What Happened to Etan Patz

Etan in 1978.Photo: Patz Imaging

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.

Left: Stan on the couple's fire escape after the disappearance. Right: Etan with his mother, Julie, at his 6th birthday party, 1978. Photo: From left, Marty Reichenthal/AP; Patz Imaging

By 1982, Ramos was living in a drainpipe in the Bronx. Two boys told their parents he’d stolen their bookbags and tried to coax them inside. Once there, cops found toys and photographs of boys, many of whom were blond, they noticed, like Etan. When an assistant D.A. asked Ramos about the pictures, he said they were just friends—in between talking about violent voices he’d once heard and struggled to control. Then the assistant D.A. asked the question on everyone’s mind: Did Ramos ever know Etan Patz?

“No, no,” he said quickly, though he remembered reading about him in the papers. Moments later, however, he offered up a connection, unprompted, that stunned his questioner.

“Sandy used to take care of him.”

Ramos, it turned out, had been a boyfriend of sorts to Sandy Harmon,* a woman hired to walk Etan home from school during a school-bus strike in the weeks before the boy disappeared. She had a young son as well, one of the boys whose pictures showed up in Ramos’s stash. She would later swear to police that she never imagined Ramos might be molesting him.

The Patzes learned through media reports about the drainpipe arrest and Ramos’s connection to what reporters called a Patz “babysitter,” the first real link ever made between a possible suspect and their case. It was the second worst weekend of Stan’s life. For three years, there had always been two basic scenarios he could choose to believe. In one, evil, unthinkable forces had abducted his son. In the other, a deranged but well-intentioned motherly type was loving Etan somewhere in a parallel life. With great skepticism, Stan had worked hard to ignore the first image and nurture the second. It helped him get through each day. Now he began to wander fearfully down that other path. A pedophile? In a filthy drainage tunnel?

Except the Bronx D.A. would soon declare that Ramos wasn’t connected to the Patz case. Investigators couldn’t make the Sandy revelation pay off—even though Stan would complain to a People reporter that he and Julie were very unhappy about the way the “drainpipe case” was being pursued. When the Bronx parents declined to press charges, Ramos was released, and he eventually left town.

It wasn’t until after Stuart GraBois, a federal prosecutor in then–U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani’s office, was assigned the Patz case that Ramos would become a prime suspect. GraBois, a six-foot, steel-haired, steely-eyed product of Bensonhurst, took on the investigation with prosecutorial zeal—no file would go unread—and he became very interested in this suspected pedophile. The only problem was that no one knew where Ramos was. He’d gone to ground years before.

So when a colleague of GraBois’s ran Ramos’s name one more time, in 1988, he couldn’t contain his excitement: Ramos had popped up in prison in Pennsylvania. It turned out he’d been traveling around in an old school bus, and had made the mistake of targeting his victims at annual gatherings of the loose hippie community, the Rainbow Family of Living Light. It didn’t take too long for the guy handing out toys to arouse suspicion, and by 1987, Ramos had been sentenced to three and a half to seven years for corruption of a minor and indecent assault—on a 5-year-old.

GraBois arranged for the inmate to be brought to New York for questioning. When he arrived, Ramos was in visibly high spirits. He thought they’d called him in because he’d neglected to pay taxes on his street vending. GraBois let Ramos continue to think that was the purpose of this visit—until he abruptly changed his tone.

“How many times did you try to have sex with Etan Patz?”

Ramos went white. “I guess you have a witness,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything,” he sobbed, admitting that, yes, he’d taken a little boy to his apartment for sex on the day Etan disappeared. Yes, he was “90 percent sure” it was the same boy he later saw on TV. But no, he let him go when the boy refused his advances, even walked him to a subway station and waved good-bye there.

“That’s bullshit, Jose!”

“No, it’s true. Look, I want to tell you everything,” Ramos said. But then he asked for a lawyer. A few days later, he came in wearing a yarmulke—to signal his newfound, self-proclaimed Jewish roots—with a legal-aid attorney, who advised him to remain silent. The statute of limitations on a nine-year-old molestation crime had run out. GraBois had to find another way to get more.

Thus began a lengthy game of prosecutor and mouse. If GraBois couldn’t get Ramos on the Patz case, he warned him, he’d go to Warren, Pennsylvania, hard by the Ohio border, and resurrect another old case there, involving the sodomy of a different Rainbow child. “Do you know where that place is?” GraBois recalls Ramos scoffing. “It’s some backwoods little hole out in the middle of nowhere. You’re never going to go all the way down there.”

Jose Antonio Ramos, in a 1988 mug shot. Photo: Courtesy of Lisa R. Cohen

“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.

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

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.

“Priority?” says Snyder now. “You can see how much priority it got!” She’s especially dismayed that even though Stan met with the D.A.’s office, Morgenthau himself didn’t sit down with the Patzes as requested. (The D.A.’s office has declined to comment.)

Snyder goes back a long way with GraBois; they used to face off in court, he as a young public defender, she an assistant D.A. So she listens carefully to his judgment.

“I’ve always been convinced of the two informants’ credibility and of the viability of the other evidence,” says GraBois. “That evidence points squarely at Jose Ramos. I think he destroyed the body, and in fact has stated that they’ll never be able to get him because they’ll never have a body. I think it’s time for another push. Time is running out.”

When I last reached out to her, Sandy Harmon was still living in New York. As for Ramos, he’s not talking much these days. I produced his only television interview eighteen years ago, but when I was working on my book, he refused to meet. A few months ago, however, he began writing me, decrying the injustice of his case and asking for a few thousand dollars to replace his typewriter, art supplies, and television. Ramos also wrote that he was mentally and physically abused, starting from the age of 5. “There was no one to complaint [sic] about the treatment I was forced to endure as a child.”

In prison, according to Fischer, Ramos would say of Etan, “I honor him every day.” Perhaps one day his honor will win out.

*Some names have been changed.

Adapted from After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive, by Lisa R. Cohen (Grand Central Publishing). © 2009 by Lisa R. Cohen. All rights reserved.

What Happened to Etan Patz