The recent, tragic resolution to the Jacob Wetterling case here in Minnesota got me thinking back to other, dare I use the term, “famous” missing children stories of years gone by, and when I noticed that Netflix had recently added the 2014 documentary Who Took Johnny (I know, I know — I think the title should have a question mark in it, too, but it doesn’t), which focuses on the 1982 disappearance of then-paperboy Johnny Gosch while on his morning delivery route in West Des Moines, Iowa, to their streaming queue (which is probably your only way to see it given that it’s not, to my knowledge, available on either Blu-ray or DVD), I decided to give it a go the other night. The idea that anyone would abduct or otherwise harm a child is anathema to most of us, I would hope, and the plight of any missing kid’s desperate parents is certain to be a tough thing to witness, but I dunno — I just felt it almost necessary to see what this one was all about.
Directed by the RumuR, Inc. crew of David Bellinson, Michael Galinsky, and Suki Hawley, this flick quickly transitions from an examination of the particulars of the case —which was originally treated by the West Des Mines PD as a standard-issue “runaway” scenario — into a character study of Johnny’s mother, Noreen Gosh, and her relentless pursuit of answers, which has cost her much : her marriage, her standing in the community, perhaps even her sanity. I understand that a shorter, 45-minute version of this 81-minute film aired on MSNBC, and while I didn’t see that, my assumption is that it probably trimmed things down to a more “nuts and bolts” package that would necessarily omit a lot of the laser-like focus on Noreen, and that’s a shame, because that’s where the truly heart-wrenching stuff is to be found here.
Early on, Johnny became one of the original “milk carton kids” that traumatized many of us who were of a certain age in the mid-1980s over our breakfasts, and lots of leads turned up as to his potential whereabouts, but most of them turned out to be dead ends. That didn’t stop his mother from pursuing pretty much all of them, though, and as the case has grown “colder” over the ensuing years and decades, her single-minded determination hasn’t dulled in the least. And while parents such as the Wetterlings (mother Patty Wetterling in particular) have channeled that same sense of grief and unknowing into establishing national networks to help find missing and/or exploited children and gotten legislation passed at the local, state, and even federal legislation passed to help their cause, becoming respected pillars in their community in the process, Noreen’s propensity for grasping at any and every straw has resulted in her own near-ostracizing in her hometown, where she’s viewed by many as a sad flake who “lost it” somewhere along the way.
Would — or, for that matter, could — any of us do any differently if it was our kid, though? She certainly does her part to help others in her situation, as the filmmakers here show, but as the years have gone on she has, for whatever reason, become convinced that her son’s disappearance ties into a secret “pedophile ring” of wealthy and powerful elites that isn’t just protected by the government itself, but is ensconced right within it. I don’t rule that out as being a possibility — Lord knows the privileged class has plenty of time on their hands for debauchery of the most vile sort if that’s their “bag” — but there is scant concrete, physical evidence to bolster that assertion in this particular instance, the “testimony” of one Paul Bonacci, who claims to have helped abduct Johnny when he was only a kid himself and part of this supposed “network” is unreliable in the extreme, and the cottage industry of so-called “conspiracy theorists” that have glommed onto the Gosch tragedy often have less-than-pure motives of their own for wanting to shoehorn Johnny’s disappearance into their larger, and perhaps self-created, tapestry of nefarious goings-on.
I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong — in point of fact I just don’t know — but let’s not kid ourselves : the likes of Alex Jones, David Icke, and other peddlers of “the global elites are coming to get you!” -style modern mythology stand to make a lot of money from those who, to quote The X-Files, “want to believe,” and for those pre-disposed toward buying into the idea of a “New World Order,” the notion of a global kidnapping ring that provides kiddie sex slaves for the Rockefellers and Kissingers of the world fits in pretty easily.
And while some of Noreen’s new “friends” may not be helping matters much, there are those who would argue that her own behavior is just as harmful. She claims, for instance, that Johnny himself came to visit her in the middle of the night some years back, and many folks in her area have taken that as either further evidence that she’s long since past the point of no return and exists now in a delusional pseudo-reality all her own, or that she’s so desperate to keep the case in the headlines that she’s willing to just plain make shit up in order to gin up a new round of media interest. I’m not willing to go that far — she seems too painfully sincere to me — but whether or not she thinks she was visited by Johnny means that she actually was is a question that I just can’t answer.
One thing I respect the hell out of her for, though, whatever her current mental state may be, is that she has absolutely never given up, and doesn’t appear to have any intention of doing so until she finds this increasingly-elusive “truth” that she’s after. I hope her son’s alive. I hope she’s reunited with him. And I hope no one else ever has to go through the living hell that she’s endured.
In the final analysis, then, Who Took Johnny may not answer the question its own title (nearly) asks, but it provides a harrowing look into an understandably-damaged psyche and offers a portrait in determination and courage that makes for compelling, if unsettling, viewing.