On January 1, 1988, 17-year-old John Lango walked out the front door of his home in Pottsville, Pennsylvania never to return. He was treated as a runaway, but now more than three decades later, all signs indicate John never meant to disappear on his own.
John Lango’s case unfolded just outside the boundaries of New England. However, I’m sharing this mini-episode alongside other audiochuck shows to bring attention to unsolved missing persons cases in honor of National Missing Persons Day. The cases you’ll hear about on Crime Junkie, The Deck and Dark Downeast are all part of a special series that started with a song.
With the help of NAMUS, the band Soul Asylum featured a total of 36 missing kids in multiple versions of the video for their song Runaway Train. 21 of the cases were resolved as a result of the video, but there are some cases on that original list that are still waiting for answers.
John Lango’s case remains open and active with the Pottsville Police Department. If you have any information relating to his disappearance, please contact Pottsville PD at (570) 622-1234.
About John Lango
To those who knew him best, John Francis Lango was a friendly, popular guy, and a loyal friend. Wes Cipolla reports for the Republican Herald that when John was younger, he played baseball and rode his bike around Pottsville. John’s best friend, David Wrona, said they played video games together and sometimes went roller skating at the rink in town.
As an older teenager, John’s interests evolved. He liked nice clothes and trendy sneakers and listening to music, especially LL Cool J, who was climbing the charts with his second album Bigger and Deffer in 1987. I can only imagine how many times John spun the singles I’m Bad and I Need Love.
The hip-hop scene was big in the 80s, and with it came the growing popularity of breakdancing. I spoke with John’s brother, Timothy Hinkle, over email and he told me that he believed John’s friend Edgar introduced him to breakdancing. Edgar and his family had moved to Pottsville from New York City, and occasionally John would go to NYC with Edgar and others to dance. I don’t know if there were competitions or classes, or if he was just going with friends to dance where the scene was more active, but it was clearly something he enjoyed and he was hanging out with other people who liked to dance, too.
One of John’s breakdancing partners, Kris Prutzman, echoed what David and so many others had said about John: He was a great friend. He’d do anything for those he cared about. Almost every account of John’s personality sounds just like that. But a friend of John’s from New York City, Holly Murphy Atkins, remembers another side of John, too.
Wes Cipolla spoke to Holly for his 2021 piece about John in the Republican Herald, and Holly has also been active on social media threads that pop up from time to time about John’s disappearance. According to the interview and her posts, Holly’s mother grew up on 2nd Street in Pottsville, which intersected the street where John lived, so when she went back to visit in her mother’s hometown, Holly hung out with John. She remembers sitting on his front porch with a group of his friends and playing with his pet ferrets.
Holly agreed that John was a happy guy and a jokester most of the time, but he was also the quiet one of the bunch. Starting around his junior year in high school, she noticed a change in him. It was like a storm cloud followed John around. She said he “shut down” and didn’t seem to have much self confidence. Holly suggested that John felt like an outcast, as if his new interests set him apart from the group of friends he’d grown up with.
They last hung out together when Holly visited Pottsville in the springtime of 1987. They sat in their usual spot on his front porch listening to music. Less than a year later, Holly received a call from police asking about her friend John Lango.
January 1, 1988
John was just a month shy of his 18th birthday on New Year’s Eve in 1987. He and his girlfriend at the time, a girl named Kristen, were at odds about where they’d celebrate the occasion. She wanted to spend the night with friends of hers in the neighboring town of Port Carbon but John was hoping they’d be together in Pottsville. There’s that old tradition to share a kiss as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve and so maybe he was hoping to share that ritual with Kristen. But that’s not how it turned out. Kristen ended up with her friends without John.
I’m going to level with you here – the reports of what John Lango actually did on the night of December 31, 1987 and the early hours of January 1, 1988 are inconsistent. John’s brother Timothy told me that John was at a party in St. Clair earlier in the night, which was about 10 minutes away from Pottsville. Sometime around 11, John came back to his house with a friend who lived just up the street. From here, things get a little fuzzy.
Wes Cipolla reports for the Republican Herald that there was a disturbance at John’s house that night. After the disturbance, which I’ve also seen described as an altercation, John walked out the front door.
But that disturbance or altercation didn’t involve John. Timothy has said in forums about John’s case that the altercation had to do with John’s friend and John wasn’t part of it. It sounds like the disturbance wasn’t directly related to John leaving the house that night either, but Timothy indicated there was something else that might have been. A phone call. To this day, Tim doesn’t know who called their home phone that night or the significance of it, but he knows his big brother answered and then left shortly after.
Timothy told me that John walked down the street and got into a waiting car. He was only 10-years old at the time, but to his memory the car was a dark color. It could have been a Monte Carlo or maybe it was a Chevy Caprice. He can’t be sure.
Amidst the conflicting reports and hazy memories, one detail we know for sure after 30-plus years is that the last time his family saw John was when he left their home on Schuylkill Avenue just after midnight on Friday, January 1. And there’s one other undeniable fact in this case: John Lango never came home.
Timothy remembers that John wasn’t one to go off on his own without some sort of check-in with his family. Tim told Frank Andruscavage of the Standard-Speaker in 2019 that Jon would’ve told their mother where he was going and when to expect him back if he had plans to be away any length of time. But when John left that night, he didn’t give his family a heads up as to his destination and when he didn’t come back that morning, his parents immediately knew something was wrong. John’s mother, Mary, reported him missing to Pottsville Police the very next day.
Police considered John to be a runaway at first. It didn’t seem all that unusual or concerning to them for a 17-almost-18-year old to take off without a heads up and not come back for a bit. From the source material available to me, I don’t see anything major in terms of a police investigation or an attempt to locate John. Officers called John’s family members and friends to see if he’d turned up anywhere while his mother and father hung up posters all over town.
On January 6, 1988, the Pottsville Republican ran a missing persons alert for John Lango. He was described as 6-foot-1 and about 185 pounds with red hair and blue eyes. When he left home that night, he was wearing jeans, a red and white dress shirt, a gray wool jacket, and a pair of white sneakers. The notice asked the public for anyone with information or sightings to contact local law enforcement. But there were no leads. None that led to John, anyway.
I see it time and time again, especially in cases of missing kids from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. A teenager leaves home and the very first thought is that they ran away, totally of their own volition, no matter what family and friends have to say about it. While parents are left to hope their child turns up soon, it’s this assumption by law enforcement that this will be the case that can and does impact investigations down the road. John’s brother Tim said in 2021, quote, “I believe if they treated it as foul play in 1988, maybe they would have solved the case.” End quote.
John Lango never walked back through the front door of his home. His 18th birthday came and went without him. As far as I can tell, John’s case received almost zero media attention after his initial disappearance. For five years, John’s family waited for something to happen. A tip, a sighting, a call from police that they had a promising lead, but it didn’t happen. Instead, someone else called with an offer to bring John’s name and face to a global audience.
Runaway Train Music Video
In 1993, the rock group Soul Asylum released the first of what would be many editions of the video for their song Runaway Train. A sound of sirens accompanies the opening frame that displays a staggering fact: “There are over one million youth lost on the streets of America”. Throughout the video, the photos and names of 35 missing children are displayed over lyrics about a feeling of despair and pain, of feeling stuck in an impossible situation with no way out and going the “wrong way on a one way track”.
The members of Soul Asylum learned about John Lango and many of the missing kids ultimately featured in the video from the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children. The band reached out to John’s mother for permission to include John in the video and she agreed. According to the Republican and Herald, John’s name and photo were included in a rare alternate version of the video. When the song was in regular rotation on MTV and VH1, it was surreal for those who knew and loved John to see his face. One friend said, quote, “It was just one of those [things] that cemented the fact that he was missing, whether that was his intention or not.” End quote.
20 years passed without answers. Somewhere along the line, authorities had to concede that John Lango was not missing by choice – there was no activity on his social security number, no sightings of him, nothing. One friend of John’s, John Wagner, suggested in his first interview with police that maybe John ran away to start a new life in New York City. But the police called his New York friends and he never turned up there. Plus, John reportedly left his prized Adidas sneakers at home. He wouldn’t have started a new life without those.
Eventually, John’s case status was updated to “endangered missing”.
Kristen M. Scatton reports for the Republican and Herland that Pottsville police had been following up on tips that came in over the previous 20 years and the investigation was ongoing. They’d chased down leads to the very end, but police still hadn’t learned what could’ve happened to John that night. Investigators hoped to do more with advancements in DNA analysis and they made sure John’s profile was on file with missing persons organizations in the event unidentified remains turned up anywhere across the country.
In 2008, Pottsville Police Captain Glenn Dove received a call from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. There was a John Doe found in Arizona whose age progression seemed like it could match John Lango. So, the DNA sample on file for John was compared to that of the John Doe. But it wasn’t a match.
However, Captain Glenn Dove continued working on the investigation for the Pottsville Police for years. In 2021 he revealed a new detail about the night John Lango disappeared. According to several witness interviews, John was seen at a “bush party” just outside of Pottsville after he left his house that night. In New England, we call them pit parties and maybe you have your own version where you’re from, but it’s a party outside in a field or the woods or a sand pit, really any kind of remote location.
Captain Dove either couldn’t or wouldn’t say specifically where the party happened or who was there, or if John ever left the party, but the reported sightings of John at this party are a really big deal. It means that the trail didn’t stop with John walking out of the house just after midnight on January 1.
Timothy believes there’s someone out there, maybe multiple someones, who could answer all of the lingering questions about John’s disappearance. People who John considered friends.
He typically doesn’t discuss the rumors he’s heard. The trauma it resurfaces just isn’t worth it, and he doesn’t want to perpetuate anything that can’t be confirmed. However, when I spoke to Timothy for this episode, he offered a story that he believes holds some significance.
Timothy said he heard that John actually went to another local party that night, but this one was on the railroad tracks. He believes something happened to John there, but nothing he’s heard can be confirmed. He just has this gut feeling it was a bad scene. He believes his brother was murdered.
Gut feelings, rumors, theories, hopes…There’s one thing that could resolve all of it. Someone needs to talk. 36 years is a long time to keep a secret, but it undoubtedly feels even longer for the family still waiting to bring their son and brother home.
Be sure to tune into the coverage of other missing persons cases in this series on Crime Junkie and The Deck, wherever you get your podcasts.
Episode Source Material
- Charley Project
- Doe Network
- Runaway Train Music Video
- Pottsville youth reported missing, Pottsville Republican, 06 Jan 1988
- 20-year mystery unsolved by Kristen M. Scatton, Pottsville Republican & Herald, 01 Jan 2008
- After 32 years, brother fears worst, mother holds out hope by Frank Andruscavage, Standard-Speaker, 16 Dec 2019
- On missing man’s 52st birthday, case remains cold by Wes Cipolla, Republican Herald, 05 Feb 2021
- Memories remain, but few clues by Wes Cipolla, Republican Herald, 06 Feb 2021