Some cases are so compelling that people become fascinated with the developments of the case. The case of Etan Patz is one such story. Almost forty years ago, a senseless tragedy captured the attention of the entire world.
Four Decades Later and We Finally Know More
Etan Patz was just six years old when he disappeared on a May morning in 1979. Etan was just six years old and on his way to take the bus to school when the crime occurred. His parents could not imagine that such a terrible thing could happen to their precious son. Little did they know that their nightmare was just beginning…
A Loving Family
Today, the story of Etan Patz is known as one of the most haunting and heart-wrenching stories of the 20th century. Etan Patz came from a loving family. A native New Yorker, he was born to Julie and Stanley Patz.
Etan was the middle child in a family of three children. His siblings Shira and Ari were just 8 years old and 2 years old at the time of Etan’s disappearance. His disappearance had a devastating impact on the entire family and they all held out hope for years that one day, their child and their brother would be found safe and returned to their happy home.
A Family Effort
Etan’s family quickly mobilized after his disappearance on that fateful day in 1979. Thanks to the efforts of Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, people all over the country would soon recognize the young boy’s face. Etan was one of the first missing children in history to have their face and vital information posted on the back of a milk carton.
Thanks to this, Etan Patz soon became a household name with people all over the country knowing what he looked like. Etan’s family hoped that this would help ensure that their boy would be found and brought home to his family.
The Missing Child on the Milk Carton
As the days passed, however, the Patz family began to lose hope. Despite the fact that Etan’s face was placed on milk cartons all over the country, they were not turning up many clues as to the child’s whereabouts. People all over the country were looking for him, yet no one had any idea where he could possibly.
The trail was beginning to run cold. The Patz family feared that time was running out for their little boy. Clues were drying up and the family was quickly running out of options. They didn’t know what else they could do to help their son.
The Search Team
Police involvement in the Etan Patz case was significant. They put a team of New York Police Department searches together, led by a man named Robert McKenna. Even though he was a professional and supposed to try to remain emotionally detached from the cases he worked on, McKenna formed an emotional attachment to the Patz family.
At that point, a resident of Annandale, New York, McKenna was a parent himself. At the time of Etan’s disappearance, he had a young daughter. He was unable to stop thinking about the missing boy, and the case would have a profound effect on the reset of the man’s career.
A Tireless Effort
McKenna remembered that fateful night with stunning clarity. “We went through hundreds of green-bin garbage dumpsters and dumpsters and looked under cars,” he said. “If there was a box in the area, it would’ve been opened.”
Despite not finding anything, the search time continued to look for Etan. McKenna and many of his fellow officers searched for days, even in the pouring rain, often skipping lunch in order to continue their search. “Not a word was said. Nobody gave up. We didn’t care who found him, as long as he was found.”
Bringing Families Together
While Robert McKenna was never able to find Etan, the case did inspire him to continue his work in the hopes of being able to reunite other missing children with their families. By the time he retired from the New York Police Department, he was a lieutenant with the organization who had helped to reunite half a dozen missing children with their families.
He later described the relief and joy that came along with helping bring families together. “Your body just naturally relaxes, and you feel sort of proud,” said McKenna. “It’s part of the nature of making people happy.”
Despite the efforts of Robert McKenna and the New York Police Department, several years went by without any solid clues. When the search team that had been organized on the night of Etan’s disappearance failed to turn up any significant leads, the Patz family began to lose hope.
Six years after Etan’s tragic and mysterious disappearance, however, a lead came through. Etan would have been twelve years old by then if he were still alive, and his parents and siblings were eager to have the chance to fill the missing hole in their family.
Attorney Stuart R. Grabois Is Assigned to the Case
In 1985, an assistant United States Attorney named Stuart R. Grabois was assigned to the case. Grabois had some suspicions about what had happened on the day that Etan disappeared and he was determined to follow through. Grabois suspected that Etan’s former babysitter might have had something to do with the young boy’s disappearance.
Etan would have had a lot of interaction with the man and would have known him well, and the young man would have been familiar with the Patz home and know how to get inside. Grabois acted on the hunch and Jose Antonio Ramos became a primary suspected in the Etan Patz case.
So Was There a Killer?
The suspect that Grabois was pursuing was a man named Jose Antonio Ramos. Ramos had been prosecuted in Pennsylvania after admitting to molesting and photographing several young boys. His admitted history of preying on young boys and his connection with the still-missing Etan Patz.
Ramos had been accused by many young boys of trying to lure them into a drain pipe. The area where Ramos would prey on his victims was very close to Ramos’ home. After police searched the drain pipe, they found photographs of Ramos with his young victims, one of whom resembled Etan. Could Ramos be the killer?
The Prime Suspect
Ramos was interrogated, but it was difficult for Grabois to get a straight answer out of him. While Ramos admitted to taking a young boy to his apartment on the day that Etan disappeared and that he had intended to molest his victim, Ramos was not entirely positive that Etan was one of his many victims.
After viewing pictures of Etan, Ramos claimed that he was “90 percent sure” that Etan had been one of his victims, but did not admit to killing him saying that he had put his victim onto the subway after taking advantage of him.
A Civil Case
Grabois was unable to prove that Ramos had been responsible for Etan’s disappearance, but Ramos was still convicted of his many other crimes. Despite the fact that he was the prime suspect in the Etan Patz case, the authorities were unable to prosecute him for the crime as they were unable to definitely link him to the disappearance.
Etan Patz was declared legally dead in 2001, and his family pursued a civil case against Ramos a few years later. While they were awarded the sum of $2 million, Stan and Julie Patz never collected the money.
Marking an Anniversary
For years, the Patz family remained convinced that Ramos was responsible for their son’s disappearance, even though they were unable to prove it. Two times every year, Etan’s father, Stan Patz, would send Ramos a copy of the missing child poster with his lost little boy’s name on it.
On the back of each missing child poster, Stan Patz would write a message to the man he was convinced was responsible for the loss of his child: “What did you do to my little boy?” His heartbreaking persistence to hold the suspected killer responsible is a testament to the love that the Patz family has for Etan.
An Unsolved Mystery
The years passed by and the Patz family, along with the people all over the world who were still following the case, remained certain that Ramos had killed Etan and disposed of his body. The case was officially classified as a cold case, and the active pursuit of the person responsible for Etan’s presumed death ceased.
This provided only a small amount of closure for the Patz family. They might have been convinced Ramos was the killer, but they still had no idea what had happened to their son’s body and Ramos had not been convicted of the crime. Justice had not been served, leaving the case very much open in the hearts and minds of everyone connected to Etan Patz.
The Case Is Reopened Over 30 Years Later
Just when the Patz family had lost all hope of ever having closure and finding out what had truly happened to their son that day in 1979, they got a call from the New York Police Department saying that there was a new lead in the case.
The Etan Patz was officially reopened on April 19, 2012, more than 30 years since Etan had disappeared and more than a decade since he had been declared legally dead. In a surprise twist that shocked the Patz family, the latest suspect in the Etan Patz case was not, as previously had been thought, Ramos, but a man by the name of Pedro Hernandez.
A New Prime Suspect
Just a month later, on May 24, 2012, the new prime suspect in the Etan Patz case confessed to strangling a little boy around the time that Etan had disappeared nearly 40 years ago. Pedro Hernandez was just barely out of childhood himself at that point.
The then-18-year-old was working at a bodega that just so happened to be right next to the bus stop where Etan was supposed to be on that fateful morning. It turned out that Etan had been looking forward to having a soda at school that day, and his mother had even given him a dollar to purchase one…
The Scene of the Crime
When Pedro Hernandez offered the little boy a free soda as he was waiting for his bus, Etan Patz couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Young and trusting, Etan followed the person he assumed to be a kind and generous benefactor.
Instead of giving him the soda, however, Pedro Hernandez made his move. He dragged the little boy downstairs and strangled the poor 6-year-old to death. After there was no life left in Etan’s body, Hernandez put Etan into a body bag, stuffed him into a box, and then threw the innocent child into the garbage.
An Open Family Secret
While the police had no physical evidence that Hernandez had murdered Etan Patz, they had enough information to charge the 51-year-old man with second-degree murder. He had been turned in by his brother in law, Jose Lopez, who was backed up by Pedro Hernandez’s sister, Nina Hernandez, and the leader of a Charismatic Christianity group at a Roman Catholic church in Camden, New Jersey.
According to the group leader, Tomas Rivera, and Nina Hernandez, Hernandez had confessed the murder to the church in the 1980s. According to Nina, there was an “open family secret” that [Hernandez] had confessed to the church.
It might not have been physical proof, but it was enough to bring Pedro Hernandez to trial especially since he had already confessed to the crime. Part of his legal defense rested on his diagnosis of schizotypal personality disorder which can include hallucinations as part of the illness.
Hernandez also reportedly has a sub normal IQ, of around 70, which is “at the border of intellectual disability.” Despite all of these handicaps, it was determined that not only was Pedro Hernandez capable of knowingly committing a murder but that he had, in fact, murdered young Etan Patz.
At the end of 2012, Hernandez pleaded “not guilty” to two counts of murder and one count of kidnapping. After a hearing and then a mistrial resulting from a hung jury, a retrial began at the end of 2016.
In early 2017, Pedro Hernandez was found guilty of both kidnapping and felony murder. On April 18, 2017, the now middle-aged man was sentenced to life in prison. He is not eligible for parole for 25 years, finally giving Etan Patz’s family the closure they waited nearly 40 years to get.