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Remembering Etan Patz, Still Missing 33 Years Later

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628x471.jpgThe name Etan Patz still sends a chill down my spine some 33 years after he famously disappeared one morning, the first time the six year old was allowed to walk to school on his own. At the time I was working at the Soho Weekly News, still relatively new to the city after a six-year sojourn in New Orleans. Though its core mission was to cover the burgeoning downtown arts and nightlife scene, editor Al Ellenberg, a veteran of the New York Post (once a bastion of liberalism!), knew a good story when he saw one. As the posters looking for the missing boy continued to proliferate on every available surface, it became clear that this was a story that we had to cover. And I was assigned to do it.

Soho was a very different place then, less a luxury shopping mall and more of a neighborhood, the kind of place a kid could go to school on his own in the morning without fear of being kidnapped. Or so we thought. (My son is 10 and I still walk him to school every day.)

I had a lot of trepidation about calling the Patz family as I worked on the story, imagining their distress at the intrusion of a local reporter poking around. I talked to them in their loft, two cops off to the side tending to their business. When children disappear, the first suspects are the parents and, admittedly, I remember looking at them suspiciously, wondering if they were hiding anything. Later I went out with a couple of cops who were searching the neighborhood looking for anything that might connect them to the missing boy. We canvassed an empty lot on the west side, kicking cans and picking through scraps of clothing we bagged for later examination.

No meaningful evidence turned up that day, and hadn't since, until the case was revived last week. The ex-wife of Othniel Miller, a neighborhood handyman with a basement workshop at 127 Prince Street in SoHo at the time of Patz's disappearance, said Miller had raped his 10-year-old niece. The niece corroborated the story, and Prince Street was closed to traffic over the weekend as the FBI conducted an investigation, ripping up the basement floor where a cadaver dog had sniffed something. Network TV mobile units poised ready to deliver the news, photographers camping out on their fold-out chairs, the Patz family still living in the same building down the street from the investigation. But yesterday the FBI announced they had concluded the investigation after finding no immediate evidence of human remains (though the Post reports some recovered materials were sent to be tested in an FBI lab). The prime suspect in the case has long-been Jose Ramos, a drifter who dated a woman hired to walk neighborhood kids, including Patz, home from school during a bus strike. He was never charged, however, and is currently in prison in Pennsylvania on child molestation charges.

Every few years, the story pops up again, a cold hand on my shoulder reminding me of the evil that exists in this world. For years after Etan's disappearance, I'd occasionally run into Etan's parents in Soho on my way to a meeting, meal or opening, barely glancing their way, not knowing what to say. My story made it to the cover of the Soho Weekly News and I remember hoping that it would make a difference, that someone would see it and Etan Patz would be found. But that was not to be. Maybe the time has finally come.


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