On a spring day in New York City, six-year-old Etan Patz vanished while on his route to school. It was a shocking turn of events, and for the next three decades, the young boy’s disappearance remained one of America’s most enduring mysteries. Then, 33 years later, a man made a startling confession – so would the truth finally be revealed?
Etan was born on October 9, 1972, and lived with his parents, Julie and Stanley, in SoHo, a neighborhood of Manhattan. He was the middle of three children, with an older sister, Shira, and a brother, Ari. At the time, SoHo was a somewhat rundown area with a large artistic community. But to the Patzes, it was home.
Indeed, at the start of the 1970s, Julie had established a daycare center in the loft of her apartment. And on the morning of May 25, 1979, she was preparing to welcome her charges for the day. Meanwhile, Etan – a trusting child – was attempting to assert his independence.
With his big sister home from school and his mother busy taking care of the younger children, Etan insisted that he could walk himself to the bus stop. Indeed, as he told his mother, he was even big enough to take a dollar and buy himself a can of cola from the local convenience store along the way.
Julie knew the store well; it was where the local mothers would tell their children to head in case of an emergency. So, she agreed – and watched as her son set off down the block. He was dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt, with matching hat and sneakers. It was the first time that he had left the house alone.
Julie watched as Etan walked away and then turned around and went back into the building. But although the bus stop was only two blocks from the Patzes’ home, Etan never arrived. Instead, the bus pulled up at the school with an empty seat where he should have been. And while the boy’s teacher noticed that he was absent, she didn’t relay that information to anyone in charge.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until Etan failed to return home from school that Julie realized something was wrong – and quickly acted. She contacted the police, who soon arrived to investigate. However, the authorities initially considered Julie and Stanley themselves to be suspects in their son’s disappearance.
After they subsequently determined that the parents were innocent, police began an extensive search for Etan. Using a team of dogs and almost 100 officers, they spent weeks scouring the city. Meanwhile, Stanley – a professional photographer – was able to produce a stack of images of his missing son.
Soon, neighbors and police were covering the city in missing child posters created using Stanley’s photographs. At one point, the images were even shown on big screens in New York’s Times Square. In fact, the wide-ranging coverage given to Etan’s disappearance would lead to him becoming a symbol for missing children everywhere.
Now at the time that Etan vanished, the United States had no nationwide system for raising awareness of cases like his. In response, activists thus began sharing circulars featuring images of missing children. Then, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan designated a National Missing Children’s Day – on May 25, the anniversary of the young boy’s disappearance.
As the circulars subsequently became more popular, some American dairies hit on a novel idea. Since milk was such a widely used product, why not publicize missing children cases by printing their photos on the sides of the cartons? And although there is no consensus over which child was first featured in this way, some believe it was Etan’s face that launched the campaign in 1985.
However, despite all the attention that the case received, Julie and Stanley were no closer to finding out what had happened to their son. Then, in 1985, Stuart R. GraBois, an Assistant United States Attorney, took on the case – and soon he had identified a suspect.
GraBois believed that Jose Ramos, a convicted sex offender who had been friends with Etan’s babysitters, was responsible for the boy’s disappearance. What’s more, when questioned, Ramos did little to dispel these suspicions. He claimed, in fact, to be almost certain that he had taken Etan – whom he had seen on the television – back to his apartment and assaulted him.
While in prison for other crimes, Ramos allegedly drew a map of Etan’s old school route, telling a fellow inmate that he knew what had happened to the boy. However, despite the apparent evidence against him, Ramos was never prosecuted for any involvement in Etan’s case.
In the meantime, although a body was never found, Etan was deemed legally dead in 2001 – while twice a year Stanley mailed something to Ramos in jail. On the back of his son’s missing child poster, he wrote the words “What did you do to my little boy?” But for 33 years, the Patzes would be unable to find closure.
And though the Patzes were awarded $2 million in a civil case versus Ramos in 2004, they never collected the money. Meanwhile, although he claimed to have assaulted the boy, Ramos continued to deny having murdered him. Then, on May 24, 2012, Raymond Kelly, the New York Police Commissioner, made a startling announcement.
Apparently, a New Jersey man named Pedro Hernandez had confessed to killing the boy. Back in 1979, Hernandez had been working in a convenience store close to Etan’s home. And according to the confession, he had strangled the boy before tossing his young victim’s body in with the garbage.
Despite the lack of physical evidence linking Hernandez to the crime, he therefore found himself facing a charge of second-degree murder. At the same time, people who knew the accused began reaching out to police. Apparently, Hernandez had confessed to the crime in church as far back as the 1980s.
Furthermore, Hernandez’s confession was just the beginning of a long and complicated case. While the suspect’s lawyers insisted that their client suffers from a very low IQ and had only confessed under duress, the court debated whether or not Hernandez’s statements were admissible in court. Ultimately, though, on April 18, 2017, he was given a life sentence.
Today, the Patzes have stopped blaming Ramos for Etan’s murder, confident at last that justice has been done. Meanwhile, the case’s legacy lives on. From warnings of stranger danger to the media circuses that now frequently surround missing children cases, the effects of Etan’s high-profile disappearance will be felt for many years to come.