Who took Johnny?4/22/2015
When you start talking about the disappearance of Johnny Gosch, it can be difficult not to start sounding like a conspiracy theorist. The fact that a young boy could be taken from a street in the middle of West Des Moines and disappear so completely is odd enough. Add in claims of police indifference, Omaha-based pedophile trafficking rings and mysteriously delivered photographs, and you’ve got the makings of a work of fiction.
“Who Took Johnny,” the documentary from Suki Hawley, David Beilinson and Michael Galinsky, sets out to tackle the story of the 1982 kidnapping of Gosch, taken in the wee hours of Sept. 5 while delivering newspapers in his West Des Moines neighborhood. Gosch’s disappearance gripped the nation, thanks in no small part to the persistence and relentless visibility of Johnny’s parents, Noreen and John. As the years have gone by, Noreen, in particular, has remained a tireless advocate for reform in how police departments treat missing children cases.
“Who Took Johnny” is, above all else, the story of Noreen Gosch. At the time the documentary was being filmed, Iowa was in the thick of the search for Elizabeth Collins and Lyric Cook, who were taken from Evansdale in July 2012. As the film opens, Noreen — whom the past 30 years has been positioned as a kind of Patron Saint of Taken Children — visits with Elizabeth’s parents, Drew and Heather, both clearly reeling. Noreen councils them on dealing with press requests, keeping on their daughter’s case and just making it through the next day. The scenes with Noreen and the Collinses make for heart-rending cinema, because we know how the Collins’ case ends, and we know where Noreen has been.
Noreen is far and away the most heavily interviewed person in the film, though the filmmakers took great pains to reach out to as many of the players as possible, including John Gosch Sr., representatives from the West Des Moines Police Department and print and television journalists who covered the case locally. The first 20 minutes of the film, where the play-by-play of Johnny’s last known movements unfold, winds up being the most gripping portion, if only because it is the last part of the documentary that anyone is 100 percent certain about.
The first 40 minutes of the film’s 80-minute run time is tightly told, remarkably well paced and manages to be sensitive without sensationalist. It is in the last half, as Noreen’s story gets more unusual, that the film starts to feel off-kilter. A large chunk of time and scrutiny is given to Paul Bonacci, a convict who claimed to have multiple personalities and to have taken part in Johnny’s kidnapping, but whom the FBI and West Des Moines police deemed uncredible. The film leads from Bonacci giving a brief rundown of the Franklin child prostitution ring allegations, touches on the photographs that Noreen says are of a bound and gagged Johnny and that turned up mysteriously on her doorstep, and ultimately hits on Noreen’s claim that Johnny himself visited her in 1997, 15 years after the disappearance.
“Who Took Johnny” has been well received everywhere it has played, and with good reason; it is a lovingly produced and created film. But I fear it may ultimately have a lesser impact during its run here in Des Moines, thanks in large part to our proximity to the case. There is nothing in “Who Took Johnny” that offers new or groundbreaking information. It will act as a great primer for anyone unfamiliar with the details, but, as ultimately must be the case, the film leaves all of its questions — especially the one in the title — unanswered. CV