I've been obsessed with the Etan Patz case. When the investigation team headed back to SoHo where Etan disappeared in 1979, I was just around the corner having dinner. It was clear something major was happening, and that night on the news, I learned that cadaver dogs had picked up the scent of human remains in the basement where reported suspect Othniel Miller once had a workshop. Jose Ramos was another suspect -- he knew Patz's babysitter and may have done work with Miller. Now, 33 years later, that workshop is a Lucky Brand Jeans and Wink clothing store basement and it's being dug up.
They are searching for clues. Stains. Evidence of something. Etan. Pieces of an innocence stolen from a beautiful child and from many children who lived in NYC at that time. I was just a subway ride away living in Queens when Etan vanished -- we were the same age. His parents never gave up hope -- and because of that hope and persistence, the case was reopened.
I remember the fear back then. Never had a missing child's case been so publicized. Etan was the first missing child to be put on a milk carton. Milk cartons I would read while snacking on cereal after school, seeing myself in every child. One had the same hair color. Another was born in the same month as me. Another lived in New York, too. Even as a kid I remember feeling very scared. Helpless. Questioning why. I often would picture that the child was just living another life with another family in a whole other part of the world. But most missing child cases are much more sinister.
When I became a mother, any missing child case I would hear about gave me a whole new level of fear. When Leiby Kletzky disappeared in Brooklyn last year, I would pass the homemade signs in my neighborhood and look for Leiby's face in children I would see. Leiby was 8 years old, and just like in Etan's case, he was allowed to walk alone somewhere for the first time. For Etan, it was just down the block to his school bus stop. For Leiby it was just seven blocks to meet his mom after camp. Both boys went missing after that first walk alone.
What do we do as parents? Never allow our children to walk anywhere alone? Do we live in this fear? It's hard not to. Even with the decades that passed between the two cases, and the many changes in NYC since then, children still go missing. Mysteries surround them. So much has changed, but nothing has changed. Etan is still missing. His parents still live in the same Prince Street loft that Etan left the morning of his disappearance. The family still has the same phone number just in case Etan ever called.
The case has remained active for the Patz family, even when the police were doing nothing for all those years. When candidates were running for the Manhattan DA seat, Etan's father Stan Patz approached Cy Vance (and his opponents) to ask that the case be re-opened if he won to help the family have closure. A lot has changed in forensics since then. Perhaps something could be learned. He said yes. Etan is still his father's priority -- a testament to a father's love.
Vance won and kept his word. Everything in the case was re-examined. Which is what led investigators to 127 Prince Street, which was never searched back in 1979. It was also paved over shortly after Etan disappeared.
As a parent, I feel the weight of their loss on my heart. I cannot imagine their pain.
The store basement that was being dug up and the massive investigation that closed down the street are just steps away from the Patz home. They've seen the neighborhood change. The fancy stores put in. The tourists. The frivolous shopping. (SoHo is known for great shops.) The very place where they suspect Etan last was is below a store that I had been in before. Where I casually shopped for clothes. Countless people have been in and out of there, trying things on, wondering if the outfit would be good for Saturday night or maybe they were excited about a sale. All while a child who was last seen wearing his favorite "Future Flight Captain" hat and florescent sneakers may have been buried just below.
The search in that basement is over now. So far there is no evidence of Etan, but further testing will be done by FBI.
Etan would be turning 40 this year. But instead his life stopped at 6. And in many ways, I'm sure his family's life stopped back in 1979, too. I pray they get the answers they deserve.
Have you been following the Etan Patz case and latest developments?