemed possible that Paul Bonacci was the key to solving one of the most notorious missing-persons cases in modern history. And so Jim Strickland found it strange that the police decided not to interview him.

“Why wouldn’t you just drive two hours and talk to the guy?” Strickland wondered. “Do you want to solve it, or not?”

The mysterious backstory of Paul Bonacci

The police could give several reasons for ignoring Bonacci. The short version is that some people thought he was insane, or lying, or both. The long version is worth explaining, despite its strange and horrifying complexity, because both Bonacci and Noreen Gosch are convinced it is relevant to Johnny’s case.

In 1991, the same year he met Noreen at the prison, Bonacci filed a federal lawsuit against more than a dozen defendants, including a former top official from the Franklin Community Credit Union, Lawrence E. King, who had political connections that reached all the way to the White House. Bonacci accused King of vicious sexual abuse, among other atrocities. By then, King was on his way to prison for embezzlement, and he did not respond to the lawsuit, though he was quoted in a 1990 Washington Post story calling sex-abuse allegations against him “garbage.” In 1999, a federal judge entered a default judgment in Bonacci’s favor, awarding him $1 million. (I tried to reach King by phone and letter for this story, but did not receive a response.)

Although Senior District Judge Warren K. Urbom had previously called some of Bonacci’s testimony “bizarre,” he wrote a memorandum of decision in Bonacci’s favor:

“Between December 1980 and 1988, the complaint alleges, the defendant King continually subjected the plaintiff to repeated sexual assaults, false imprisonments, infliction of extreme emotional distress, organized and directed satanic rituals, forced the plaintiff to ‘scavenge’ for children to be a part of the defendant King’s sexual abuse and pornography ring, forced the plaintiff to engage in numerous sexual contacts with the defendant King and others and participate in deviate sexual games and masochistic orgies with other minor children.”

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Lawrence E. King Jr. managed the Franklin Community Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska, before going to prison for embezzlement and other charges. (Bill Batson/Omaha World-Herald/AP)

King was never charged criminally for sexual abuse, and the judge wrote that there were “reasons to question the credibility of the plaintiff’s testimony.” But the judge also wrote that King’s failure to respond to Bonacci’s allegations “has made those allegations true as to him. The now uncontradicted evidence is that the plaintiff has suffered much. He has suffered burns, broken fingers, beatings of the head and face and other indignities by the wrongful actions of the defendant King…He is a victim of multiple personality disorder, involving as many as fourteen distinct personalities aside from his primary personality.”

In a deposition for the case, Bonacci gave a surreal explanation for his condition, which is now known as dissociative identity disorder. At one point another personality surfaced, and this other personality, known as West Lee, was separately sworn in as a witness.

West Lee said he’d been created by a secret government program called Monarch. He said this program involved sexually abusing children, intentionally splitting their personalities, and using them in espionage, with missions that included entrapping and sexually blackmailing politicians.

This program’s existence has never been confirmed, and an attorney who questioned Bonacci called his story “preposterous.” I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with several branches of the US military and intelligence community, looking for more information. No documents were released. A Navy FOIA officer wrote that the Navy didn’t have records like these, but said the CIA might have them. The CIA said in a letter it did not find any such records.

In his sworn testimony against the Omaha businessman Lawrence E. King, Paul Bonacci said King had been both a target of Monarch — that is, someone to be sexually compromised — and one of the people who controlled Bonacci in sexually compromising others.

According a court transcript, he said King brought him to parties in Omaha, on Embassy Row in Washington D.C., and elsewhere.

“If they wanted to get something passed through the legislature or whatever, he would put some people that were against it in a compromising position,” Bonacci told the judge in 1999, though he didn’t show proof of that allegation. “By using us boys and girls.”

“Was this by your being the sexual partner of that person?” Judge Warren K. Urbom asked.

“Yes,” Bonacci said.

At that hearing, a man named Rusty Nelson also testified. He said he’d been a photographer for Lawrence King, and said that King “obviously was into pimping gay prostitutes and children to, basically for influence purposes. Whether it be politicians or whatever.” Nelson said he knew who Paul Bonacci was, and said King “wanted me to take pictures of Paul, various other children or various other people…in compromising position, you know, sexual type things.”

When Nelson was asked what happened to his pictures, he said King “has a lot of them.” Others were given to Gary Caradori, an investigator who died in a plane crash while he was looking into allegations of child sexual abuse in connection with the failure of the Franklin Community Credit Union in Nebraska. Nelson said the FBI had some of his pictures, and police in Oregon might have others.

(I inquired about this claim with the FBI and the Oregon State Police. Both agencies told me to file records requests. The FBI then refused to confirm or deny it had records on Nelson, and the OSP said it did have records on Nelson but declined to release them because records related to child abuse are confidential.)

“One of the pictures that may be in those is of Johnny Gosch,” Nelson said on the witness stand, although he did not supply further details about the picture.

Noreen always believed what Paul Bonacci said about her son. She says she got further confirmation on March 18, 1997, from Johnny himself.

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Years passed, and then decades. Noreen Gosch kept looking for her son. (Taro Yamasaki)

Noreen says Johnny visited her and told her what happened to him

By early 1997, Johnny had been missing for almost 15 years. His parents were divorced, and Noreen had moved to her own apartment. She was asleep in bed in the middle of the night when she was awakened by someone knocking on the door.

Noreen got up. She felt afraid, because she’d gotten various threats since her son disappeared but she put her face to the door and looked through the peephole. Two men stood in the hallway. She thought one looked like Johnny.

This account is based on sworn testimony she gave at one of Bonacci’s court hearings, a summary of an interview with a police detective, a description of the encounter in her book, Why Johnny Can’t Come Home, and my extensive interviews with her.

Who is it, Noreen asked the man at her door that night in 1997.

It’s me, Mom, he said. It’s Johnny.

Noreen was shaking. She had imagined this moment for years. Johnny would have been 27 by then, and he was a full-grown man, but she recognized the eyes. “The eyes don’t change,” she said later, and this man had the same eyes her little boy once did.

She opened the door. They hugged. It felt good but strange, considering he’d been gone for more than half his life. Regardless, the hug further convinced Noreen that this was indeed her son. People have their own vibration, a specific pulse or energy, she said, and this man she was embracing felt like Johnny. She invited both men to sit down in the living room, where she said Johnny proved his identity by opening his shirt and showing her the South America-shaped birthmark on his chest.

The other man didn’t say much, although he and Johnny sometimes exchanged glances, Noreen said. She wondered if he was controlling Johnny somehow. When she asked Johnny where he’d been living, he looked at the other man, who told him not to answer that question. Johnny didn’t answer.

Later, Noreen would be heavily criticized for not calling the police. But she had long since lost trust in the police, and had come to suspect more than one law enforcement official of complicity in Johnny’s disappearance. “Well, who the hell would call the police that didn’t do anything in the first place?” she asked. “Why would I do that? No. I wouldn’t put my son in danger from them again.”

Noreen says she did offer to call Roy Stephens, the private investigator who’d brought her the Bonacci tapes. But that idea seemed to terrify Johnny. She says he asked her not to, and said he would leave immediately if she did. So Noreen didn’t call the investigator. Instead, she tried to catch up on the last 14-and-a-half years of Johnny’s life.

She says Johnny told her he’d been pulled off the sidewalk into a car, where he lost consciousness. When he woke up in a basement, he was bound and gagged. Johnny was scared, and started crying. He saw another young man. It was Paul Bonacci. And Paul told him, Just do what they tell you and it will be all right.

Johnny didn’t tell his mother the details of his sexual abuse. But according to Noreen, Johnny told a story that echoed Paul Bonacci’s story: Johnny said he was locked in the basement for days, until a man came to buy him from the kidnappers. The man counted out a large sum of cash on a table. He was known as The Colonel. Noreen says Johnny told her he was taken away, moved around the country, and used to sexually compromise businessmen and politicians.

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The apartment complex where Noreen lived in 1997. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Noreen said the visit lasted only an hour or two, so there wasn’t time for Johnny to tell the whole story. Johnny said he was on the run, hiding from the people who took him, barely able to support himself. He’d been unsure if visiting Noreen was a good idea, because during his captivity he’d been told she would be killed if he tried to contact her. She said Johnny told her he wouldn’t be safe until the perpetrators were arrested and brought to justice. He asked her to do something about it.

And much too soon, Johnny stood up and said he had to go.

Noreen didn’t try to stop him. Later, she would be criticized for this as well. But her little boy was already long gone. Johnny could make his own choices now, and there was nothing she could do about it. So she hugged him, and let him vanish again. Noreen walked outside and watched him walk off into the night.

This may be the last time I’ll ever see him, she thought to herself.

She went back inside, sat down in the living room and prayed for strength. Her mission was clear, and daunting. Find the rest of the truth. Tell it to the authorities. Force them to act. Leave them no choice but to arrest and convict the perpetrators. Make it safe for Johnny to come out of the shadows.

‘But this is America,’ Noreen kept saying

Twenty-six years later, with her work still unfinished, Noreen poured coffee into a dark blue mug and sat at the kitchen table. Now her kitchen was in the cabin of a boat that was docked in East Dubuque, Illinois, on a waterway that led to the Mississippi River. It was August 2023, and she was spending the summer on the 41-foot boat with her husband, George Hartney, who had also become her partner in the long investigation. Through a window behind Noreen, an American flag could be seen on the bow. Noreen had complicated feelings about that flag.

“I was just a mom, doing my job, raising my kids, cooking,” she said, recalling how innocent she was before September 5, 1982. She didn’t know words like pedophilia, or phrases like human trafficking, and she had no idea any of this stuff was happening around her, outside the walls of her suburban home. As she learned more, through independent research, and private investigators, and experiences with law enforcement, she repeated this one phrase, this little protest, these same four words, trying to hold on to what she once believed.

“But this is America,” she kept saying, as those old ideas gave way to something else, a new understanding, a reckoning with the very American forces she believed she would have to overcome.

“The dark side,” said her husband, George.

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Noreen and her husband, George Hartney, spend part of their time on a boat near the Mississippi River. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Noreen had a long list of suspects in Johnny’s disappearance. But a wide space remained between what she suspected and what she could prove. Despite her best efforts, she had not made it safe for Johnny to come out of the shadows.

This was the theory Noreen had developed in her 41-year investigation: Her son was kidnapped. The kidnappers were part of a sex-trafficking ring. She believed it had ties to a sexual-blackmail operation, in which her son said he’d been forced to participate, and it was all so big, so powerful, so pervasive, that the authorities would never solve it, would never arrest anyone, because, as Noreen had come to believe, this is America, where some people are sacrificed because others are above the law.

Still, Noreen kept trying things. Based on new information she received about Orval Cooney, the former West Des Moines police chief, she spoke with John DeCamp, the lawyer who represented Paul Bonacci, about filing a lawsuit against Cooney for misconduct on Johnny’s case. She said she hoped more of the truth would come out in discovery.

They were preparing the lawsuit in early 2003 when the former police chief died suddenly at age 69. He had suffered a heart attack.

A police detective looks back on the Gosch case

Tom Boyd, a retired detective from the West Des Moines Police Department, sits at his kitchen table on a Tuesday morning, drinking a Coke Zero. He wears glasses and has a thin gray beard. On his left forearm is an arrow tattoo that commemorates the day he killed a 10-point buck with a recurve bow. Boyd investigated the Johnny Gosch case for more than two decades and managed to stay on cordial terms with Noreen, which was more than some of his colleagues could do. He says people keep asking him the same question: Do you believe Noreen when she tells you that Johnny visited her at the apartment?

Boyd answers carefully.

“It’s Noreen’s statement to me. And that’s what she told me.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I — I don’t want to call Noreen a liar. Noreen is likely grieving the loss of her — her son. It seems weird, yes. And I’ve always just kind of thrown the question back. ‘Well, I don’t know. Do you believe it?’”

He chuckles.

“And there’s a weird factor to it. So that’s what makes it hard to believe. But I don’t want to call Noreen a liar.”

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Johnny’s parents led a massive search for him that continued for years after he disappeared. (Des Moines Register/USA Today Network)

Over the years, a number of people have questioned Noreen’s credibility. Some say Johnny didn’t really visit in 1997. The 2018 “Faded Out” podcast concluded that Noreen was almost entirely wrong about Johnny’s case. The host, Sarah DiMeo, cast suspicion on several local pedophiles, including the late Wilbur Millhouse, a former circulation manager for the Des Moines Register who pleaded guilty in 1987 to sexually abusing teenage boys.

Noreen says her private investigators checked out Millhouse in the 1980s and found he had an alibi for the kidnapping; he was visiting a relative in Kansas City on the day Johnny vanished. A 1986 Des Moines Register story said police had found no link between Millhouse and the Gosch disappearance. Tom Boyd, the retired detective, said he was aware of Millhouse but never ruled him in or out as a potential suspect. Millhouse died in 2015.

All that aside, Noreen’s theory of the case has remained consistent for three decades. In 1999, she sat down with Boyd at the police station for a videotaped interview.

The detective kept a six-page synopsis from that interview and gave me a copy. It contains most of the key points that she is still making today: Johnny visited her almost 15 years after his disappearance, Johnny confirmed much of what Paul Bonacci said, a man named Emilio took part in the kidnapping, and Johnny was held at a farmhouse outside Sioux City owned by a man named Charlie Kerr.

In that interview with Detective Boyd, Noreen mentioned Lawrence King, Rusty Nelson, and a military officer named Michael Aquino. According to Boyd’s summary, “she believes that Michael Aquino who is a colonel in the military possibly used military resources to include planes to transfer or transport children across the USA where they were reportedly utilized at ‘sex parties.’”

Boyd took it in and dutifully wrote it down.

“She’s told me so much,” he says at the kitchen table 24 years later. “I’ve had so many lengthy conversations with Noreen where — where topics just start branching out everywhere.”

“But Noreen was just always talking of things that couldn’t be investigated. And — like Johnny coming to her house. I couldn’t investigate that, really. I mean, two years later, what am I going to go do? A door-to-door canvass now at that apartment building and see if anyone remembered the evening or early morning of whatever March something? It’s just things that I — I couldn’t follow up on. That I couldn't prove didn’t happen. But yet again, I couldn’t prove were not legit. So there was always this open gray area where I can’t say it didn't happen and I can’t say it did… That’s how a lot of this investigation has been for me over the years.”

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On a recent visit to West Des Moines, Noreen noticed how much the trees had grown. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

Boyd is right that he couldn’t do much to check out the Johnny sighting at Noreen’s apartment. One could believe her, or not. But some of what she said was verifiable.

Lawrence King was real; he was in federal prison for financial crimes, and he’d been repeatedly accused of sex crimes against children, though he denied those allegations. Rusty Nelson was real; he’d just testified in Bonacci’s case against King in federal court. Charlie Kerr was real, and had been previously accused of sexually abusing a minor. (Police reports describe the allegations, but online court dockets give no indication that Kerr was ever prosecuted. Kerr died in 2004.) A retired sheriff’s investigator named Dave Kjos told me he’d served a search warrant on Kerr’s house in the 1990s in an unsuccessful attempt to get information about the Johnny Gosch case. Kjos said he found an odd combination of Disney films, pornography, and what appeared to be love letters from boys.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Aquino was real, too. Before his death by suicide in 2019, he’d been a controversial figure. Aquino was accused in 1987 of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child as part of a major scandal at the Presidio Army base day-care center. Aquino denied wrongdoing and was not criminally charged. But according to a judge’s subsequent ruling, Army investigators found “there was probable cause to title LTC Aquino with offenses of indecent acts with a child, sodomy, conspiracy, kidnapping, and false swearing.”

“And I’ll have to admit I’m guilty of not taking some of that too seriously,” says Boyd, the retired West Des Moines detective. “I didn’t look into this Aquino character until much later and realized…his Satanic-cult-type worshippings, things of that nature.”

Boyd says he is sure Johnny was kidnapped. But he doesn’t know who did it. It’s hard to know what role, if any, people like Kerr and Aquino played in Johnny’s case. The case is lost in an investigative purgatory, a wilderness of unanswered questions. Noreen has her theories, but she has yet to prove them. They are intriguing possibilities, but many dots remain unconnected.

I ask Detective Boyd if he should have done more to follow up on the other leads Noreen gave him.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m not perfect.”

“I admit my mistakes.”

Then, of course, there is Paul Bonacci, who was never interviewed by the West Des Moines Police Department despite his professed knowledge of key details about Johnny and his claim of involvement in the kidnapping. Detectives did speak with some of Bonacci’s relatives and decided Bonacci couldn’t have been in the Des Moines area on the day of Johnny’s kidnapping because the relatives said he was with them in Omaha. But those interviews took place almost a decade after Johnny disappeared, and police did not explain how those relatives could have remembered Bonacci’s whereabouts so precisely, so many years later.

When I ask Boyd about this, he acknowledges that the West Des Moines Police ruled out Bonacci too quickly.

“Is Paul Bonacci still alive?” he asks. “Is he around?”

He is told that Bonacci is apparently still alive.

“I’d talk to him today if I could,” the detective says, and then he’s quiet for a long time.

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Noreen Gosch holds a copy of her book, “Why Johnny Can’t Come Home,” which includes a picture of Paul Bonacci. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

A reporter finds Paul Bonacci, who is now 56

Later that day, I drive to Nebraska to look for Paul Bonacci. His last known address was on a gravel road near a river west of Omaha. It’s late in the afternoon when I pull up and walk toward the Bonacci home. A dog barks loudly, and several cats and kittens mill around. After a knock at the front door, a woman answers. She says Paul isn’t home.

As I prepare to drive away, a red pickup truck comes down the gravel road. The driver parks near the Bonacci home and gets out. I wave. Yes, this is Paul Bonacci. Everyone involved in Johnny’s case is either dead or much older than they were when it started. Bonacci has just turned 56. He’s got the same dark eyes he had in the videos from three decades earlier. Now he also has a few lines on his face.

Bonacci is reluctant to give a formal interview. He’s skeptical of reporters, and he needs to go pick up his daughter soon. But he’s friendly enough, and the conversation continues for about 10 minutes.

I ask if he thinks Johnny Gosch visited Noreen in 1997.

Yes, he says. He knows it happened, because Johnny told him about it shortly thereafter. Bonacci says Johnny has visited him, too. Right here at this house.

I ask if Johnny is alive.

Yes, he says. As far as he knows, Johnny is alive. With a family of his own.

Bonacci cuts the conversation short, and doesn’t return my texts or phone calls after that. But on a warm afternoon in October, I go back to see him again. He’s in the yard, and he’s got work to do, but he doesn’t tell me to leave. So I keep him talking and start taking notes.

He doesn’t have much new information about the other kidnappers. He never knew Tony’s full name, or what became of him. He never learned Emilio’s full name either, but he’s been told Emilio is dead.

The story he tells about Johnny is difficult or impossible to prove. And given the questions about Bonacci’s credibility, many people say he does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, Bonacci stands by his story.

I ask Bonacci if he has any pictures or documents to corroborate what he says.

“Anything I had was destroyed in the flood here,” he says. Bonacci lives near a river, and flooding in 2019 put four feet of water in his house. He’d been hand-writing some notes for a possible book, “about 2,000 pages,” he said, but those notes were left waterlogged and illegible.

Bonacci says he’s seen Johnny Gosch 15 or 20 times in all, the last time around 2018. He says Johnny is in hiding, afraid to come out and tell what he knows.

“He’d be killed,” Bonacci says. “That’s what he’s afraid of. He’d be silenced.”

Noreen wishes ‘the truth would finally be acknowledged’

Days after my first visit with Bonacci, I’m back at the boat in East Dubuque. Noreen and George are eager for news. When they’re told what Bonacci said about Johnny, they agree. Noreen thinks Johnny is alive, with a family of his own. He would be 53 on this day in August, turning 54 in November, and she thinks he could be using another name.

“He’s probably wanted for all kinds of things,” George says, raising the notion that Johnny was forced into criminal activity the same way Paul Bonacci says he was.

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Noreen and George have become partners in the independent investigation. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

“But the other reason, too,” Noreen says, “and Paul said this to me one time, he said, ‘Even though Johnny has not been — did not come forward,’ he said, ‘he knows what you’re doing. He keeps tabs on things. And he’s not about to come out of hiding to a dog and pony show.’ Meaning he has watched how I was treated in the news and publicly, and he doesn’t want any part of that circus. And Bonacci has said that several times. And if Paul said to you that he believes Johnny’s alive, then that means he’s had contact with him. That much I know.”

“They keep in touch,” George says. “They all keep in touch.”

“Yeah,” Noreen says, “they do.”

“It’s a fraternity,” George says. “It’s a strange — you don’t want to be in it. But the only people they really trust are each other.”

“Makes them blood brothers, almost,” Noreen says. “And that’s a stronger bond than maybe their real families that they’ve been separated from for all these years.”

“I’d bet money,” George says, “give you 2-to-1 odds, that Johnny knows you were at Paul’s house by now.”

There is no way to know how many people are in this secret and unconfirmed network of survivors. But Noreen says she’s spoken to more than 100 people who claim to have suffered the same kinds of abuses that Paul and Johnny did.

George says he’s met some of these survivors too. Back when he and Noreen still lived in West Des Moines, more than one knocked on the door late at night and just wanted to talk. Their eyes darted around the room to see who might be looking for them, he says. They didn’t give names and didn’t ask for help. They just wanted someone to listen, and to believe them.

“Sometimes just to get it off your chest makes you feel better,” George says.

Noreen says six people have told her they saw Johnny out there. They knew details about Johnny that had not been publicized. One told Noreen that Johnny had taught him the same relaxation techniques he’d learned from Noreen’s yoga classes. Another said, “Johnny told us that you’d be nice to us.”

As George puts it, “She’s kind of the godmother of the victims.”

They say they’ve heard other stories about Johnny, too. More sightings from Paul Bonacci and his wife.

“In fact,” Noreen says, “Johnny showed up with a — was it a car seat?”

“Yeah,” George says.

“ — or something,” Noreen says, “when they had their first baby. And gave ‘em a car seat. Bonacci’s wife told us. Years ago.”

These days, Noreen and George are both retired. They both enjoy spending time with their grandchildren from previous marriages. They have good friends who stay on neighboring boats. Noreen gets up early and answers questions from members of Facebook’s Official Johnny Gosch Group, which has more than 6,000 members. Sometimes, George and Noreen take the pontoon boat up the river and stop for lunch at a dockside restaurant.

“You hungry?” Noreen says.

They walk along the dock, from the big boat to the smaller one. Noreen wears a brace and limps slightly from an injury to her left knee. At the pontoon boat, George hands Noreen a tool that resembles a can opener. He has one too, and together they unfasten the snaps on the faded red cover of the pontoon boat that bobs in the dull green water.

In the boat on the river, Noreen and George can travel easily between Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)
When it gets cold around October, they leave the boat and head for Florida. (Will Lanzoni/CNN)

George takes the wheel and guides the boat through the channel. It’s a warm and cloudy afternoon. They are asked if they are happy.

“Yeah,” George says.

“Yeah,” Noreen says. “I am.”

A blue heron soars in the middle distance, flapping its long, slender wings. Noreen is asked what she has left to accomplish.

“I would like to see this case resolved and justice served,” she says.

“It would be important to me, before I leave this earth.”

“If the truth would finally be acknowledged.”

George speeds up the boat. The engine gets louder. Hot sunlight comes down through a break in the gray ceiling of clouds. Here is the Mississippi.

“America’s greatest river,” George says.

“Oh,” Noreen says, “that breeze feels good.”

She is still thinking about that question, what she has left to accomplish, and a related one, what she wants most.

“I think the other thing I want is for Johnny to know that I tried,” she says, meaning she did all she could to rescue him when he first disappeared. When he was still a boy.

“I tried everything,” she says. “Everything.”

She interviewed the neighbors herself, pored over diagrams of the crime scene, relentlessly demanded action from the police and the FBI, went on TV countless times to keep the spotlight on his case, was accused of crying too little, and crying too much, was accused of looking too put-together, and not put-together enough, gave over 800 speeches at schools, churches and civic groups about the kind of danger he was in, wrote to President Ronald Reagan, testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, helped pass Iowa’s Johnny Gosch bill to make sure the police didn’t wait to start looking for missing children, worked three jobs to help pay for the private investigators who were crisscrossing the country to look for clues, woke up in the middle of the night with new ideas and wrote them down in the notebook she kept on her nightstand, because she was still Johnny’s mother, even though he was gone.

George drives the boat up the river. To the left are the bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa, and ahead, past the bridge, is Wisconsin. Johnny is somewhere out there too, in some unknown condition, and Noreen is still talking about him, though it’s hard to hear her now, with the wind and the engine. Still she keeps talking about Johnny, as if the sound of her voice could keep him alive, and the boat goes north, against the current, up the middle of America.

Credits

  • Writer: Thomas Lake
  • Editor: Brandon Griggs
  • Photographer: Will Lanzoni
  • Photo Editor: Brett Roegiers