WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
On May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to the school bus stop in Lower Manhattan. His disappearance was widely reported on, and helped to launch the missing children movement that introduced new legislation and methods for tracking down missing children.
A few years after his disappearance, he was one of the first children to be profiled on a milk carton in the early 1980s. In 1983, May 25 was designated as National Missing Children's Day by President Ronald Reagan.
Etan was declared legally dead in 2001, and many investigators believe he had been abducted and murdered the same day he went missing. In 2010, the case was reopened and in 2014, Pedro Hernandez, who had confessed before, was charged with the child's murder. He was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison on April 18, 2017, 3 years ago today and 38 years after Etan was abducted.
On the morning of May 25, 1979, Etan got to walk to the school bus by himself for the first time. He left his apartment and planned to walk the short 2 blocks to the school bus. He was wearing a pilot cap, a blue jacked, blue jeans and sneakers with fluorescent stripes. Etan never got on the school bus that day. (1)
In a detail that probably never stopped haunting his mother, Etan hadn't planned to walk alone to the bus stop that day, but his mother ran a day care out of her home and was overwhelmed with the children and, amidst the morning chaos, he saw an opportunity to get the independence he had been pushing for. He begged to walk by himself, and she reluctantly agreed. (2)
At the school, his teacher noticed that he wasn't there, but for some reason, did not report it to the principal or notify anyone. His mother was not alerted that anything was wrong until he didn't come home from school, and she immediately called the police. (1)
Initially, his parents were considered to be possible suspects, not necessarily for any actions they did or didn't take, but in the interest of being thorough, but they were quickly ruled out as suspects. A search began, with nearly 100 police officers and a team of bloodhounds. This went on for weeks, but the neighbors and police canvassing the area and the hundreds of missing-child posters put up around the city resulted in few leads. (1)
LOOKING INTO LEADS
It appeared that Etan had disappeared out of thin air. Despite his photo being absolutely everywhere, his name being the biggest in the news and the entire city scrambling to find any clues as to where he may be, suspects were few and far between. This was one of the biggest cases of a missing child in the country, yet, no answers came.
The police did suspect a man named Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who lived in the area. He had been friends with one of Etan's former babysitters, giving him both the right history and the right opportunity to be a suspect. In fact, in 1982, multiple young boys accused Ramos of trying to lure them into a drain pipe, so essentially, Pennywise. When they searched the drain pipe, they found photos of Ramos with many young boys, some who resembled Etan. (2)
Investigators found out that he was in custody in Pennsylvania for an unrelated molestation case, and the Assistant United States Attorney Stuart R. GraBois was deputized as a deputy state attorney general in Pennsylvania to help prosecute him and learn more about Etan's case. Allegedly, when asked about Etan, Ramos said that on that day he had taken a young boy back to his apartment to rape him, but did not use Etan's name and said he put him on the subway after. (1)
In 1991, while Ramos was in jail for his other molestation crimes, an informant told the FBI that Ramos had told him he knew what happened to Etan. The Patz family considered him the prime suspect. Though his body was never found, he was declared legally dead in 2001. In 2004, Stan and Julie Patz, Etan's parents, won a civil case against Ramos. However, Ramos has never been criminally prosecuted for his murder. (1)
Every year on his birthday, Stan Patz sends Ramos a copy of the missing child poster, and on the back he writes "what did you do to my little boy?" Ramos, however, has denied killing Etan, but he did serve a 20-year prison sentence for child molestation. He was released in 2012, but was arrested again quickly for other crimes. (1)
THE CASE IS REOPENED
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. reopened the case on the 31st anniversary of Etan's disappearance in 2010. In 2012, authorities dug up the workshop of a handyman who knew Etan. The search took place after investigators realized that Othniel Miller, the handyman, had poured concrete down shortly after Etan disappeared. Though the search brought a new wave of media interest, it did not turn up any evidence. (1)
On May 24, 2012, almost 33 years after his disappearance to the day, a man named Pedro Hernandez confessed to strangling Etan after a tip came through incriminating him. According to the book about the case, After Etan, he was carrying a dollar and had planned to buy a soda to drink with his lunch. At the time of Etan's disappearance, Hernandez was 18 and working at a convenience store. He said he strangled the child and threw his remains in the garbage. Though the police had no physical evidence, they charged him with second-degree murder. (1)
Though they had no physical corroborating evidence, they did have other corroborating evidence. His brother-in-law, Jose Lopez, reached out to investigators to tell them he believed Hernandez was responsible for Etan's death. His sister, Nina, and the leader of the Charismatic Christianity group in New Jersey indicated that he may have publicly confessed to the murder in the early 1980s. Hernandez's sister said it was kind of an open family secret that he had committed the crime. (1)
On December 12, 2012, Hernandez pleaded not guilty to the charges: 2 counts of murder and one count of kidnapping. His lawyer argued that his confession was false, as it was one of the most notorious child disappearance cases and his questionable claims came only after 7 hours of questioning. A hearing was held to determine if his statements made prior to hearing his Miranda rights were legally admissible at trial. Ultimately, the trial resulted in a mistrial due to a hung jury, 11 against 1 in favor of conviction. (1)
A retrial began on October 19, 2016, and on February 14, 2017, he was found guilty of kidnapping and felony murder. On April 18, 2017, 3 years ago today, Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years for the kidnapping and murder of Etan Patz. (1)
TRYING TO MOVE ON, 40 YEARS LATER
At the trial, Stan Patz, Etan's father spoke. "You took our precious child and threw him in the garbage. I will never forgive you. The God you pray to will never forgive you." He said that he was a monster, the true face of evil, and would go to hell. Julie Patz stood by her husband and cried as he spoke, while Hernandez refused to look at the grieving family. (3)
Last year, the Patz family sold their home, the home they had raise Etan in, and moved to Hawaii. Their other son lives there, and they plan to spend the rest of their lives in a beautiful place spending time with their grandchildren. They never changed their phone number of moved homes in case Etan came home. They stayed in the same house for 40 years after their son disappeared. (4)
The pain and sadness and anger felt when losing a child is something I hope to never experience, and is almost entirely unimaginable to even think about. But to lose a child without one ounce of closure, to think you know who did it and have it come back decades after the original trauma of losing your kid is simply unthinkable. And to find out that your precious child was killed and thrown into the trash by someone he had never met before, over 30 years later, is horrifying in every way. I simply cannot even imagine the pain and grief that has presided over the Patz family for the last 41 years.
It is also crazy to think about the advancements for missing children, and how, often, those advancements only happen when authorities realize what they are missing after a kid goes missing. Putting images of children on milk cartons, making their faces widely known and available for the public didn't happen until after Etan went missing. Megan's law, the federal law requiring law enforcement authorities to make registered sex offender information available to the public didn't happen until 1994 after the murder of Megan Kanka. (5) AMBER alerts didn't go into effect until the abduction of a 9-year-old girl named Amber Hagerman in 1996. (6) Distributing images of missing children, disclosing area sex offenders and widespread public information about missing and kidnapped children all seem like obvious measures, but you often don't know what you don't know until it happens.
Missing children on milk cartons is something that most people know about, but the story behind one of the first kids profiled isn't as well-known. Sadly, the 6-year-old child who excitedly walked to the school bus for the first time was never seen again and it took 38 years for someone to be put behind bars for it, 3 years ago today.