Today is the 33rd anniversary of the disappearance of Etan Patz, the six-year-old New Yorker whose abduction in 1979 helped usher in a new age of terror and suspicion for American parents. Though Etan was declared legally dead in 2001, his case has never been solved. Yesterday, after three decades of false leads and a menagerie of suspects, the NYPD announced that a New Jersey man named Pedro Hernandez had confessed to strangling Patz and dumping his body somewhere in Manhattan. It's unclear at this point whether Hernandez's confession will hold water, if he acted alone, or if he is just a confused publicity seeker. Here's a look back at the case.
Who Was Etan Patz?
Etan was six years old in 1979. He lived with his parents, older sister, and younger brother in Soho, which at the time was a post-industrial warren of artists and squatters. He attended first grade at Independence Plaza School on Greenwich St. He had blonde hair and blue eyes.
Who Were His Parents?
His father, Stan Patz, is a commercial photographer who used their Soho loft as a studio (he is still in business). His mother Julie ran a day-care center at the time of his disappearance. Now she is an aide at a Manhattan public school. The Patzes never moved from their Prince St. loft, in part because they feared what would happen if Etan ever found his way back and they were gone. They never changed their phone number, which Etan had memorized, for the same reason.
What Happened to Him?
Etan had been growing more independent in the weeks leading up to his abduction, begging his parents to let him walk to his bus stop in the morning on his own. On the morning of May 25, 1979, for the first time, they relented. At roughly 8:00 a.m., he walked out of his apartment at Prince and Greene Streets carrying his backpack and wearing an Eastern Air Lines Future Flight Captain cap. The bus stop was a block and a half away. He didn't get on the bus. No one realized he was missing until after 3:00 p.m., when he failed to come back from school. His parents never saw him again.
Who Did It?
On May 24th 2012, on the eve of the anniversary of Etan's disappearance, Hernandez was arrested and charged with second degree murder. He worked at a bodega near Etan's house in 1979. Sources have told the New York Times that he had been considered as a suspect previously, but his name doesn't come up in any of the literature about the case. He was reportedly picked up by the NYPD on Wednesday in New Jersey and confessed to having strangled Etan. He told detectives that he wrapped the boy's body in plastic, stuffed him in a box, and dumped it somewhere in Manhattan. When he went back to find the body a few days later, he said, it was gone.
Update: Pedro Hernandez was taken to Bellevue Hospital and placed on suicide watch at 5:30am this morning. Hernandez, who has cancer, stopped taking his anti-depressant medication and told authorities he was going to kill himself.
According to ABC News, Hernandez had hinted at a role in the case to family members, who reached out to the police after seeing recent press coverage of the search for Etan's remains. Though some of the details of his confession don't match known facts about the case, he has been charged with Etan's murder.
Jose Antonio Ramos
For most of the past 33 years, police suspicion has focused on Ramos, a 68-year-old drifter and convicted child molester who was circumstantially connected to Etan. At the time of Etan's disappearance, according to Lisa Cohen's exhaustive New York magazine story on the case (Cohen also wrote a book about the abduction called After Etan), Ramos was dating a woman whom the Patzes had hired to walk Etan to school during a school-bus strike in the spring of 1979. According to Vanity Fair, Ramos molested the woman's son, who was also reportedly a playmate of Etan's. On at least one occasion, according to Vanity Fair, Etan and his parents happened upon Ramos and his girlfriend on a walk in Washington Square Park.
Scrutiny on Ramos intensified three years after Etan disappeared, when he was discovered living in a drainpipe in the Bronx and trying to lure young boys there. He eventually made a series of statements to investigators that implied his guilt: Asked how many times he had tried to rape Etan, he responded, "I guess you have a witness. I'll tell you everything." Ramos claimed that on the day Etan disappeared, he had abducted a similar-looking boy who may have been Etan. But he insisted he eventually placed the boy on the subway unharmed. According to Cohen, Ramos also told one jailhouse informant that he knew Etan's schoolbus route by heart, and another that he had indeed abducted the boy.
But prosecutors could never gather enough evidence to charge him. In 2000, the NYPD searched the apartment Ramos had occupied in 1979, looking for potential DNA evidence, but came up empty. In 2004, the Patzes pursued a civil wrongful death case against Ramos, winning a $2 million judgment. On Etan's birthday and on the anniversary of his abduction, Stan Patz sends Ramos a copy of one of Etan's MISSING posters, with the message, "What did you do to my little boy?" In 1990, Ramos was convicted of child molestation in an unrelated case in Pennsylvania, and sentenced to 20 years. He is due to be released in November.
Last month, NYPD investigators armed with jackhammers descended on a Soho basement one block from the Patzes' apartment. In 1979, the basement—which is situated on the route Etan would have walked that morning—had been used both as a workshop by Miller, a handyman who worked in the Patzes' building, and as a playspace for a Soho daycare co-op that Etan had reportedly attended. According to the Times, suspicion turned to Miller when, during a recent interview with detectives about the basement, he blurted out, "What if the body was moved?" Investigators were also interested in Miller because his wife had recently accused him of raping a 10-year-old girl decades earlier.
The police looked at Miller back in 1979. On the night before he disappeared, according to Cohen, Miller paid Etan a dollar for some chores the boy had done. Miller told police at the time that they were free to search or dig up his basement as long as they paid for any damage. They declined.
Even though a cadaver-sniffing dog alerted to the presence of a body in the basement, the search apparently turned up nothing.
The Patz Family
No one seriously suspects Stan or Julie Patz of being involved in Etan's disappearance. But they were natural suspects early on in the investigation, and over the years, various detectives have returned to—and ultimately dismissed—the notion that they may have played a role. Stan has failed more than one lie detector test about Etan, including one result indicating deception when he was asked whether he had been in contact with Etan after the disappearance.
His sister Shira, who was 8 when he disappeared, has often been uncooperative with investigators. According to the Times, she is no longer talking to police, having "shut down" while being interrogated by an FBI agent who recently resurrected the case. According to Vanity Fair, investigators theorized at one point that Shira and Etan had been planning on running away together, and that she chickened out at the last moment.
The case's most bizarre turn was a 1985 trip by investigators to Israel to track down a lead. In 1981, according to Cohen's After Etan, a Romanian-language Israeli magazine called Revista Mea published a photo of Etan in a "family photo album" feature. The photo, captioned "Etan ben-Haim," had purportedly been submitted by a family living near Haifa. It was one of hundreds of photos of Etan that Stan had distributed to the press in the wake of his disappearance. Two detectives travelled to Tel Aviv to track down the family, but turned up nothing.
What Happened After He Disappeared?
Etan struck a deep chord. Along with Adam Walsh, who disappeared in 1981, he became the literal poster child for the inhuman, lurking dangers that children face on the streets of our cities and suburbs. He was the first child whose face graced a milk carton. Ronald Reagan designated today, May 25, the day of his disappearance, as National Missing Children's Day. Coming as it did at a time when New York seemed to be descending into anarchy, and at the tail end of the economic and cultural shocks of the late 1970s, and at the dawn of a massive expansion of electronic media, Etan's disappearance occupied a sweetspot, standing in for creeping national insecurities at a time when our capacity to talk to one another about those fears was exploding. It didn't hurt that he was white, cute, and that his father happened to have hundreds of well-composed, high-quality photographs of him to distribute to the media.
"If I hadn't have been a photographer with those pictures—if we had been a poor, black family with blurry Polaroids," Stan Patz told Vanity Fair, "this case would have come and gone with the rest of them."
Why Is This Coming Up Now?
The 30th anniversary of Etan's disappearance in 2009 was attended by a ton of press, including Cohen's book. That helped induce Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., who took office in January 2010, to pledge to re-open the case. The re-opened leads and renewed interviews led to Miller last month, and apparently to Hernandez this week.
[Images via AP]