Three days ago, on the 31st anniversary of his son’s disappearance, Manhattan resident Stan Patz performed a twice-yearly ritual: He took an old missing child poster of his son, Etan, and mailed it to the man he believes abducted him. Behind it he wrote, “What did you do to my little boy?”
For more than 20 years, Patz has been mailing the posters on May 25, the day Etan disappeared, and on Oct. 9, Etan’s birthday.
“I want him to know that whatever he did in 1979 has not been forgotten,” Patz said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
The man, an imprisoned pedophile named Jose Antonio Ramos, replied only once, in the late 1990s, threatening to sue Patz for harassment.
Patz now believes his long campaign to have Ramos, now 66, charged with his son’s abduction, and likely murder, is beginning to bear fruit. On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance agreed to reopen the case.
“I’m very encouraged,” said Patz, a 68-year-old photographer living in Manhattan’s Soho neighbourhood with his wife, Julie, Etan’s mother.
The abduction of Etan Patz, a blond six-year-old with a big smile, haunted a generation of parents and transformed the way cases of missing children are treated in the United States. Etan disappeared while walking the two blocks between his Soho residence and his school bus stop. It was the first time Etan’s parents had let him walk to the stop alone.
He was the second of the Patzes’ three children. Etan was declared legally dead in 2001.
His disappearance made news across the U.S. and Canada. Etan was the first missing child whose picture was placed on milk cartons. Largely because of his parents’ advocacy, the case pushed the government to set up the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the first national registry of missing children. U.S. President Ronald Reagan also made May 25th National Children’s Day.
For many parents, Etan’s disappearance put an end to the days of letting children play outside on their own.
“The age of innocence disappeared,” said Stuart GraBois, the former federal prosecutor who investigated Etan’s case.
Vance will be looking at evidence GraBois uncovered 22 years ago.
GraBois was assigned the case in 1985. He discovered while sifting through FBI files that Ramos was the boyfriend of a woman who walked Etan — and two other boys — home from school during a school bus strike in 1979. By then, Ramos was already in prison for molesting a child. GraBois and two police investigators went to interview Ramos in 1988.
When GraBois asked him, “How many times have you had sex with Etan Patz,” Ramos broke down.
“He started crying, heaving, his shoulders were shaking, and at that point, one of the senior detectives and I looked at each other and we knew we had the right guy,” GraBois, now a lawyer for a carpenters’ union, said in a telephone interview.
Ramos then said, “I’ll tell you everything, I want to get it off my chest. I never told anyone before,” GraBois added.
GraBois says Ramos then described taking a child to his apartment in Etan’s neighborhood for sex the day Etan disappeared, and then putting him the boy on the subway.
“He said the kid he took that day was the same kid he saw on TV that night as missing. He was 90 per cent sure it was the same kid. And Etan was the only kid who was on TV as missing that day.”
But Ramos never named Etan. It became known as “the 90 per cent confession.” Later, information from two prison informants who spent time with Ramos behind bars further convinced GraBois that Ramos had abducted Etan. GraBois didn’t have the jurisdictional authority to charge Ramos. And for years, he couldn’t convince former District Attorney Robert Morgenthau to do so.
Reopening the case became a key issue during the campaign to replace Morgenthau. Vance, who won the job in January, was one of the candidates who promised to do so.
In a 2004 civil suit, a New York judge ruled that Ramos was responsible for Etan’s death. Ramos is now in a Pennsylvania prison for molesting an 8-year-old boy. He is expected to be released in 2012.
Patz, who still lives with his wife in the same loft they shared when Etan disappeared, said he doesn’t believe Etan is alive. “That would be beyond science fiction. At some point this child would have grown up and tried to find his birth parents.” He says he now wants two things — his son’s body, and justice. “I want the man to be held responsible,” he said. “I think I owe it to my son.”
When asked how he and his wife have dealt with it all these years, Patz replied: “We continued living. We avoided blaming each other; we’re still married. I sort of think the incident made us stronger.”