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What Happened to Etan Patz

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Jose Antonio Ramos, in a 1988 mug shot.   

“Just watch me,” GraBois replied. It took over two years, and unprecedented legal maneuvering, but in November 1990, he sent Ramos away for a maximum of twenty years. That, however, wasn’t GraBois’s ultimate goal. It was merely the next step in a plan whose details have never been fully revealed. Ramos has long been the prime suspect in Etan’s disappearance, written about in New York papers and Vanity Fair (clippings Ramos eagerly collected in jail), and then featured on an ABC News PrimeTime Live piece (called “The Prime Suspect”) I produced in 1991. But what has not been told is how GraBois was subsequently able to make the case against Ramos even stronger.

In prison, Ramos, seething over the prosecutor he called his persecutor, was soon asking a jailhouse acquaintance specific questions about where GraBois lived. So, GraBois decided to turn the tables on Ramos—he recruited the man, Jon Morgan*, as part of an undercover operation.

In 1991, together with FBI special agent Mary Galligan, GraBois spent months orchestrating the delicate logistics of having Ramos transferred to a federal prison, then getting Morgan into Ramos’s cell. Since Ramos was being held in a protective segregation unit, that meant lockdown 23 hours a day with a known sex offender in a space not much bigger than a bathroom. No promises on payback, GraBois told his plant, but we’ll certainly be willing to put in a good word.

Morgan was an unassuming-looking former international chemical-waste salesman whose questionable business practices had landed him in federal custody. When he signed on to GraBois’s plan in the winter of 1991, he passed a lie-detector test, then headed upstate to the Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville.

A few days after arriving in the Special Housing Unit, Morgan crossed paths with Ramos outside its tiny law library. As usual, Ramos was carrying a thick pile of paperwork: court transcripts, subpoenas, press clippings. “What’s happening with that address you were going to get me?” he asked Morgan. “I’m still interested.”

“Why do you want GraBois’s address?” Morgan asked.

“I know a guy on the outside. He’s a demolitions expert, and he owes me a big favor.”

“He knows Etan’s school-bus route. He knows all the stops the bus made back in 1979. He says Etan’s was the third.”

It seemed unlikely Ramos could pull off such a plan. Nevertheless, an order was placed in prison files that GraBois be notified of Ramos’s release, and the prosecutor soon began to use a remote-control key chain that started his car from yards away.

GraBois’s own plan progressed just days later, when Ramos’s cellmate moved out and the inmate asked for Morgan to replace him. Lying on their bunk beds, the two men would talk, and as Morgan relayed information to GraBois and Galligan, it solidified his own credibility. When Ramos spoke about his days in the Navy, military records confirmed it. When Morgan reported that he’d bought the school bus in Florida for $2,500, that also checked out.

Finally, Morgan delivered information that interested the Feds even more. “He knows Etan’s school-bus route,” he told GraBois. “He knows all the stops the bus made back in 1979, and he says Etan’s was the third stop in Soho.”

Perched on his top bunk while Ramos read a Stephen King novel below, Morgan scribbled secret notes on the conversations. At one point, he told GraBois about a woman whose name he could know only from Ramos: “He doesn’t know for sure where Harmon is,” Morgan said. “She’s probably in the same dump on 13th Street.” Morgan was struck by Ramos’s ill will toward his former girlfriend. “She is a ‘bitch cunt.’ Every woman Ramos talks about is a bitch, a cunt, or some other derogatory name. He apparently does not like women.”

One week turned into two, and Morgan’s stamina was waning. No confession had come, and Ramos would often say one thing only to seemingly contradict himself. They would never be able to charge him for Etan’s murder because there was no body. And then: Etan would turn up one day alive. Morgan began to feel the insanity might be infectious, and he wanted out.

Unbeknownst to Morgan, his relief was warming up in a nearby cell. Jeremy Fischer* had arrived in the SHU. He was GraBois’s phase two. Fischer had met Ramos up at Otisville on a previous stint and had approached authorities after overhearing Ramos outside of Jewish services one day. “Eaten, Eaten,” Fischer said Ramos cried out, “I never meant to hurt you.” GraBois himself knew, as few others did, that Ramos pronounced Etan’s name that way.

With his slicked-back hair and thin, sly features, Fischer was a more sophisticated con man than Morgan, which made him harder to trust. But his accounts of conversations with Ramos resonated with details no one else could know. Fischer approached the job methodically. He flattered Ramos by telling him Socrates had liked boys too. He played therapist, which yielded graphic confessions of how Ramos had targeted other victims, including one with Down syndrome … and Etan Patz.


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