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What Happened to Etan Patz

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Left: the site of the bus stop on West Broadway and Prince Street, 1979. Right: the lost-child poster.   

Fischer said Ramos told him about violating the boy—not just attempting to—and even described picking him up on Prince Street.

“Why would he ever go with you?” Fischer asked.

“I just walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, remember me? I’m Sandy’s friend.’ ”

But like others before him, Fischer couldn’t get Ramos to finish his story. It’s a misnomer to call Ramos lucky, since he’s been behind bars for almost 23 years, but before Fischer was able to get a full confession, Ramos stumbled upon his new cellmate’s true mission.

“Get him out of the cell,” screamed Ramos. “He’s a goddamn snitch.”

“If I’m a snitch,” Fischer said, “then you’d better watch out. If I want to get you, I have enough on you to turn you in for murder.” Inmates along the tier were treated to the sounds of an emergency rescue, as guards were forced to separate the two men.

“GraBois knows I did it,” Fischer later quoted Ramos as saying. “And it’s killing him because he can’t get it out of me.”

Typical Ramos hyperbole, GraBois says today, but the now-former prosecutor does concede his frustration. The informant accounts, along with other evidence, were turned over to the New York County district attorney’s office, after the case was ultimately deemed outside GraBois’s federal jurisdiction. But while Ramos has been serving out his Pennsylvania sentence, the D.A.’s office, under Robert Morgenthau, has yet to charge him on the Patz case. Admittedly, it’s a tough one to prosecute, particularly with no body. (In 2000, NYPD forensic teams re-searched the 234 East 4th Street basement using updated DNA technology, but found only the remains of dead animals.) When GraBois and Galligan handed their evidence over in 1991, the FBI briefed the Patzes on their case against Ramos. They believed that he had killed Etan. The Patzes said nothing in response, but silent tears wet Julie’s face, and Stan struggled to hold his in. He reached over to soothe his wife, gently placing his hand on her shoulder.

Based on what he learned that day, and in subsequent years, Stan has come to the same conclusion: Ramos killed his son. And both Stan and GraBois, who now runs the carpenters union benefits fund, have long been unhappy that the D.A.’s office hasn’t moved forward. “All we’ve ever wanted is for the D.A. to take the next step,” Stan says. “Let someone else look at the evidence—show it to a grand jury.”

Troubled by the D.A.’s inaction, in 2001 Stan filed a wrongful-death suit against Ramos, which necessitated the painful step of having Etan declared legally dead. When Stan first arrived home from a lunch in 2000 with GraBois and Brian O’Dwyer, the lawyer who’d pledged his pro-bono services, he already knew what Julie’s reaction would be to the suit. “It won’t bring Etan back,” she said. It would only make her life—and her family’s—even harder. Julie didn’t work in the cocoon of a home office, where Stan largely conducted his business. Every morning she caught the uptown subway to her job at a bustling public school. She was the one, not Stan, who dealt with well-meaning, but heart-stopping, comments from people who thought they’d seen Etan back in 1982 or yesterday. Any new jolt of press would raise her profile yet again, and she’d spent over a third of her life in this hell already. “You do what you have to do,” she finally said to her husband, “but I can’t have any part of it.” Stan signed the papers without her.

Three years later, a civil judge found Ramos responsible for Etan’s death and awarded the family a symbolic $2 million in monetary damages, money they will never see and wouldn’t want anyway. The lawsuit was merely a means to an end.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Stan. “I’m not sitting around doing nothing but mourning and thinking of revenge. But I’ve also waited 30 years to get justice for Etan. I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

Still, both he and GraBois worry about the next few years. Last month, that note in Ramos’s file kicked in, and the prison called GraBois: Ramos had shaved sixteen months off his sentence and will now be released in 2012, not 2014, as previously expected. “So all those wonderful things we are planning on,” Stan says, “the increased publicity from the 30th anniversary, the new D.A. election—all those things are going to have to work faster.”

Two months ago, the 89-year-old Morgenthau announced he was finally stepping down as D.A. One would-be successor is Leslie Crocker Snyder. When she ran against Morgenthau in 2005, she stood on the steps of City Hall with Stan and declared that if elected, she’d have a grand jury look at all the evidence. At the time, Morgenthau responded that the case was “a priority” but couldn’t be prosecuted without sufficient evidence.


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