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Innocence Abducted: From Johnny Gosch to Evansdale Cousins, 30 Years Have Brought Many Changes to Missing Children Investigations

Investigators say better relationships with media and faster response times have improved how missing children investigations are conducted.

Part 4 of a Series.

Within hours of the disappearance of Elizabeth Collins, 9, and her cousin Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10, the town of Evansdale was crawling with people searching for the girls.

The girls went on July 13. They were last seen at 12:30 p.m., and the family reported them missing at 3 p.m.

That afternoon, officers knocked on doors across Evansdale and conducted an extensive ground, air and water search. Hundreds of volunteers helped canvass the town and surrounding woods, continuing into the night and picking up again the next morning.

It was a huge contrast to the response of an Iowa boy reported missing 30 years ago.

When Johnny Gosch didn't come home from his West Des Moines newspaper route in 1982, Noreen Gosch was told her son, 12 at the time, had probably just wandered off and would soon turn up.

Crucial Time Lost

During the crucial window of time when a missing child is most likely to be found - some authorities now say that window is about four hours - Gosch said she had trouble getting law enforcement to take the case seriously.

"Johnny’s case was probably not handled that well. Law enforcement at the time was still working under the presumption of runaway," said Jon Rabun of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "If that happened today, you’d be fighting law enforcement off."

Rabun was executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for 28 years. He is now the center's director of infant abduction response.

He said at the time Johnny Gosch vanished, the pervasive attitude - in Des Moines, in Iowa and in the nation - was that before 24 hours had passed, there wasn't much to worry about, especially in the case of an adolescent like Johnny.

"To be honest, there weren’t all the answers at that point in time about how long was too long. It was just kind of foreign turf for most law enforcement agencies back then," he said. "If you went into that case now as an investigator, you'd know that clock is ticking. You'd know you’ve got to do a lot of things, and you’ve got to do them quick."

Two years after Gosch's disappearance, another Des Moines Register paper boy, Eugene Martin, 15 at the time, disappeared while on his route. Rabun said the eerie similarity of the cases - and the knowledge that Johnny had never come home - lit a fire under the Martin investigation.

"When Eugene disappeared - oh man what a difference hindsight makes," he said. "Jeepers, it was non-stop. The police and media, they were just buzzing."

Despite that, Martin has never been found. No trace of Johnny has ever been found, either.

Rabun said the Gosch and Martin cases, along with about five other high-profile cases across the country in a two-year period, helped reshape how the public and authorities think about and respond to missing children reports.

Much has changed since then.

New Laws, Systems in Place

The Johnny Gosch Bill, a 1984 Iowa law that was adopted by eight other states, mandates immediate police involvement when a child is reported missing. Nationally, the Center for Missing and Exploited Children was established to act as an information clearing house and resource center for such cases.

Additionally, in 1996 the Amber Alert program was established to get the word out quickly when a child is believed to be abducted. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children credits AMBER Alerts with the safe recovery of 572 children between 1997 and March 2012. 

The Amber Alerts partner law enforcement with the media to quickly distribute a missing child's photo and information, along with information about suspects or vehicles that may be connected to the case.

No Amber Alert was issued in the Evansdale case because there was no suspect or vehicle information. Heather Collins, Elizabeth Collins's mother, has been collecting signatures in support of a "Cousins Law" that would make it easier to issue alerts and set up vehicle check points when a child is reported missing.

Despite no Amber Alert being issued, the media were quickly informed of the missing girls, another thing several investigators said is an enormous change from 30 years ago.

Rabun had previously worked as a police officer in Louisville, KY, where he helped investigate the never-solved missing persons case of Ann Gotlib, another of the incidents that garnered national attention alongside Gosch and Martin.

"If you’d have said to me as a cop in Louisville, we’re going to partner with the media, I’d have fallen down," he said. "We were cordial to the media, but didn’t see them as a partner."

Today that has changed, he and several others said.

"You relied more on word of mouth. Thirty years ago, something like that might have made the evening news," said Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson. "But the flow of information was so slow."

Using the Media to Spread the Word

Thompson and his department have been working with local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the case of the missing Evansdale girls.

Thompson said partnering with media has been vital to the information flow of that investigation.

"Within 24 hours, we had over 2,000 people helping us search for those two kids," Thompson said. "In the past it could have taken us a week to get that much information out."

Sadly, even with the fast response times and media partnerships, the Evansdale girls remain missing and Johnny's mother looks back on 30 years of heartache.

But investigators aren't giving up. Dozens of tips are still received each day in the Evansdale investigation. The tip-line, which anyone with information is encouraged to call, is (319) 232-6682.

And Rabun said the Gosch and Martin cases, even today, aren't closed.

"Leads that were already worked into the dirt are reworked," he said. "Every three or four years our guys will go to take a fresh look with a new set of eyes. We’ve done that and done that, and we’ll keep doing it."

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Child Quest September 07, 2012 at 03:52 PM
New laws, alert systems, and a variety of new technologies and other resources have helped protect and locate missing children. Many things have changed since the poster days that originated in the late 1800's(!), and for the better. Unfortunately, we still have a serious issue with regards to our nations missing children (all missing children are victims: stranger abductions, family abductions, runaways, and throwaways) and the even uglier side of human trafficking that these children may become trapped in, especially "runaways". Working together is vital. Our communities need to be aware of all resources available to them other then law enforcement. Law enforcement does a great job, but they cannot do it alone. The help of orgs like Child Quest International www.childquest.org, NCMEC, parents like Noreen Gosch and vigilant community members all provide an integral piece in the efforts to find those who have gone missing (as well as to the left-behind family). The aid of social media has taken us into a new era of information dissemination. The ability to "share" information and photos across large populations and geographical areas in seconds is a tool like no other. Now, even QR codes play a role in finding children. Have You Seen Me? http://uqr.me/missing-sierra-lamar
Beth Dalbey September 07, 2012 at 04:58 PM
You make a good point. Even if they are not abducted into human trafficking, runaways can end up in prostitution and pornography because it's a means to survive.
Child Quest September 07, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Exactly, and far too often they (meaning runaways) fall to the bottom of the totem pole in the priority category because they are looked at as they "choose" to runaway... but what would you do if you had a father who molested you and a mother that didn't care enough to protect you? Harsh example, for a harsh reality. But the fact remains the same, when children run away from home with the intent to stay gone, it is often because they are faced with unstable family situations where leaving is the only option to them. And again, there are many reasons for runaways, but that doesn’t make them any less important. All missing children are victims in our point of view.
Beth Dalbey September 07, 2012 at 05:38 PM
What are some of the changes society needs to make to move them up on the totem pole?
Child Quest September 07, 2012 at 06:27 PM
Awareness to the issue is definitely the first step, but from there it gets a little more complicated. There are laws (some states it is a crime to runaway, others it is not...) that need to be changed to make it easier for law enforcement help get these children off the streets and the assistance they need to get their life back on track. Public perception of these children needs to change as well. Far too often, runaways are just disregarded as either “not that bigga deal” or are seen as “someone else’s problem”. That needs to change. As a community, we need to be more sensitive to this group of missing children and aware of the resources that can help under these circumstances. Please support organizations that are making a difference in keeping hope alive for these children. www.childquest.org

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