She Found Her Photo As A Missing Girl And Discovered Her Whole Life was a Lie
This story of a little girl discovering her missing person photo in the milk carton kids campaign is as fascinating as it is unsettling.Society
Seven-year-old Bonnie Lohman had an unusual upbringing. She moved about a lot as a kid, spending most of her time in Hawaii and the small island of Saipan where she lived mostly in shacks and rarely spent much time outdoors.
Eventually, sometime in the early 1980s, her family – consisting only of herself, her mother, and her stepfather – settled down in Colorado where she slowly gained a little more freedom. Life was simple enough, until one day when little Bonnie accompanied her stepfather on the weekly grocery run, unaware that she was about to make the discovery of a lifetime.
Bonnie's Surprising Discovery at the Grocery Store
While innocently wandering the dairy aisle, Bonnie noticed something out of the ordinary. Sitting among the other cartons of milk in the chiller something strange caught her eye. Printed on one of the familiar containers was a face staring right back at her. When she looked a little closer, she realized it wasn’t just any face, it was her own.
As she hadn’t been formally educated in school, Bonnie crucially couldn’t make out the words printed above her picture in bold letters: MISSING CHILD. Feeling excited by her apparent local fame, as any other little girl might be, Bonnie asked her stepfather if she could buy the carton.
In a moment of remarkable hubris, he purchased the milk and cut out the picture for Bonnie to keep, under one strict condition: that she never mentioned it to anyone else. If there’s one thing little kids aren’t known for, it’s keeping secrets. Although she tried her best to stick to her word, Bonnie wasn’t awfully careful with the cut-out she carried around with her.
During a playdate at her neighbor's house one day, Bonnie left the photograph in a bag of toys, and it was this simple mistake that would turn her life upside down.
You see, Bonnie Lohman wasn’t the only child whose face appeared on a milk carton during the 1980s. In fact, an estimated 3-5 billion cartons printed with information about missing ‘Milk Carton Kids’ like Bonnie were circulated during this brief yet influential period in American crime history.
Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, there was no legal distinction between a missing child and a missing adult, which meant authorities rarely acted fast enough during the crucial window of opportunity after a suspected abduction. In many cases, parents who couldn’t provide concrete evidence of a kidnapping, like a ransom note, were made to wait 72 hours before any action was taken to locate their child.
Even worse were cases where a child had been taken by a family member because police forces tended to class such situations as insignificant ‘domestic affairs’ and refused to intervene altogether.
This is especially worrying when you consider that most kidnappings in the US are actually perpetrated by a relative. One study conducted in 2002 found that of 256,000 abductions of minors, 78% were classed as ‘family’ abductions, while just 22% were non-family, and only a mere 115 kids were actually taken by a stranger.
The glaring lack of proper legislation surrounding non-custodial kidnappings left many parents at a loss, and eventually, people who shared similar experiences banded together to try and reform the outdated treatment of America’s missing children problem.
Frustrated parents set up advocacy groups to raise awareness about how easy it was for rogue relations to snatch children from under their noses and transport them across state lines before the police even started faxing the information. Eventually, a new term was coined to treat these cases like any other random kidnapping: ‘child snatching’.
Milk Carton Kids
Although it had gained some traction by the early 80s, the campaign, backed up by the National Child Safety Council, still needed a way to circulate information about missing children quickly and efficiently. Believe it or not, this was a time when we were still nearly a decade away from having the world wide web at our fingertips, so a more unconventional reporting method was chosen: milk.
Most American households were expected to purchase milk on a weekly basis, and its short expiration dates meant that information about new cases could be kept relevant. The first milk carton featuring a missing child came out of Anderson Erickson Dairy in Des Moines, Iowa in December 1984, and by March the following year 700 out of 1800 independent dairy companies across the country had adopted the practice.
At last, it seemed there was a ray of hope for parents desperate to have their beloved children returned to them. Among the very first kids to have their faces mass-printed in black-and-white, sold in grocery stores, and then placed on breakfast tables around the country were Etan Patz and Johnny Gosch.
In 1979, 6-year-old Ethan Patz left his family’s apartment in SoHo, New York to make the familiar two-block walk to his bus stop; except this time, Patz never boarded the bus. He didn’t attend school that day, and he never came home that afternoon. A search party of 100 officers and police dogs, flyers distributed by friends and family, and even Times Square billboards showing Etan’s face weren’t able to turn up any clues.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan declared the day of Etan’s kidnapping – May 25th – as National Missing Children’s Day, and 5 years after his disappearance in 1984 he became the first ‘Milk Carton Kid’. Johnny Gosch, whose face was also one of the first to be printed, suffered a similarly troubling fate.
On one morning in 1982, the 12-year-old boy went out to complete his regular paper round route in West Des Moines, Iowa. Everything seemed fine until his parents received a worrying phone call: Johnny’s customers hadn’t received their newspapers that day. His father searched their local area and found his son's red wagon full of undelivered papers just a couple of blocks away, but no sign of Johnny.
It took the authorities 45 minutes to respond to the call placed by his mother Noreen shortly after the wagon was found, and police refused to declare Johnny a missing person until 3 days after his disappearance.
Feeling neglected by the inadequacy of the police, Noreen set up the Johnny Gosch Foundation to raise awareness for other missing children. Thanks to her campaigning, a new law known as the Johnny Gosch Bill was passed in Iowa in 1984 which would allow police to start probing reports of missing kids right away, and shortly afterward 8 other states followed suit.
Despite becoming the original ‘Milk Carton Kids’, neither Etan Patz nor Johnny Gosch was ever returned to their parents. After being declared officially dead in 2001, the case of Etan Patz finally concluded in 2017 when a man named Pedro Hernandez was convicted of abducting and killing Etan, 38 years after his initial disappearance.
Johnny’s case did however experience some strange twists, like Noreen claiming that her son turned up on her doorstep in 1997, but ultimately the boy was never found, and no arrests have ever been made in connection with his disappearance.
Unfortunately, this was mostly the case with the missing children pictured on milk cartons. Although no verifiable numbers were recorded to track the progress of the campaign, it’s thought that of some 200 kids who appeared on the cartons only two were returned safely. One of these rare success stories was one very lucky little girl from Colorado: Bonnie Lohman.
Bonnie Lohman's Rescue
When Bonnie Lohman’s neighbor came across the photograph which had been left behind in her bag of toys, they knew what had to be done. After contacting the authorities, police turned up at Bonnie's house in Colorado and arrested her stepfather for her abduction. In an instant, her life up until this point was revealed as a lie, something which she couldn’t quite comprehend at such a young age.
When Bonnie was just three years old, she was illegally taken from her biological father’s care as a result of a bitter custodial dispute. Her mother and stepfather then transported Bonnie out of her home state to Hawaii and Saipan where she then grew up knowing no better than her new isolated island lifestyle, until that fateful day in the grocery store.
Because it was officially classed as a non-custodial kidnapping at the time, the police deemed Bonnie’s abduction to be a domestic dispute, and little effort was made to track her down at first. Desperate for ideas, her father came across the Missing Kids Milk Carton Campaign and decided it was worth a shot.
Although her case was slightly different from the other kids featured, like Etan and Johnny, Bonnie’s father managed to get her photograph printed. It just so happened that fate was on his side though, because the person to recognize the image was little Bonnie herself, she just didn’t know why it was so important yet.
Thanks to this unique reporting technique, Bonnie was safely returned to her rightful guardian and continued to live her life as it was intended. In 1990, a novel by Caroline B. Cooney called ‘The Face on the Milk Carton’ seemed to be loosely inspired by Bonnie’s story, and was even adapted into a film in 1995.
Milk Carton Campaign Criticisms
It may have been responsible for reuniting Bonnie with her real father, but The Milk Carton Kids campaign wasn’t without its criticisms. Sadly, most of the cases to be mass-printed remained unsolved or didn’t have happy endings, and parents became so accustomed to seeing these faces during their weekly shop that they stopped paying real attention.
Kids were more likely to focus on the faces as they sat down and ate breakfast every morning, but many famous pediatricians such as Benjamin Spock also worried that this was having a negative effect.
The main concern was that American children might internalize their irrational fears of being kidnapped by a stranger, despite the statistics showing that they were far more likely to be taken by a family member, resulting in a dangerous moral panic about ‘stranger danger’.
Although it was intended for good, the campaign had created a strange juxtaposition where stories of random kidnappings now infiltrated the suburban American household, which was supposed to be a place of safety.
What’s worse, the campaign also came under fire for being racially biased. One study found that black children made up a whopping 42% of all non-family abductions, even though they comprised only 15% of America's child population at the time. Despite such alarming figures, it was mostly white faces who appeared on milk cartons during the campaign's short lifetime.
Partly as a result of its controversial reception, the Milk Carton Kids campaign fell out of favor from around 1987 onwards, particularly as plastic jugs replaced the trusty cardboard carton on grocery store shelves.
One of the last known cases to be advertised in such a way was of 16-year-old Molly Bish, who disappeared during a lifeguarding shift in Warren, Massachusetts in the year 2000. Molly’s parents selected the milk carton method as a last-ditch attempt to locate their daughter, but unfortunately, it ended in tragedy when her remains were discovered in 2003.
Reforms to Missing Child Cases
Although it was short-lived and highly scrutinized, this unusual practice paved the way for many of the new reforms surrounding missing child cases in the US. In 1982, Ronald Reagan passed a bill called the Missing Children Assistance Act, which assured parents that every effort would be made to locate victims after reports were filed.
For a while, pizza boxes, grocery bags, and envelopes were also printed with missing photos, until the AMBER alert system (which we still use today) came into effect in 1996. This new system follows the same logic but makes use of technological advancements, by delivering information directly by digital highway billboards, email, SMS messages, and people’s Facebook feeds.
Nowadays, the strange legacy of the Milk Carton Kids remains at the forefront of the American imagination. Though they may not have been around for long, the thousands of faces staring out from milk cartons on those stocked shelves, fridges, and family dinner tables is a constant reminder of the progress that was made to better the chances of reuniting broken families.
At a time when police inefficiency was rife, especially when it came to non-custodial kidnappings, Bonnie Lohman was incredibly lucky to be recovered safely thanks to the milk carton program, although many others like Etan, Johnny, and Molly were not so fortunate.
In a modern age where American households can no longer be counted upon to share the wholesome carton of milk in common thanks to alternatives like oat or almond milk such a ubiquitous symbol would probably cease to exist.
Thanks to this rudimentary technique, though, more missing children like Bonnie are being found than ever before. According to Justice Department data, 186 AMBER Alerts were issued in 2014, and 154 resulted in a successful recovery.
I hope you were amazed at the story of Bonnie Lohman and how a carton of milk led to her rescue. Thanks for reading!