Murder Monday: Johnny Gosch and The Franklin Cover-up

Every Monday, Weird Shit Blog features an unsolved or strange murder, death, or crime. I call it Murder Monday. This is a long one, and the last in the series for now. So grab something to drink and get ready, because this is a pretty strange one.

You know those pictures on the sides of milk cartons? They started that because of a kid named Etan Patz. Amber Alerts? They were because of a girl named Amber Hagerman. Code Adam is named for Adam Walsh (whose dad went on to host America’s Most Wanted.) Johnny Gosch is why police departments are required to immediately respond to kidnapping reports. Yep, before 1982, most police departments waited for at least 72 hours before launching an investigation into a missing persons report for a child.

“Eh, lady, kids just get up and walk away sometimes. He’ll be fine.”

But that’s not the only thing Johnny Gosch is known for today. He’s also known for his mother, Noreen Gosch, and her long, bizarre search in trying to find her son, and for the huge conspiracy that he may have been a part of. (And, if you believe his mother, he may be one of the few who could bring it down.)

Johnny Gosch was a 12 year old paperboy from West Des Moines, Iowa. One September morning in 1982, Johnny never came home from delivering papers. Several witnesses saw him at various points that morning, but by 6 a.m., he had vanished. When his customers began calling, complaining of undelivered newspapers, his mother and father began searching for him. After they found his wagon full of newspapers, but not him, they contacted police, who concluded that Johnny had been kidnapped, but had no suspects and no motive. Eventually, the case ran cold. The Gosch family very vocally proclaimed that police had bungled the case on several fronts.

Photograph of the West Des Moines chief inspector on the case, shortly before being attacked by a screaming Asian man.

The Gosch family then hired several of their own private investigators, including a retired FBI chief and a former NYPD detective. None came up with any solid leads, though they did discover a woman who claimed to have seen a man photographing a boy matching Johnny’s description outside of the local grade school two weeks before Johnny’s disappearance. According to Noreen Gosch, police did not take the report seriously and threw away the license plate number of the man’s vehicle. Investigators also turned up witnesses who claimed to have seen a man attempting to talk to Johnny from the window of a car just minutes before the time he was believed to have been kidnapped.

Police sketch of the vehicle based on eyewitness accounts.

Nothing further was unearthed until two years later, in 1984. Eugene Wade Martin, another paperboy from West Des Moines, was kidnapped during his morning paper route. Initially, police claimed that it was not related to Johnny Gosch’s kidnapping. Noreen Gosch, however, had heard differently. And what was, until that point, a fairly normal, (albeit still extremely tragic) story of a kidnapped boy, suddenly started to get way crazy.

You see, according to Noreen Gosch, one of her investigators, a man named Sam Soda, contacted her two weeks before Martin’s disappearance and told her that he had received information that indicated that Johnny was not kidnapped randomly, but had been chosen to be part of a child prostitution ring. The group had sought him out, and they intended to strike again in West Des Moines. Noreen Gosch claims that she brought this information to police, but they ignored her.

And again, things went cold. Police still had no suspects, had made no arrests, and had no leads. Even the Gosch family’s investigative team began to exhaust all their information. Then, in 1989, the case blew open.

As did Keanu Reeves’ career. Coincidence? You decide.

In Nebraska, a man named Paul Bonacci had been picked up for male prostitution. At first, it just seemed to be another ordinary hooker arrest. But upon being interviewed by police, Bonacci started making wild accusations. He claimed that he had been part of a sex ring since he was a boy, and that that sex ring was connected to other prostitution groups throughout the U.S., including, and this is the scary part, one in Washington, D.C. that even furnished child and male prostitutes to the White House. The more police spoke with him, the more interesting his story became. According to Bonacci, as he got older, he lost his usefulness as a child prostitute, and so had been forced by his handlers into kidnapping replacements. Paul Bonacci says that this included a young Johnny Gosch.

Holy shit. Newspapers used to be a quarter!

This child prostitution ring was not run by weirdo criminals out of the back of sleazy bars, though, but by powerful bankers at the Franklin Credit Union. a large local financial institution, and specifically, by an official at the bank named Lawrence E. King. Coincidentally, the state of Nebraska had already been looking into Franklin for doing shit they weren’t supposed to be doing with people’s money and had found some evidence that a few higher ups in the company had procured the services of male prostitutes on a few occasions, seeming to confirm some of Bonacci’s claims. As a result, they began looking more into Bonacci’s story and, within a few weeks, had decided to launch a full criminal investigation into the Franklin Credit Union sex scandal and, less than a month later, initiated grand jury proceedings against the company.

Mysteriously, two weeks before the grand jury was to convene on the matter, the lead investigator, Gary Caradori, was killed when his plane broke up over Illinois. To boot, rumor has it that the mechanic responsible for checking out his plane beforehand was later found dead in his apartment after receiving a large cash sum that he deposited in his account, which was held at the Franklin Credit Union. It appeared to be suicide, but some claim that it was a murder, meant to keep the mechanic quiet.

Within a few months, however, the Nebraska grand jury threw out the case, claiming it to be a “carefully crafted hoax.” This left some investigators scratching their heads. Why did all of this evidence seem to lead up to something? Who supposedly crafted this hoax, and why? But, regardless, they did manage to uncover enough evidence to put Lawrence E. King in jail for embezzling $38 million.

For those of you who have trouble visualizing that much money, it’s enough to feed one college student 38 million times.

Bonacci and Nebraska state senator John DeCamp later brought a civil suit against Lawrence King for an unspecified amount. Oddly, King made no attempt to defend himself, although he would have had no issue doing so, despite being in prison. The judge in the suit awarded Bonacci a default judgment of $1 million. Just before King’s release in 2001, he briefly filed an appeal against the judgment, but later dropped it. Popular speculation says that King perhaps felt guilty for what he supposedly did to Bonacci, but the courts of Nebraska didn’t rule one way or the other.

So was Johnny Gosch really kidnapped by a sex ring with ties to the White House and powerful bankers? Noreen Gosch sure thinks so. In fact, she claims that in 1997, she received a late-night visit from Johnny himself, now an adult, who told her that he was on the run and could implicate several people in the sex ring, powerful people that wanted him dead. Johnny had since taken on a new identity and gone into hiding, where he remains to this day.

And in yet another bizarre twist to an already bizarre case, in 2006, Noreen Gosch found Polaroid photographs on her doorstep that appear to show a teenaged Johnny Gosch, bound and gagged on a bed with two other missing children, David Leonard Johnson and another whose name remains unreleased, who had been kidnapped in the same timeframe.

And that’s where things stand today. No further activity has come out since 2006. Noreen Gosch still makes statements from time to time, and updates her website that has the latest news on Johnny’s disappearance.

But hold on a second, before we call this all done. There’s a few more things you need to know. Since the resurgence in popularity in the case from the 2006 Polaroids, some internet sleuths have done some looking back at the age old cold case, reviewing the evidence, and a few things have come to light. You see, what I just gave you above is Noreen Gosch’s version of events. Why? Well, you’ve gotta admit, it’s pretty exciting. Several other sources, however, claim things went down a little differently.

Let’s start with Eugene Wade Martin. According to Gosch’s story, she alerted the police two weeks before his kidnapping. West Des Moines police, however, claim that Gosch only came to them after Martin had disappeared. In addition, they could never find “Sam Soda” to get in touch with him about his supposed information. Police now believe he probably doesn’t exist and Gosch made him, and the story, up. They also claim that her story of a woman getting the license plate number of a vehicle believed to be Johnny’s kidnapper never happened, either.

And what about Paul Bonacci? Nebraska investigators actually ended up not even using his statements in their evidence against the Franklin Credit Union, saying that he was unreliable and frequently changed facts in his story. They also later found that he was possibly not even in Iowa when Johnny Gosch was kidnapped and that he may have only claimed to have kidnapped him after he heard that Noreen Gosch had said Johnny had been kidnapped by a pedophile group. Noreen Gosch believes him, after having spoken to him, but she also claims to have spoken to a Michael LaVey who says that his father, Satanist Church founder Anton LaVey, was involved. Michael LaVey, however, is not a real person. Anton LaVey had one son whom Noreen Gosch has never spoken to.

The mechanic who supposedly committed suicide out of guilt or was killed to hush him up apparently does not exist, as no police reports or newspaper articles from that time include any such information.

Noreen Gosch was divorced from Johnny’s father in 1993. He has publicly stated that he’s unsure if Noreen Gosch’s account of the events, specifically Johnny’s late night visit in 1997, is legitimate.

And finally, an anonymous tipster has come forward and claims that someone has pulled a cruel prank, and the boys in Noreen Gosch’s Polaroids are not missing children at all, but boys who had been involved in an “escape contest” that had previously been investigated by a Det. Nelson Zalva in Florida. Zalva turned out to be real, and confirmed this, but found that his files on the case had disappeared. Gosch claims that Zalva is involved in the cover-up and trying to discredit her. In addition, David Leonard Johnson, one of the other boys Gosch claims is in the photos with Johnny, apparently does not exist. She has also been caught doctoring the photos uploaded to her website, including photoshopping a human brand onto the arm of the boy she claims is Johnny.

So which is right? Is Johnny Gosch a man on the run and his desperate mother is the only one who’s actively trying to help him, or is Noreen Gosch just a delusional woman making up stories where her son may have been kidnapped, but now he’s out there trying to fight back?

For now, we have no way to know.

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