Prior to the 1980s, reports of missing or abducted children had been primarily locally driven news. Child advocacy groups were concerned that because missing or abducted children were often only heard of through local news reports and newspapers that hundreds of cases were slipping through the cracks due to their abductors taking the children to other areas of the nation. In order to circumvent this, in 1984 the National Child Safety Council organized the first nationwide initiative to locate these children.

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With photos and a short biography of the missing child provided free of charge, dairies across the country agreed to publish the information on milk carton side panels. It wasn’t long thereafter that the little faces of missing children were being broadcasted directly to the breakfast tables of Americans across the country. Within just a few months of the Council’s popular milk carton initiative, other businesses also agreed to adopt the practice.

One of the first of these little faces included that of 5-year-old Etan Patz.

Etan Patz

Etan was on his way to a bus stop near his home in New York City, but little Etan never made it to school that day. At school a teacher marked him absent at roll call, but never reported Etan’s absence to the school’s principal. When Etan failed to return home that afternoon, Mrs. Patz feared the worst and phoned the police. It would take nearly four decades for the Patzs to discover what happened to their young son that warm spring day.

A former bodega clerk by the name of Pedro Hernandez confessed that he had strangled Etan and dumped his body in a bag in an alley. He would be the first and only suspect to be arrested in connection to the case. Due to Hernandez’s steadily declining mental health, his trial was ultimately ruled a mistrial as questions concerning a coerced confession were raised. Hernandez’s retrial is set for September of this year.

In addition to Patz’ photo were the photos of two other boys – Johnny Gosch and Eugene Martin.

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Johnny Gosch was a 12-year-old paper boy who was kidnapped near his Iowa home on September 5, 1982. His case has never been solved, but his mother believes that he is still alive and in hiding. The story of Gosch’s kidnapping would eventually be tied into a massive conspiracy involving government officials, financial institutions, and nationwide child prostitution rings.

Eugene Martin was another Iowa paperboy who disappeared along his route. The similarities between Eugene’s and Johnny Gosch’s disappearances lead many to believe that both cases were connected, and like Johnny, his case remains unsolved.

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Eugene’s mother has since passed away from diabetes and his father is in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Though his memories are beginning to fade, the thought of his missing son occasionally floods back in and Mr. Martin flies into rages, at times resulting in violence. Since 1984 investigators have followed thousands of leads throughout the U.S. And Canada, but those leads turned out to be dead ends. To date there is no evidence to pinpoint any suspects in either of the boys’ cases.

The milk carton campaign would fizzle out within a few short years after it’s inception, blasted with criticism from child experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock who believed the practice incited too many irrational fears within children forced to view these pictures every morning. In spite of the criticism the program received, the campaign is credited with bringing the reality of child abduction to the forefront of public awareness and similar programs provided by junk mail advertisers continue on today.