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04.19.12

The NYPD Unearths the Etan Patz Missing-Child Case 33 Years Later

Investigators are probing a link between America’s best-known missing child and a neighborhood handyman in New York. Michael Daly reports.

Thirty-three years after Etan Patz disappeared, a joint NYPD-FBI team has begun to search the New York City basement workshop of a handyman who allegedly had given the boy a dollar the day before he vanished. Team members say they began the search at the urging of the missing boy’s mother and after a cadaver dog indicated the possible presence of human remains.

At the time of his disappearance, Etan's mother told police that her 6-year-old son had been holding the dollar in his hand as he set off for school that morning. She had suggested he put it in his pocket, but he told her that he planned to stop and buy a soda before boarding his school bus at a stop two blocks from their SoHo home.

The boy’s route would have taken him past the workshop of handyman Othneil Miller at 127 Prince Street. Miller was said by law-enforcement agents and in press accounts to have poured a new concrete floor there shortly after her son vanished.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the initial probe never focused on Miller. One detective suggests that the original investigators thought that Miller’s giving the dollar to Patz was “just a nice thing to do.”

Investigators did, however, consider digging up the basement floor. “You want to break it up, you go right ahead,” Miller said, according to a subsequent book about the case. “But someone’s going to have to pay for it.”

Within the last few days, the new investigators led a cadaver dog down into the 13- by 62-foot space. The handler gave the command for the dog to search and it signaled that it smelled human remains.

The floor was never disturbed, even as Etan’s disappearance sparked a nationwide search, with his likeness appearing on milk cartons and posters throughout America. The mystery of his fate remained officially unsolved, though investigators became all but certain that he was killed by Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester whose onetime girlfriend had worked for the Patz family. Ramos made what law-enforcement officials came to call a “90 percent confession,” saying he had sex that day with a boy he was 90 percent certain was Patz, but insisted he put the youngster “on the subway.” Ramos is said to have correctly described in an interview with a former federal prosecutor the route of the boy’s school bus.

In a civil suit filed by the Patz family, a Manhattan judge in 2004 declared Patz legally dead and ruled that Ramos was responsible. Etan’s father, Stan Patz, was so certain that Ramos was the killer he sent copies of the missing posters to him in a Pennsylvania prison where he now is serving a 20- year sentence for molesting an 8-year-old boy. The message on the back read, “What did you do to my little boy?” The district attorney at the time, Robert Morgenthau, nonetheless decided there was not enough evidence to seek a criminal indictment.

Ramos is scheduled for release later this year and with that possibility has come a renewed urgency to solve the Patz mystery. The new Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, announced on National Missing Children’s Day in 2011 that he was reopening the case. A joint NYPD-FBI team undertook the new investigation and among those they interviewed was the missing boy’s mother. Julie Patz had forgotten neither the dollar nor the newly poured floor. She is said by investigators to have suggested that Miller was worth a look.

Within the last few days, the new investigators led a cadaver dog down into the 13- by 62-foot space. The handler gave the verbal signal for the dog to search and it signaled that it smelled human remains.

At daybreak on Thursday, vehicles marked “NYPD Crime Scene” and “FBI Evidence Response Team” assembled outside the basement at 127B Prince Street. Three dozen cops and agents closed off the block and waited for a judge in Manhattan Supreme Court to sign a search- warrant authorizing them to examine and excavate the premises for “human remains, clothing or other personal effects in connection with the disappearance of Etan Patz.” The personal effects could include the Future Flight Captain hat the boy had been wearing at the time of his disappearance.

As the rest of the neighborhood bustled with the usual tourists and well-to-do shoppers, the investigators began a search that they estimated would take five days. The plan includes removing sheetrock installed after Etan’s disappearance and checking the bricks underneath for traces of blood with Luminol. The investigators will also finally break up the concrete floor.

Cadaver dogs have been known to give “false positives,” but one study found them to be accurate more than 90 percent of the time. The dogs possess 220 million olfactory receptors, as opposed to a human’s five million. The dogs have been known to sense bodies buried years before beneath as much as six feet of concrete.

Miller, now 75 and the victim of a stroke, now lives in Brooklyn. He was unavailable for comment but his daughter told reporters that he had been cooperative when interviewed by the FBI two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the search, expected to last 10 hours per day, began with the removal of some shelving. Investigators have long since given up hope that the most famous missing child in America might still be alive. Now, they can only hope they will finally solve the mystery of what happened to the little boy who was last seen by his mother on May 25, 1979, walking down the street with that dollar in his hand.