Who Took Johnny

Who Took Johnny (there’s no question mark, even though I would think there should be) is the true crime story of the disappearance of Johnny Gosch, a 12 year old boy who went out in the predawn hours in suburban Des Moines to work his paper route in 1982 and never came home. It’s a case that is historically important in this country for the role it played in substantially increasing societal beliefs in vast pedophile rings of powerful and untouchable people, generating such phenomena as putting missing children’s photos on milk cartons and raising awareness in general of child abductions, and significantly changing parenting and child supervision customs.

The central figure of the documentary—not counting Johnny himself—is Johnny’s mother Noreen Gosch, who not only relentlessly pushed law enforcement to pursue the case more aggressively (think Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), but has since then pretty much devoted her life to being an activist on this issue.

Noreen contends that Johnny was abducted by an organized gang of pedophiles, that such gangs proliferate across the country, that Johnny was still alive decades later and may still be alive today, and that law enforcement in the Gosch case and in general is terribly if not suspiciously lax in pursuing child abduction and pedophilia crimes.

I’d say the documentary mostly takes her side. A little bit is said here and there that could be taken as reasons to see things differently, but I’d say this is 80%-90% like an “authorized biography” of Noreen and her family.

As I understand it, there’s little if anything new in this documentary. It serves more as a summary of the developments in the case over the last thirty plus years. That’s fine for me because I had never heard of Johnny Gosch, but for true crime junkies who are already up on the case I don’t know that this film has much to offer.

Interviewees describe the Gosch’s community as an ideal place to live, at least prior to the disappearance. (In other words it’s middle class and above, all or mostly white. Certainly it’s not the kind of community that I would think of as an ideal place to live, even though that’s pretty much the kind of suburb I grew up in.)

Several people—other kid newspaper carriers, neighborhood residents who happened to be looking out the window—state that they saw Johnny that early morning. Some say they saw him speaking with the driver of a car. According to one witness who was out and about at the time, Johnny came over to him and asked if he could help the driver (with directions, was the implication), but the car then suspiciously screeched away as if in a panic not to be seen by an adult. Later that morning, Johnny’s wagon with the newspapers and his dog were found abandoned.

According to the parents, and to some extent other parties like local reporters, the cops were bizarrely unhelpful, to such an extreme that some interviewees hint at conspiracy theories—that the cops, and later the FBI when they finally got involved, were in cahoots with the pedophile ring.

In other words, yes, at times this film veers into Q-Anon territory. It doesn’t clearly endorse that worldview—and Q-Anon itself is never mentioned explicitly—but it kind of leaves that open as one of the realistic possibilities to consider. Noreen herself has come to see things that way, though again I don’t know if she has embraced specifically a Q-Anon version of such conspiracy theories.

I’m not sure what to make of the cops’ handling of the case myself. Their initial response was that it was a likely runaway case rather than an abduction, I gather because that was their default assessment of missing children cases.

If so, I could see some justification for that reaction, at least in the numerical sense that I’m sure it’s enormously more common for a kid to run away than for some stranger to abduct them. But you can make the case that even if their background knowledge of such matters tells them that only 5% or 2% or 1% or whatever of kids reported missing turn out to have been kidnapped, it’s better to err on the side of safety and take such a case seriously. Not to mention, even if a 12 year old voluntarily runs away, there’s reason to be concerned for their safety and to energetically seek to locate them.

But it sounds—and I don’t know how much of this is the documentary’s editing—like they were decidedly lackadaisical about the whole thing. Someone from the police interviewed for the film is still more dismissive than not, taking the position that you can’t very well investigate a crime when it was never established that a crime even took place.

The film then adds other little nuggets of information from the years since the case. (As always, spoiler alert.)

Someone came forward with a dollar bill years later that said “I’m still alive” and was signed “Johnny Gosch,” which Noreen confirmed was his handwriting.

Two other boys around that age disappeared in subsequent years in the area in similar circumstances. The police said there was insufficient evidence to conclude that there was any connection with the Gosch case. That’s another instance where you have to shake your head at the police reaction, though again I’m hesitant to react too strongly to what I see that has been filtered through the editing of a documentary.

Eventually a young convict announced from prison that he had been involved in the abduction of Gosch. He claimed that there was indeed a massive well-connected conspiracy of rich and powerful people who kept kidnapped children captive as sex slaves and as performers in child pornography, and that this is what had happened to Johnny. He identified a specific farmhouse in Colorado where Johnny and others had been held. He confessed that he himself had sexually assaulted Johnny, as that was how the pedophile ring worked—the kids were forced to rape newcomers and commit other crimes so that they would never risk revealing anything since they’d be implicating themselves as well.

Some of what this guy claimed checked out reasonably well, and Noreen is convinced he’s telling the truth partly on the grounds that he knew certain things (e.g., scars Johnny had) that hadn’t been reported in the press. On the other hand, the guy admittedly suffers from major mental illness and is a convicted sex criminal (though both of these facts can be seen as consistent with and indeed caused by his having been abducted by pedophiles himself), and when he made specific allegations about a certain individual, a grand jury didn’t believe him and in fact he was convicted of perjury. Some of the interviewees say that his demeanor and the consistency of his story over time makes it clear he’s telling the truth; for what it’s worth my intuitive read on him was not nearly so flattering.

More recently, Noreen anonymously received photos of bound and gagged young boys that were supposed to include Johnny. She believes they are genuine. It turns out they were lifted from a website, and law enforcement officials in Florida recognized at least some of them as being from a case they had had in the ’70s (which may or may not have involved pedophilia—the kids who could be identified claimed they had been playing an “escape” game seeing who could and could not get out of being tied up). Noreen says that since not all the photos have been so identified, the remaining ones she’s sure are of Johnny.

The biggest bombshell in the case is that Noreen eventually claimed that about 15 years after the disappearance, Johnny in fact visited her. She’s certain it was him because of “his eyes.” He was allegedly with another man who seemed to have some authority over him to limit what he could say. He stayed for an hour or so, explained that he couldn’t reveal himself publicly because the pedophiles would surely kill him if he did so, and said he’d just wanted her to know he was still alive and OK. He made her promise not to tell anyone he was there, and then he was gone.

She only revealed this years later because she was asked a direct question about whether she had seen Johnny since the disappearance when she was on the witness stand in a case involving the convict guy who had claimed to know all that stuff about Johnny, and when she hesitated the judge admonished her that she was risking contempt of court if she didn’t answer fully and truthfully. So she chose to break her promise rather than get in legal trouble.

I don’t claim to be able to come to any confident conclusions about all this. I would think it’s more likely than not that Johnny was indeed kidnapped. I don’t completely rule out that he ran away and just never came back, but his age and the total evidence (that is, the total evidence that happens to have been in this film) make that unlikely. I think having two other boys disappear in the same area under similar circumstances especially points to foul play. I don’t give a huge amount of weight to the kind of eyewitness evidence there is in this case, but I give it nonzero weight, and that points in the same direction.

The massive pedophile ring is a little too much of a conspiracy theory for me. Yes, there is some evidence to suggest it, but there’s something suspicious about how more clear evidence for it always seem just around the corner, just out of reach. Obviously defenders of the hypothesis would say that that’s because the pedophiles are powerful, evil, and ruthless enough to cover their tracks and keep their existence unprovable, but that’s the kind of circular conspiracy thinking that makes me disinclined toward that hypothesis.

My guess is Johnny was abducted, and that if he was then more likely than not it did indeed involve pedophilia. But probably it was some local loser, not a breathtakingly vast Q-Anon size organized crime ring. Unfortunately, probably he and the other two boys who disappeared were killed fairly soon after their disappearances.

But I came away from the film at least as inclined to speculate about Noreen as about Johnny’s fate.

I don’t know if she was always a bit unstable or if the magnitude of the loss of her son in such circumstances damaged her mind. But she definitely seems “off” to me.

Her main “tell” that indicates that she’s responding with emotion and not rationality (in spite of her insistence otherwise) is her certainty. She is sure the accounts of the witnesses of the man in the car talking to Johnny that morning are accurate, that the convict guy is completely on the level and telling the truth about Johnny, that the photos she received were of Johnny, that she was visited by Johnny, that he was abducted by a huge ring of pedophile conspirators, that the same thing is happening regularly to countless other children, etc.

I don’t have a problem with the people who have suspicions in the same direction, who admit that they don’t know but think that there’s a decent chance the driver of that car snatched Johnny, that at best the police were incompetent and there may be something corrupt going on with them as well, that there might be at least some truth to the convict’s story, that you can’t rule out that at least one of those photos is of Johnny, etc. People can speculate about that stuff just as I speculate about it. As long as they acknowledge that they’re taking an educated, fallible, guess based on the limited available evidence, I don’t think they’re crazy whichever side they come down on. Even if they go so far as to wonder about the possibility of a massive pedophile ring I’m not going to condemn them. Certainly such a thing is possible (though the specifics of the Q-Anon versions are so whacko that they get really, really close to impossible).

But Noreen by all appearances is the kind of person who needs to believe certain things, and be sure of them, for emotional reasons.

Her husband comes across as far more reasonable. They divorced about a decade after Johnny’s disappearance. The film attributes this to the strain on the relationship of dealing with their horrible loss. It’s discreet about saying any more than that, and the husband, when interviewed, is quite diplomatic. (He quietly notes that he is unsure if Johnny came back and visited Noreen, but he doesn’t elaborate or in any way belittle her belief. But I think it says plenty that he doesn’t share it.) But I wonder if the “strain” was a matter of his observing her go farther and farther around the bend, falling into emotion-based conspiracy theories, letting her life be even more thoroughly taken over by the loss of their son by becoming a zealot of an activist about it, etc.

I’m certainly not unsympathetic toward the woman—I mean, think of the enormity of what she experienced—but I think she is, or has become, something of a kook.

Parents themselves are often prime suspects in cases like this. I can’t rule that out entirely here, but I do not read them that way. The father certainly not, and even if I think Noreen is obsessive and might have a screw loose, she didn’t raise suspicions in me as far as having victimized Johnny and made all this up. Like I say, those things happen, but I don’t see any indication of that here.

Most people will watch this kind of film solely for the crime itself—to speculate about “who done it,” to enjoy the titillating suggestions of child sex, to have their Q-Anon theories confirmed, whatever. I think what’s more important than the impact of the incident on the people directly involved—as huge and as painful as that is—is the wider social impact of a case like this.

It’s alluded to here and there in the film, but the publicity generated by this and other similar cases around the same time caused what has turned out to be a massive change in how we raise children.

This was a big impetus behind the advent of helicopter parenting, and the notion that practically until the day they leave for college (if not beyond), kids must be actively monitored at all times and kept from any and all situations of risk, real or imagined.

No longer do kids spend hours off playing with their friends unsupervised with the understanding that they’ll come home “when the streetlights come on” (and probably fudge a bit there and show up a half hour or an hour later). People say it’s because “the world’s a more dangerous place now” compared to when that was the norm, but I don’t think that’s true. I’m sure it was always the case that some miniscule percentage of kids left to their own devices like that got kidnapped, got molested by a stranger, fell out of a tree and broke their neck, got hit by a car when they were careless about how they crossed a street, etc.

But the overwhelming majority didn’t, and wouldn’t today if given the same freedom. Kids who aren’t kept hermetically sealed in a vacuum tube until their 18th birthday will do their share of dumb things, risky things, things that result in them being victimized, etc. They’ll also learn and grow, and the bulk of them will survive just fine, or at least will be no more fucked up than the ultra-sheltered kids of today.

There are always trade-offs, tough choices. Murderers and child molesters aren’t fictitious beings like devils and witches. They are indeed “out there.” (Even if there are much, much greater risks that get far less attention because they are less sensational.) But how far are you going to go to protect children from those and other dangers?

It’s easy to say that there’s no limit to how far you’ll go, that even the tiniest chance of some child rapist grabbing your kid and taking them away from you permanently is too high a chance to be ignored. But there are quality of life disadvantages, and developmental disadvantages, to contemporary child raising that shouldn’t be ignored. As much as people today will rebel at the notion, it’s possible that one kind of childhood where there is a 1 in five million chance that your kid will be raped and murdered is better for your child and better for society than a different kind of childhood where there is a 1 in fifty million chance.

Who Took Johnny isn’t blatant propaganda, but it leans a certain way and more or less makes a hero of a certain woman and her cause in a way that I don’t think is totally healthy for a society that not too long ago went through a bizarre period of delusional theories of Satanic sex abuse rings operating out of day cares and the like, and that has already become over-protective in its “safety over all else” philosophy of child raising.

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