Before Megan’s Law, Amber Alerts and milk carton portraits, there was Etan Patz.
Thirty years ago this week, the 6-year-old New Yorker walked to the school bus stop for the first time all by himself.
He never came home.
Three decades later, Patz is still the poster child for missing children. Because of his case, laws have changed, there’s a national database for missing and exploited children and the reins to childhood, once slack and carefree, are forever tightened.
Emmy-winning television producer Lisa R. Cohen investigates it all in “After Etan: The Missing Child Case that Held America Captive” (Grand Central, $25.99), a book that took the journalist five years to write.
“I think that, first and foremost, the reason I did it is because there’s never been a book written about it in the 30 years of the case,” said Cohen, who lives in New York. “I produced three stories for the case, the first of which was when I was an associate producer for ‘Primetime Live.’ There are some stories that never leave you. This one got under my skin all those years ago. My friend (former television reporter) John Miller once said, sometimes you follow the story and sometimes the story ends up following you.”
Cohen’s painstaking reporting, gleaned from 20 years of research and hundreds of interviews, detail Etan’s disappearance, the police and prosecutors who doggedly pursued the case, the prime suspect, Jose Antonio Ramos, and Stan and Julie Patz’s life before and after their son disappeared.
“I think since Etan’s disappearance, the perception of the world has completely changed,” Cohen said. “Thirty years ago, most people didn’t understand sexual abuse and molestation. No one knew what a pedophile was. When I was writing this, I realized those carefree days in New York City for kids don’t exist anymore.”
On May 25, 1979, now known as Missing Children’s Day, Etan Patz left his SoHo apartment to walk two blocks to the bus stop. When he didn’t return home from school, a massive manhunt ensued for weeks, yet he was never found. Ramos, the prime suspect in the case, and the boyfriend of Etan’s babysitter, is serving time in a Pennsylvania prison on unrelated child molestation charges.
Though Ramos was never convicted of the boy’s murder, the Patzes filed a wrongful death suit against him. He was found liable in 2004. Ramos is scheduled to be released 16 months early – in 2012.
Stan Patz, who still lives in SoHo with Julie, a retired teacher’s aide, mails to Ramos their son’s missing-child poster on Etan’s birthday and the day he disappeared. There is a simple question on the back:
“What did you do to my little boy?”
“I have done a lot of stories as a reporter over the years and sometimes you find yourself telling good stories about people who aren’t necessarily good,” she said. “But the Patzes are such real, good people who have been through the unspeakable tragedy. I feel like it’s my job to tell people you can go through something like this and survive. You can. The Patzes still think there is good in the world. They are not bitter; they are not full of hate. They are very good-hearted, kind people who astonish me.”