The 1979 Disappearance Of Etan Patz Is Why We Have National Missing Children's Day
On the 40th anniversary of Etan Patz's disappearance, here are five things to know about the case that captivated New York City — and the nation.
On May 25, 1979, a six-year-old boy named Etan Patz asked his mother, Julie, to let him walk to the school bus stop alone. Julie reluctantly said yes, and watched her son walk out of the family's apartment in New York City's SoHo toward the bus stop, which was located just a couple of blocks away.
But Etan never made it to school. Somewhere along the way, he vanished — and he has never been found. On the 40th anniversary of Etan's disappearance, here are five things to know about the case that captivated New York City — and the nation.
1. The case helped spark a national movement to help missing children.
Etan’s father, who was a professional photographer, immediately started passing out photographs of his son. Posters of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy with the sweet smile were pasted all over the city.
Etan became the first missing child to be printed on milk cartons as part of a campaign to help locate the children. His case garnered massive media attention and focused the public debate on the problem of child abductions around the country.
President Ronald Reagan designated May 25, the day Etan went missing, as National Missing Children’s Day in 1983. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which was founded by John Walsh after the abduction and murder of his six-year-old son, Adam, in a Florida mall in 1981, was involved in the founding of the day.
Over the years, the NCMEC has assisted law enforcement with tens of thousands of cases involving missing children.
2. The investigation was hurt by delays and lack of physical evidence.
On the morning of May 25, 1979, when Etan left his family's loft apartment at 113 Prince Street, New York was a very different place.
There was no social media, and no surveillance video footage for police to review. In addition, Etan's teacher reportedly did not inform the principal that the boy had not shown up for school, so his parents did not realize that he was missing until he failed to come home in the afternoon.
His mother, Julie, called the police, but the investigation was allegedly hurt by the delay. Rainy weather also made it harder for police dogs to track Etan's scent — and there was no physical evidence or crime scene to examine.
3. For years, prosecutors considered a convicted child molester their main suspect.
In 1985, Assistant United States Attorney Stuart R. GraBois identified Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted pedophile who had been a friend of Etan's former babysitters, the primary suspect.
In 1982, multiple boys had accused Ramos of trying to lure them into a drain pipe where he had been living. When police searched the drain pipe, they allegedly found photographs of Ramos and young boys who resembled Etan.
GraBois says that Ramos told him that on the day Etan disappeared, he had taken a young boy back to his apartment to molest him and said that he was "90 percent sure" it was the boy whom he later saw on television. According to GraBois, Ramos did not identify the boy by name, and claimed that he had then “put the boy on the subway.”
Several years later, a jailhouse informant reportedly told authorities that Ramos told him he knew what had happened to Etan — and that Ramos had drawn a map of Etan's school bus route.
After Etan was declared legally dead in 2001, Stan and Julie Patiz filed a civil suit againt Ramos. They were awarded $2 million. But Ramos has still never been criminally charged in connection with the murder of Etan, who he has denied that he killed.
4. Another man eventually confessed, and was convicted.
The case was reopened in 2010 by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.
Pedro Hernandez, who was an 18-year-old working in a bodega at the time of Etan’s disappearance, confessed to the murder in 2012. According to NPR, Hernandez told police that he lured Etan to the basement by offering him a soda. Hernandez claimed that he then strangled Etan and threw his remains in the garbage.
Hernandez was charged and indicted on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping, but his eventual conviction was controversial. His lawyer at the time, Harvey Fishbein, stated that Hernandez was diagnosed as mentally ill, had been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, and had an IQ of around 70.
Fishbein told The Daily Beast that he believed that Hernandez could not tell fantasy from reality and had been lured into a false confession by police. He also pointed out that there is no physical evidence and no eyewitnesses linking Hernandez to Etan’s disappearance.
Hernandez’s trial began in January 2015 and ended in a mistrial that May. Following a retrial in February 2017, a jury found Hernandez guilty of murder and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on April 18, 2017.
5. Throughout the ordeal, Etan’s parents never moved or changed their phone number.
The Patzes have never relocated, despite countless unwanted calls — they told reporters that this is because they knew Etan had that number memorized.
At Hernandez’s trial, Julie Patz talked about the last time she saw her son alive. She described SoHo in the late 1970s as an artist’s colony that was so quiet you could barbecue in the middle of the street, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I capitulated and said OK, you can walk to the school bus," she testified, describing how she accompanied Etan downstairs to the sidewalk and watched him head up the street.
The bus stop at West Broadway and Prince Street was visible from his parents' window. Julie told police that she watched Etan, wearing his black "Future Flight Captain" pilot cap, a blue corduroy jacket, blue jeans, and blue sneakers with fluorescent stripes, walk about a block. He was holding a dollar she said he planned to use to buy a soda at the bodega.
In 2012, nearly 33 years after Etan went missing, the FBI excavated the basement of the alleged crime scene near the Patz residence but discovered no new evidence.
They did not recover Etan’s remains. The boy’s body has never been found.
Read more: Duluth News Tribune