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What Happened to Etan Patz

Left: Stan on the couple's fire escape after the disappearance. Right: Etan with his mother, Julie, at his 6th birthday party, 1978.   

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.”