It will be 30 years this Memorial Day weekend since reporters swarmed the Soho loft of Stan and Julie Patz, along with hundreds of policemen, as the grim-faced parents spelled their son’s name over and over again: “E-T-A-N … ay-tahn.”
The Patzes’ story was already front-page fodder. That Friday, May 25, 1979, 6-year-old Etan, wearing his favorite Eastern Air Lines Future Flight Captain hat, had vanished somewhere in the two short blocks between his Prince Street home and the West Broadway school-bus stop. It was the first time his parents had let him walk the route alone, a decision they’d agonized over. (Other kids are allowed, Etan had said. Why not me?) His school never alerted the Patzes to Etan’s absence, and it wasn’t until 3:30 p.m., when he hadn’t returned, that Julie called their neighbors, wondering if he might be with a friend. Twenty minutes later she called the police.
Now journalists gathered in the hushed, sun-washed front area of the loft, where Julie normally ran an in-home day-care center and Stan, a commercial photographer, often sat immersed in photo editing. Most of the reporters were respectful if awkward; there is no painless way to ask a parent How do you feel? at such a time. But then there was the tabloid photographer whose question they would never forget.
“Would you mind working up a few tears for me now,” the man asked Julie, “so I don’t have to come back and bother you again when they find the body?”
The photographer never had to come back. Etan’s body has never been found. And although an entire network for tracking missing children emerged from his disappearance—pictures on milk cartons and Amber alerts and National Missing Children’s Day—that’s small comfort for Stan and Julie Patz, both of whom fought very hard for such things so others wouldn’t have to. After 30 years, Etan’s case remains officially open in New York, the mysterious, enduring symbol of a parent’s worst nightmare.
For a whole generation of parents, and children, the words Etan Patz are unforgettable, haunting. A woman who grew up in the city, playing with other 8-year-olds on the Great Lawn in Central Park until they drifted home at dinnertime, still remembers her reaction to the news as a young mother in 1979. “It all changed after Etan,” she says. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Well, that world is gone.’ ”
Yet despite the blanket coverage and widely trumpeted false leads—authorities flew to Israel to look for Etan once—only a small part of the story is known to the public. Law enforcement usually responds with a terse “No comment.” Stan and Julie recognized at some indefinable moment that their son was never coming home, no matter what they said, so they stopped saying anything, turning away from the spotlight. Although their loft housed terrible memories, the Patzes stayed on Prince Street, partly because My God, what if we moved and he somehow found his way back? And partly because they refused to be driven away: “We had other, better memories here before Etan disappeared,” Stan says, “a whole history of happier times. We’ve raised our other children here”—their daughter, who was 8 in 1979, and another son, who was 2. “I was never prepared to cede all that to some faceless villain along with my son.”
But for years now, Stan has had a face to concentrate on; twice a year, in fact, on Etan’s birthday and on the anniversary of his disappearance, Stan sends one of the old lost child posters to a man who’s already in prison. He won’t be there much longer, however, unless the successor to Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau can keep him in jail. In the meantime, Stan’s packages serve notice that someone is still paying close attention. On the back of the poster, he always writes the same thing: “What did you do to my little boy?”
Stan and Julie never changed their phone number either; Etan knew it by heart. And in spiral-bound notebooks they kept detailed logs of every call, no matter how crazy or obscene. Tips came in from around the world. A man said he’d picked up a 21-year-old hitching upstate with a kid he was “almost positive” was Etan. A psychic claimed Etan was alive “in a province of Italy.” Closer to home, the police interviewed scores of people connected to the family—even grilling the Patzes themselves—yet one link would go unseen.
In 1979, Jose Antonio Ramos was a 35-year-old bearded drifter with flat, dark eyes and an unexpectedly soft voice who collected junk to sell around lower Manhattan. He lived in Alphabet City, at 234 East 4th Street, a building that today is coveted real estate but was then a quasi–shooting gallery, home to tough characters and struggling artists. (Madonna would live there, briefly.) One former resident recalls an encounter with Ramos from his childhood: Playing with his sister in their bedroom, the boy saw a row of toy soldiers and an old Barbie magically appear outside the window, suspended by invisible wire. Opening the window, he reached toward a toy. The line was yanked up a few inches. Leaning out, he spotted Ramos up on the fire escape, gesturing for him to climb the rusty metal stairs. Instead, he slammed the window shut and told his sister not to say a word about what had happened.