2 Paperboys Missing Since the 1980s Helped Shape Our Fear

They were white boys from the 'safe' city of Des Moines, Iowa, writes Paul M. Renfro
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 15, 2021 1:10 PM CDT
2 Paperboys Missing Since the 1980s Helped Shape Our Fear
   (Getty Images)

When it comes to missing children cases and the origin of the "stranger danger" warnings of the 1980s, the names Etan Patz and Adam Walsh are regularly invoked. In a piece for Slate, Paul M. Renfro focuses on two others—the "kidnapped paperboys." The disappearances of Johnny Gosch and Eugene Wade Martin are lesser known, but they "played a crucial role in stoking this [stranger danger] panic and the parental anxieties associated with it." The two were taken two years apart, Johnny in 1982 and Eugene in 1984. The common thread was both were white boys who vanished in Des Moines, Iowa, while delivering papers. Neither were found, and neither case was solved. Renfro shares details of the crimes—Johnny's wagon was found filled with every single paper he was to deliver—but focuses more on the coverage of the time.

Specifically, what it said about race and class. Local coverage of the crimes hit the same note: That Des Moines (6.9% black in 1980) should be immune from the crimes and violence of cities like Detroit and Newark, which were majority Black. That shaped a perception, and outcry, and even laws that haven't been entirely helpful. "In reality, white children are no more vulnerable than others," Renfro writes, and "if Americans truly wish to protect all children (and adults) from kidnapping, exploitation, and other forms of sexual and physical harm, we must recognize that cases like Johnny Gosch's and Eugene Martin's are extremely rare. Stranger abduction and exploitation understandably terrify parents and other family and community members in acute ways, yet family members and acquaintances are far more likely to perpetrate harm against children." (Read his full piece for more, including his argument about the damage done by sex registries.)

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