This Girl Didn’t Know Why Her Face Was On A Milk Carton. Then Her Neighbor Saw The Chilling Photo

When seven-year-old Bonnie Lohman and her stepfather reach the dairy aisle while on their grocery run, something catches her eye. What the little girl sees is a picture of her own face displayed on the side of a milk carton. It’s certainly a puzzling image; the young Bonnie doesn’t know why it’s there or what it means. But her neighbor will eventually see it too – and they’ll come to realize the alarming truth.

In the 1970s a lot of police forces nationwide were reluctant to step in when a noncustodial parent took a child from the parent with whom that child lived. Officers tended to view such situations as domestic disputes, you see, rather than as actual kidnappings or abductions. And so, understandably, parents who found themselves in such situations were left feeling frustrated and upset.

Eventually, however, these parents found strength and got to work. They began by differentiating the situations that they had experienced from kidnappings by defining them instead with the term “child snatching.” The mothers and fathers also formed advocacy groups and created pamphlets – the latter full of photos of snatched kids. And in addition, they shared this information with school officials in the hope of finding children whose names had been changed by their noncustodial parents.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, at the start of the 1980s, the campaign grew to include all children whose whereabouts were unknown – not just the victims of child snatching. And when advocacy groups branched out even further by considering runaways in their evaluation, they realized just how many children were going missing each year. By the groups’ estimates, the number in fact reached the hundreds of thousands.

In response to such startling figures – as well as several infamous related crimes – people and businesses began to help the campaign. And in 1984 a number of dairy companies started to include images of missing children on the sides of their milk cartons. Some pizza restaurants did the same with their boxes, too, while photos of missing children also appeared on items such as grocery bags and envelopes.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the same time, stories about missing children and kidnapping became part of a cultural conversation. The Berenstain Bears book series, for instance, taught children how to recognize “stranger danger.” Meanwhile, in the DC Comics books, reporter Lois Lane searched for children who had gone missing, and mystery novels had detectives looking for them too.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet the milk carton arguably became the most visible of all the methods that were used to raise awareness of and help find missing children. In fact, in 1985 – just one year after the first such milk carton picture had appeared – 700 out of the 1,800 independent dairy companies in the U.S. had begun adding these images to their cartons too.

ADVERTISEMENT

It seems that no one knows which dairy company was the first to use its cartons to raise awareness for kidnapped children. There was, however, one event that many consider to have been the impetus for such advocacy on behalf of a missing minor: the disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz, who went missing while going to get his school bus in 1979.

ADVERTISEMENT

Etan reportedly left his family’s apartment in SoHo, New York City, to make the two-block walk to his bus stop – but he never made it on board the vehicle. And even though the boy’s teacher noticed that he hadn’t come to school, they apparently didn’t alert the principal. Etan’s mother then later dialed 911 when her son didn’t return home that afternoon.

ADVERTISEMENT

That same day, almost 100 police officers, aided by dogs, began a search of the area that would last for several weeks. Etan’s neighbors and the authorities circulated flyers throughout the city, too. Each flyer featured a photo that had been taken by the boy’s father, Stanley, who worked as a photographer. However, few clues turned up as a result.

ADVERTISEMENT

The photos of Etan made a bigger splash once they appeared on the screens in Times Square, mind you. And then, five years after the boy’s disappearance, his pictures ended up on the sides of milk cartons. In fact, many say that Etan was the first missing child whose image was printed on the dairy product items.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sadly, however, the authorities never found Etan, and in 2001 they pronounced him officially dead. Then, in 2017 – 38 years after the child’s disappearance – a man named Pedro Hernandez was convicted of abducting and killing Etan. Hernandez reportedly took Etan while the little boy was on his way to the bus stop, and it’s believed that he murdered him that day in 1979 before disposing of the body.

ADVERTISEMENT

Following Etan’s disappearance, many changes – beyond using milk cartons to raise awareness – occurred in the way that the nation reacted to missing children. For example, after the young boy had gone missing, a new law was passed to help track and locate lost kids. And in 1983 President Ronald Reagan declared the day that Etan had been kidnapped, May 25, as National Missing Children’s Day.

ADVERTISEMENT

After Etan’s pictures had paved the way, the face of a boy named Johnny Gosch also appeared on the side of milk cartons across the country. His story is equally troubling. In 1982 the 12-year-old went out to complete his newspaper route in West Des Moines, Iowa. But then his parents’ phone started to ring; Johnny’s customers hadn’t had their newspapers delivered that morning.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, early in the morning of September 5, 1982, Johnny’s dad, John, searched their local area. And only a couple of blocks away from their home, he came across the boy’s wagon – and inside it a load of undelivered newspapers. John and his wife, Noreen, called the police right away – but, according to her, the authorities weren’t quick to take action.

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, Noreen has claimed that it took around 45 minutes for the police to arrive at their home to take her statement. They also didn’t immediately classify Johnny as a missing person; they couldn’t without a ransom note, they said. And this meant that the police had to wait a full 72 hours before they could begin looking for the child.

ADVERTISEMENT

On top of this, the authorities at first supposed that Johnny had simply run away. And while they later decided that the boy had likely been kidnapped, they didn’t find solid evidence to prove this, and neither did they theorize any motives that someone may have had for taking him. They never arrested any persons of interest, either.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the lack of leads didn’t stop Johnny’s case from grabbing national attention. For one thing, the image of the boy appeared on the side of milk cartons in 1984, and yet people also became familiar with him through his mother. Noreen publicly spoke out about her son’s story and claimed that the efforts of the police in handling his case had been inadequate.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, in 1982 Noreen set up the Johnny Gosch Foundation, and by means of this she traveled to schools and addressed seminars in order to share information about the behaviors of sexual predators. She also lobbied for an Iowa state law that would allow police to start probing reports of missing children right away. So it was that the Johnny Gosch Bill became law in the family’s home state in 1984, with eight other states later following suit.

ADVERTISEMENT

After that, though, Johnny’s case reentered the sphere of public attention because of some bizarre twists in the story – as reported by Noreen. In 1997, you see, she claimed that her son had actually shown up on her doorstep late at night with a man she didn’t know. The young person allegedly had a birthmark on his torso that was akin to Johnny’s. But Noreen says that he would not tell her where he was living and stressed that he remained in danger – and that then he disappeared again. And yet the strange revelations didn’t stop there.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, in 2006 Noreen reportedly discovered a set of photographs that she claimed had been left on her front stoop. What’s more, she alleged that in one of the photos she had seen her 12-year-old son gagged and his wrists and ankles bound. Yet although – according to a 2014 Netflix documentary called Who Took Johnny? – the authorities later put names to the other children pictured, the boy whom Noreen believed to be her son was apparently never identified.

ADVERTISEMENT

With so many strange turns in Johnny’s case, it’s perhaps little surprise that Who Took Johnny has resonated with audiences. Meanwhile, Noreen continues to advocate for kidnapping victims and missing children. And as reported on the website for the Johnny Gosch Foundation, “Great progress has been made in the United States… due to the efforts of not only Noreen, but countless other parents.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The images of Johnny and Etan had both appeared on milk cartons in the early 1980s, but in the latter part of the decade the strategy was beginning to fall out of favor. That said, a few more faces did get displayed on the dairy containers. In 2000, for instance, missing girl Molly Bish’s parents used milk cartons – and all other approaches open to them – to try and find their daughter.

ADVERTISEMENT

That year, Molly had taken the position of a lifeguard stationed at Comins Pond, in Warren, Massachusetts, where she lived. Then the day before the sixteen-year-old went missing, her mom, Magi, had dropped her off at her job. And there, Magi had apparently noticed a man with a mustache who was parked in a white automobile in front of the waterbody’s beach. The mother had thought little of the man, however – until the next day, June 27, when her daughter vanished.

ADVERTISEMENT

On that fateful day, Magi once again gave Molly a ride to the lifeguarding post on Comins pond. But within hours, the mother received the phone call that’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Yes, the police notified Magi that her daughter hadn’t been at work all day. And to make matters more troubling, they had apparently found her personal belongings abandoned at her lifeguard station.

ADVERTISEMENT

Following this alarming news, the authorities mobilized what would become Massachusetts’ biggest and most high-cost hunt for a missing person. Molly’s story also featured on various television shows, including 48 Hours, America’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries. And the teenage girl’s photo appeared on the sides of milk cartons too.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet Molly’s story would end in tragedy. In the fall of 2002, a hunter noticed a blue swimsuit while out in woodland in nearby Palmer, MA. And the following year he shared this information with a man called Tim McGuigan, who then called the police. As a result, the authorities conducted another intensive search – and this time, in June 2003, they discovered Molly’s remains.

ADVERTISEMENT

Molly’s disappearance therefore transitioned from a missing person’s case into a murder investigation. And so the police began to search for individuals matching the description of the mystery man whom Magi had spotted in the Comins Pond parking area on the day before her daughter had vanished. It’s worth noting, too, that another witness claimed to have seen someone similar in the parking lot on the day that the 16-year-old had gone missing.

ADVERTISEMENT

And subsequently, in 2009, a potential suspect came to light in Rodney Stanger, who looked similar to the man whom Magi and the other witness had seen. Stanger apparently fished at Comins Pond and is also thought to have hunted in the nearby woods – where the authorities found Molly’s body. How did the man enter the police’s radar? Well, he had actually been found guilty of murdering his partner in Florida, and her sister had called the authorities to alert them that he could be a suspect in Molly’s case.

ADVERTISEMENT

Two years later, however, private investigator Dan Malley identified Gerald Battistoni as another potential suspect. Battistoni had spent time in prison in the 1990s for rape. And as with Stanger, his appearance resembled the likeness of the man whom Magi had seen. The police never arrested either Battistoni or Stanger, however, and the macabre case remains unsolved to this day.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sadly, the majority of milk carton cases didn’t come with happy endings – or even resolution. But Bonnie Lohman’s picture was one of those to appear on the products, and it helped break her case wide open for her father, who had been searching for her. Bonnie had, though, disappeared under different circumstances to those of Etan, Johnny and Molly.

ADVERTISEMENT

That’s because when Bonnie was just three years old, her mother and her stepfather had removed her from her father’s care. And as previously mentioned, many police departments in the 1970s had been hesitant to pursue such leads, since they deemed them to boil down to domestic disputes – rather than bona fide kidnapping claims.

ADVERTISEMENT

Bonnie’s father was determined to do all that he could to find his daughter, though. So, he decided to use the milk carton scheme to spread awareness about the little girl’s disappearance. And although her case differed from those of the other kidnapping victims who had been pictured on the containers, he somehow managed to get her image featured too.

ADVERTISEMENT

So it was that four years after Bonnie’s disappearance, some cartons displaying her face made their way into a grocery store – a store that her stepfather had just so happened to choose for his shopping trip one day. Bonnie – now seven years old – then apparently caught a glimpse of one of the pictures that had been printed on the containers. And she recognized the face; it was hers.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Bonnie didn’t understand what it meant to have her photograph on the side of the milk carton. It’s said that she therefore innocently asked her stepfather if she could keep her picture. And he apparently said that she could – provided that she promised not to tell anyone about the photo or show it to them.

ADVERTISEMENT

But, of course, children aren’t known for their ability to keep secrets – and nor are they generally great at tidying up after themselves. Bonnie, you see, somehow managed to leave the milk carton featuring her picture in a bag full of toys – which she left at a neighbor’s house one day. And when the neighbor picked up the container, they instantly realized what had happened to the young girl.

ADVERTISEMENT

With that, the neighbors called the police and positively identified the little girl who lived nearby as Bonnie Lohman. Her father, then, finally had answers – and he soon got his daughter back too. Indeed, Bonnie’s tale marks one of the few successes of the milk carton campaign from the 1980s.

ADVERTISEMENT

Either way, though, the use of the milk carton method for tracking down missing children eventually declined. Pediatricians – including Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton – thought that images of kidnapped kids could easily scare other children, for one thing. Plus, technology had improved enough to make it simpler to raise awareness and share details about young people who had disappeared.

ADVERTISEMENT

Nowadays, authorities use the Amber Alert System to appeal to the public for help in locating missing or abducted children. The program started in 1996 and has grown to include everything from text messages to billboards and emails – any or all of which spread the identifying details of a child who has disappeared.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, the milk carton program laid the foundation for this important system, as it spread the word before there was a dedicated platform for doing so. And, with the faces and stories of missing children such as Bonnie made prominent by those containers, some parents found answers about the kids whom they had lost.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT