Etan Patz Has Been Missing 33 Years, and Solution Still Eludes Police

N.Y. police have revisited the iconic Etan Patz case, but a solution remains elusive, Lisa R. Cohen writes.

AP Photo

The Etan Patz case has been back in the news this week in New York--and everywhere else. But it never really went away. And even though on Monday the FBI and NYPD packed up and left the SoHo basement they’d spent four days excavating, the case will still not go away. After 33 years of waiting, Etan’s father quoted New York’s legendary Yogi Berra when he told me Monday that “it’s not over ‘til it’s over.”

This missing child case has become iconic. It’s woven into our social fabric, from Amber Alerts to interstate data bases and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And sadly, it’s also embedded in our collective fears for our own children.

On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan set off to walk two blocks to his school bus stop on his own for the very first time. When he never came back, for many of us that was the day everything changed.

This week’s dig site was a mere half block from Etan’s home, a sprawling loft apartment where his parents still live 33 years later. From his fire escape, Stan Patz watched the debris being carted away, to be tested for any shred of evidence that might advance the case. For Etan’s father, it was the just the latest in a long, long haul.

I began reporting this story as a network news producer in 1990, and I’ve known Stan for a few decades now. I researched and wrote After Etan over several years, and spent many afternoons in his sun-drenched photography studio that looks out over the fire escape. Back in ’79, in the first weeks of the investigation, detectives assigned to the case required the Patzes to record every incoming phone call with a date and time stamp. Over the years, a spiral notebook sat by the phone and eventually became part case history, part family history. As I pored through the yellowed pages, Stan helped me piece together each entry’s backstory.

He still logs every call today. Stan Patz is thorough, and he’s passionate about completing this investigation. He wants more than anything to find answers, not just for his family, but for Etan as well.

“It’s an obligation,” he has said, “to this child whom I did not raise.”

But, he says, it’s also an obligation to society. He tells me that in some ways, “it has almost nothing to do with Etan. Someone who commits these terrible crimes against others shouldn’t be ignored.” Yet, through all of this past week, he’s remained remarkably contained, riding the ups and downs of this case with stoic forbearance.

He’s had to, not least of all because to every new generation of investigators—and there have been many—he and his family have begun as suspects. Statistically, parents are most often the perps in these cases, so Stan and Julie would always have to be cleared before anyone else. Each time a new crop of detectives or agents came on the scene, there was a new round of questions, and more probing and polygraphs, hypnosis and hostility. Then the investigation could move on.

Perhaps even worse was what would come next–when all of their friends and loved ones were held up to similar scrutiny. For the Patzes, it was both mortifying and terrifying. All these most-likely-innocent people, subjected to such hard looks. But then, what if they’d brought someone they’d trusted, even loved, into Etan’s life, to do this unspeakable thing? There was the neighbor who occasionally drove Etan to school in the morning—a lawyer who’d represented high-profile left-wing radicals–who raised eyebrows. There were the free-spirited family friends who once took Etan camping—to a nudist camp.

Stan’s brother was a respected rabbi, but even that caused suspicion when three months after Etan vanished, Rabbi Patz led a group of students on an annual summer trip to Israel. This became one of the more exotic strands of the investigation, which floated the far-fetched theory that his uncle had spirited Etan to Israel so he could be raised a more religious Jew.

The Israel angle resurfaced again years later, when a photo Stan had taken of Etan appeared mysteriously in an Israeli magazine next to the name “Etan Ben-Haim,” which translated to “Etan, Son of Life.” In the mid-80s, federal investigators flew to the Holy Land and criss-crossed the country, knocking on the doors of Ben-Haim families to inspect the birth certificates of their sons.

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Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart GraBois had the case by then, and he has spent more than two decades tracking it, both on the job and, after leaving office, on his own time. His pursuit took him not only to Israel but through a long list of possible suspects. Among other adventures, it led him to dig up part of New York’s Wards Island, and to a teenage Etan look-alike in Ohio who’d confounded the experts at Quantico.

It also sent him on a series of trips to Pennsylvania, where GraBois took the unusual step of having himself sworn in as a special Pennsylvania state prosecutor. There he went after serial pedophile Jose Antonio Ramos, GraBois’s prime suspect in the Patz case. Without enough evidence to bring criminal charges in New York, GraBois instead oversaw Ramos’s Pennsylvania conviction for raping another young boy.

Jose Ramos has been locked away on those charges since 1986. He continues to assert his innocence in the Patz case, despite his initial, teary statements to GraBois and others that he took a boy he was “90 percent sure” was Etan to his apartment the day Etan disappeared. There, he told GraBois, he tried to molest the boy, but ultimately let him go. Since then, Ramos has changed his story several times. One jailhouse informant, whom GraBois planted in Ramos’s cell at one point, told authorities—and me—that Ramos confessed to molesting Etan, and cried “Etan, Etan, I never meant to hurt you.”

Another such plant told authorities—and me—that Ramos knew Etan’s school bus route, and produced a map Ramos had drawn of the neighborhood to show off his knowledge. He said Ramos was obsessed with Stephen King’s Misery, and had nightmares about burning bodies. Ramos, he said, used to talk about cleaning out the enormous boiler in his building’s basement, and that the boiler was big enough to fit a body. At the time, the New York County district attorney said there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges.

The Patz case has never officially been closed, but in recent years it has sat dormant. After Etan was published in 2009, on the 30th anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, as the district attorney's office was poised to go through a regime change. When current District Attorney Cyrus Vance took office soon afterward, Stan Patz met with him to discuss his frustration and urge Vance to reinvigorate the case. The D.A. agreed, and a new round of checking all the old leads began.

This was the week that brought us to Othniel Miller. His basement has revealed nothing, so it’s unclear how much, if at all, the Jamaican handyman is still of interest to authorities. But the list of such persons is being checked off as this latest round of investigation continues. Jose Ramos is scheduled to walk free from prison this coming November, so it’s important to move the case as far as possible before Ramos, too, disappears.

Despite this latest downward direction, Stan Patz sees an upside. He watched the flurry of activity this week from greater proximity than at any time since those first weeks back in 1979. No matter the outcome, what it means to him is that some action is being taken. Something is being done. And as he often says, “Something is better than nothing.”