99% Invisible: Milk Carton Kids

Feb 19, 2016

On the February 19, 2016 edition of 99% Invisible.

On a Sunday morning in 1982, in Des Moines, Iowa, Johnny Gosch left his house to begin his usual paper route.  A short time later, his parents were awakened by a phone call–it was a neighbor—their paper hadn’t come. When the Gosches went looking for Johnny they found only his red wagon full of newspapers, abandoned on the sidewalk.

Johnny Gosch was 13 when he disappeared. He had blue eyes and dirty blond hair with a small gap between his front teeth. And his would be the first face of a missing child ever printed on a milk carton.

Johnny’s face wouldn’t find its way onto a milk carton right away though. In September of 1982, when he disappeared, the milk carton program didn’t exist yet, and in fact, Johnny’s parents struggled to get the authorities to take their son’s case seriously. Police were skeptical that he had really been abducted. This sort of thing was just not supposed to happen in wholesome towns in Middle America.

At the time of Johnny’s disappearance there was no legal distinction between a missing child and a missing adult. As such, Johnny’s parents had to wait three days before authorities would consider him a “missing person.” While the Gosches continued to search for their son, Noreen Gosch helped write legislation that would distinguish children from adults in missing persons cases in the state of Iowa.

And then, two years after Johnny, another paperboy named Eugene Martin went missing from a nearby neighborhood. This time a relative working at Anderson & Erickson Dairy got his employer to help. The result was a local milk carton campaign featuring the images of Eugene and Johnny. Within weeks, cartons with images of the two kids were all over the city.

Other area dairies got on board and the endeavor quickly went national, spreading to 700 independent dairies coordinated in part by the National Child Safety Council [...]