The Fascinating Stories Behind Milk Carton Kids

The podcast 99% Invisible is about things we see every day but never think about. Generally the stories are about things like houses that are shaped like bubbles, but this episode, "Milk Carton Kids," is about pretty much every parent's nightmare.

Thirteen-year-old Johnny Gosch left his Des Moines, Iowa home on a Sunday morning in September, 1982, to begin his usual paper route. Later that morning his parents received a call from a neighbor saying their paper hadn't arrived. They went looking for Johnny and found his newspaper-filled red wagon abandoned on the sidewalk. Johnny Gosch would eventually be the first face of a missing child printed on a milk carton.

The missing child milk carton program didn't exist when Johnny disappeared. His parents were having a hard time trying to convince local police that their son had, in fact, been abducted. In the 45 minutes it took the police to arrive at the Gosch's home the morning Johnny went missing, his mother, Noreen, found five witnesses that said they had seen Johnny talking with a man in a blue van. But this was Iowa in the '80s. This kind of thing didn't happen. "This was before those text messages that you get when a kid goes missing," Noreen says. "There wasn't even a category for missing children. Kids were put in the same group as missing adults. They had to be gone for three days before they were considered missing."

With the police being of no help, the Goschs continued to search for their son on their own. Noreen even helped write legislation that would distinguish children from adults in missing persons cases in the state of Iowa.

when children go missing

Two years after Johnny went missing, another paper boy named Eugene Martin went missing in a nearby neighborhood. Eugene had a relative working at Anderson Erickson Dairy. The dairy decided to help. A local milk carton campaign was created featuring the images of Eugene and Johnny. The cartons with their images were all over the city within weeks.

Soon 700 independent dairies all over the country got on board. Larger cartons featured the images and details of two missing children side by side. Smaller cartons, like those served with school lunches showed one child's image and details. Impressively, as many as 5 billion milk cartons were produced. Unfortunately, most of the children featured were never found, including Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin.

Thankfully, there are some amazing exceptions. Bonnie Lohman saw her own image on a milk carton. Bonnie's mother and stepfather abducted her from her father when she was three years old. Bonnie says, "I wasn't kidnapped by strangers. I was kidnapped by people that loved me."

When Bonnie was seven years old, she and her step father went to a grocery store to buy milk. She saw her picture on the back of one of the cartons. Bonnie had never been allowed to attend school so she couldn't read the words "MISSING CHILD" accompanying her photo.

All of that is crazy but it's got nothing on how her stepfather reacted. Her stepfather bought the carton and eventually cut the picture out and let Bonnie keep it. He told Bonnie to keep it a secret, but one day she left it at the house next door. The police were called and she was reunited with her father. It was hard at first, but eventually Bonnie went on to become a nurse.

Bonus info: I kept thinking that Bonnie Lohman's story sounded vaguely familiar. It's probably because I was obsessed with Caroline Clooney's .