“Who Took Johnny” Filmmakers Get Candid About The Case Of The First Missing Kid On A Milk Carton

What do you do when your child goes missing and no one wants to help? A new documentary explores the terrifying, twisted case of Johnny Gosch.

What is your worst fear? Spiders? Needles? Heights? Clowns? For parents, it's losing a child. And for Noreen Gosch, this nightmare came true when her child, Johnny Gosch, went missing in 1982. The initial horror was compounded as police ignored her pleas for help and then mounting evidence suggested her son was abducted by a human trafficking ring. Yet as time went on the story got stranger and scarier: a man with multiple personality disorder offered startling evidence, police cover-ups seemed increasingly plausible, and the media turned on a grieving mother.

Who Took Johnny, directed by David BeilinsonMichael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, explores the paranoaic twists and turns of this troubling case with stark neutrality. Delving into the darkest shadows of American culture and the evil underbelly of suburban life, Who Took Johnnywhich is available on Netflix, attempts to make sense of a tale that grows more insane by the second.

We chatted with the film's directors about their harrowing narrative. Check it out, below.

How hard was it to work on a documentary with subject matter this dark? Did it effect your lives outside of work?

Suki: The subject matter was difficult to deal with and it's why it took a long time for us to get the project going.  We had made a film called Horns and Halos in 2002 about a discredited biography of George W. Bush, and in it the author claims that Bush had used cocaine in his youth and his father had gotten it expunged from his record.  After a screening someone came up to us saying, "If you think that's a bombshell - I've got a story for you..." That person was Nick Bryant, a journalist who was investigating a human trafficking ring involving high profile people in Omaha that was targeting young kids. Michael and I had just had our first child and it all made my head spin, made me want to stop listening, so it took a while for me to get on board. I was to find out later that my recoiling from the story is a very typical response to the issue, and makes it easier for the problem to fly under the radar, in that way persisting...

Michael:  It was difficult and one of the reasons it took so long to get done ... It was so dark, that we had a hard time figuring out how to do it.  David was really the person who pushed forward on it and we continued to look into the story over the next several years ... It was difficult at times to work on it, but Noreen is such a strong person that there was also something positive about the tale.

David: It took us 10 years of investigating and contemplating the story before we started principal photography. My wife was very supportive, but she was also fearful of my involvement. We have kids, and knowing that there are dangerous people in the world willing to do unspeakably horrific things to children scared us both. Many family members haven’t seen the film, because of how scared they are of the subject matter. In many ways, it's easier for us to watch stories of murder than to see things where children are exploited or hurt. Researching and investigating this story has given me new insights into the nature of missing and exploited children, so that when I read or see similar stories in the news, I better understand how these tragedies persist.

What drew you to this subject matter? How did you get in touch with the key players in this story?

David: As filmmakers who focus on documentaries, we’re trying to craft true stories that follow traditional narrative storytelling arc. All of our films feature protagonists who are often fighting for something they believe in - usually going up against forces that are trying to stop them. When we heard about the story surrounding the first missing kid on a milk carton, we were drawn to the work of his mother Noreen as an activist for missing kids. As a mother searching for her son, Noreen’s quest to find Johnny and seek justice seemed like a classic story that anyone could relate to. All of the sightings, clues, and bizarre twists that have surfaced over the last 30 years created an incredible narrative that could never have been written by a fictional screenwriter. When we first approached Noreen, she was open but very skeptical of our intentions. She had been burned by a lot of reporters and filmmakers over the years and wasn’t ready to let us into her life. However, we won over her trust by proving that we spent thousands of hours researching the story and knew the details better than anyone. Finally, in 2011 Noreen agreed to participate. Eventually, the West Des Moines Police, the local reporters, John Walsh and the other key players agreed to participate because of the impact the case had on their lives. Johnny’s disappearance has haunted many of those involved, but they wanted to be able to tell their story as part of one of the most important cases of the last 50 years.

The doc often fluctuates between extreme outrage and extreme doubt – did this induce in you a kind of paranoia? Who did you feel you could trust during the making of this?

Suki: That's a good way to describe our reaction while researching the story.  We tend to make documentaries that are factual, but also convey a sense of emotional reality - how we felt as we first came to the story.  We read Johnny Gosch's mother Noreen's book and understood her take on the story.  We also understood that she was not taken very seriously by many people in the '80's and '90's - she was somehow made out to be a kook who was just looking for attention.  From the vantage point of today, that attitude toward the mother of a child who had disappeared seems unbelievable.  But it prevailed, and at that time, Noreen was one of the only ones following up on the pedophile ring theory.  To dismiss everything she had to say — when she was one of the very few people who was actively investigating the case [law enforcement had deemed Johnny a missing person and wasn't conducting an investigation] — because she was "emotional," seemed very outdated to us...  

So, our goal was to look at the story, minus any judgments about Noreen's character... Does her story, when presented in full, hold water.  No one before had cataloged Noreen's story in a comprehensive way.  As filmmakers, we tell stories about characters who struggle against great odds to tell stories people don't want to hear, so we followed her story and interviewed the people most related to that story...the other characters either corroborated or cast doubt on it and it's up to the audience to decide which argument is most credible, given the evidence. Because law enforcement basically "doesn't want to talk about the Johnny Gosch case," which the FBI agent we were referred to states in the film, her theories happen to stand as the most logical explanation of what happened. But we were also open to other explanations, if they had emerged (and we still are).

David: When we first started production, we purposely kept a low profile and approached every subject—including Noreen—with an open mind and willingness to hear people’s thoughts without imparting our opinions. At the same time, we faced some resistance from police and the FBI for pursuing this story and that made us question their interests. We had to ask ourselves, “Why would law enforcement be so unwilling to talk about a 30-year-old missing kids case?” As such, whenever people chose not to talk to us, it made us more wary of motives. 

What do you make of Paul's multiple personality diagnosis (a diagnosis which, in general, has come under a lot of scrutiny lately)?

Suki: The diagnosis makes a lot of sense to me. But really what I think about when I think about Paul is his body language and what he has to say.  After watching his entire interview, I was struck by how much I believed what he had to say, through many small gestures and details.  His story never changed, he never got tense or uncertain, but remained genuine and real.  Plus he had nothing to gain by coming forward. Couple that with all the facts he was able to corroborate with Noreen when there was no way for him to have access to the information other than first-hand knowledge (this was pre-internet), and he comes across as very credible to me, diagnosis be what it may.

Michael:  I'd say that multiple personality diagnosis came under more fire in the 90's.  I have an old friend who is a psychiatrist who watched the film and reached out to me afterwards to tell me about a patient of hers who was abused and had many personalities.  It's interesting to take a look at something like Anne Harrington's history of hypnosis The Cure Within. In that book she illustrates that the way in which people responded to hypnosis changed over time—and it changed in regards to cultural expectations.  So sometimes our psychological/emotional responses to tramua manifest themselves in ways that we don't have full control over—or even understand.  When we describe these things—or write about them—we want them to be concrete and explainable.  Sometimes they simply aren't that definitive or clear.

David: Paul’s multiple personality disorder was diagnosed as result of years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Studies have shown that this is a common affliction associated with extreme abuse, so it seemed pretty clear he wasn’t faking or making it up. At the same time, psychologists have stated that individuals diagnosed with multiple personalities are most often telling the truth when confronted with serious questions or are asked to give testimonies under oath. I found Paul to be very composed and confident. His body language and tone made him appear very believable.

A theme here is corruption and negligence from government bodies and police – have things changed? To what extent does the police negligence shown here reflect more contemporary political discussions?

Suki: Law Enforcement at the time was able to label Noreen as a kook, and so to ignore her pleas to investigate her son's disappearance. Whether this is due to negligence or corruption is never concluded in the film, only documented.  I think as a culture, it wouldn't be possible to dismiss the victim of a crime so absolutely today based on her appearance/behavior, but what is possible today is for people to deny certain facts if those facts conflict with their world views—even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Michael:  There was certainly incompetence and I don't think that the film itself argues that there was direct corruption in regards to West Des Moines police, but instead to the fact that corruption is always going to be there on some level.  Some of these issues are simply cultural to a degree. What is the culture at large? What is the culture of police departments? If there is a culture that doesn't take runaways seriously —that's one thing — but it wasn't just Des Moines at the time.  The direct disregard for Noreen from the chief of police says something about the culture of that force at that time.  It's not a film about the police today so I don't feel like I have the authority to answer that second part except to say that there is always corruption on some level in all aspects of society.

We want to believe that those in power are trustworthy and competent — politicians, doctors, police.  Most of the time they are but a lot of it depends on training, not just in regards to facts, but also emotions—and that's where things get tricky. 

David: More often than not, law enforcement negligence is a reflection of policy, inherent bias and resources rather than overt maliciousness. For example, the West Des Moines Police had less than 40 officers in the department when Johnny disappeared. They were completely overwhelmed, and they didn’t have the experience, resources, or leadership to effectively investigate the case. Today, when we see issues of corruption and negligence it is often caused by a few bad or incompetent people within an organization, and then their colleagues end up covering for them in order to protect the organization.  Paul Sparrow, the former Executive Producer of America’s Most Wanted, eloquently explained the problem in the film when he said, “The natural instinct of most organizations is to protect the organization, and that isn’t just for this case. That happens everywhere, all the time.”

You present a rather neutral picture of Noreen – which parts of her story did you want the audience to believe? Which parts do you believe?

Suki: The part of Noreen's story that people have the most difficulty with is her assertion that Johnny came to visit her many years after his disappearance. We were documenting Noreen's story and this is what she said.  I have no way of verifying her words, but I have thought about it hard and come up with three theories: A) he really came to visit her, and because she had immersed herself so fully in the understanding of the underworld into which he fell, she knew that she couldn't make him stay—he had already changed too much. B) the story was dying down and she needed a way to bring it back to attention. C) She really does believe that it was him, but someone was impersonating Johnny for any number of reasons (because the story was unbelievable and would discredit her further...because it was a prank on Noreen...etc.)

David: Our hope is that audiences will think about everything Noreen says within the context of her plight. I want them to put themselves in her position and think about how they might react and how the trauma of losing one’s child might cause them to react. Noreen’s story elicits a few essential questions that viewers must ask themselves: 

Was Johnny kidnapped or did he run away? It seems pretty clear, based on eye witnesses and the location of his disappearance, that Johnny was abducted against his will.

If he was kidnapped, was it a lone perpetrator or was it an organized group? Eyewitnesses and investigative findings all point to more than one person being involved in his abduction.

Did Paul tell Noreen things about Johnny only she would have known? Paul disclosed a few descriptions about Johnny that Noreen had never made public, and its unlikely she or someone close to her would have fed Paul that information.

Did Johnny really visit her 15 years after he disappeared? This is the toughest theory to accept by everyone. I believe that someone visited Noreen that night. It seems unlikely that she would make that story up, knowing how much criticism and doubt she would face—even after years of being maligned by the media and members of her own community. She has had plenty of opportunities to keep the story relevant, so I’m forced to ask myself why would she make it up. And if she was lying, as some people might suggest, then why would she wait two years after it occurred to announce it? 

Do some of the pictures she received of bound boys feature Johnny? This was hard to figure out. Some of the boys certainly look like Johnny, but that quality was too poor to have forensic scientists compare against known photos of Johnny... 

Accordingly, audiences can believe parts of Noreen’s story and yet it doesn’t necessarily discredit everything else. For example, audiences certainly believe that Johnny was kidnapped by an organized ring, but many viewers don’t believe he visited her. 

Do you think there is a moral to this story?

Suki: When I think of morals to stories, I think of clear lessons to pretty straightforward subjects.  When you're dealing with undefinable impulses roiling under the surface of our psyche as a society, it seems harder to give advice to the audience going forward.  The one thing that has made itself clear to me after working on this film is the extent to which we as a society want to turn away from the fact of pedophilia rather than confront it head on, and because of this impulse it continues to slip through the cracks. (I think about news stories, especially around the time of the Super Bowl, that deal with human trafficking - they always state that law enforcement has rounded up an anonymous number of predators and carted them off.  There is never an identifying of the men or the problem, and we who read the article can breathe a collective sigh of relief that "they" are put away and we don't have to think about it…  Only after making this film did I notice this pattern in almost every news piece about human trafficking.)

David: Missing and exploited children are the most vulnerable and neglected members of society. Even when the media reports on their plight, we’re often much more consumed and concerned with trivial stories. My hope is that at the very least, viewers of the film will be inspired to pay attention to issues surrounding children.


Who Took Johnny is currently available on Netflix.

[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

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