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The Disappearance of Etan Patz

The Disappearance of Etan Patz
Etan Patz
Future Flight Captain

The morning of May 25, 1979, was hectic at the New York City home of Stanley and Julie Patz. They lived in a converted loft in Manhattan’s Soho district, pioneers in a section of the city that would later become the place-to-be for New York trendsetters. Soho had been Manhattan’s manufacturing zone, characterized by block after block of 19th century, iron-fronted factories standing shoulder to shoulder. On overcast days it was easy to imagine the gloomy sweatshop conditions of old New York, but in the 1970s, a fair number of these buildings were dark and empty, and the streets were desolate and forbidding at night. Still, people were making their homes in the neighborhood, breathing new life into it. Artists were first drawn to the area, attracted to the large, open spaces and cheap rents. Stanley Patz, a photographer, and his wife Julie lived in a loft on Prince Street with their three children: Shira, then age 8; Etan, 6; and Ari, 2.

Julie ran a day-care center out of her home. On the morning of May 25, as was her routine, Julie got her own children ready for the day as she prepared for the 14 preschoolers she cared for. As Julie dished out breakfast for her family, little Etan started agitating to walk himself to the bus stop again. He’d been asking if he could for some time now. A six-week school bus strike had just ended; the buses were scheduled to resume service that day. During the strike, the Patzes had hired a woman to walk Etan to school, but now that the buses were back, Etan pleaded with his parents to let him walk the two blocks to the bus stop by himself. Etan was a good boy, and it was a close-knit neighborhood where the residents watched out for the children, so the Patzes gave in and told him he could walk to the bus stop like a big boy.Etan was elated. He was dressed all in blue that day—blue pants, blue corduroy jacket, and blue sneakers with distinctive fluorescent stripes along the sides. He carried a blue cloth bag with an elephant pattern on the fabric. And as usual he was wearing his black “Future Flight Captain” pilot’s cap, which covered his straight, light-brown hair. He pulled it down low over his brow, shading his blue eyes. He wore his prized cap all the time, even to bed. He’d bought it at an outdoor flea market for 10 cents.

Julie took Etan downstairs to the street and gave him a dollar for a soft drink at the local bodega. It was a misty morning, and the pavement was wet. Julie watched Etan as he started his big journey, two short blocks to the corner of Prince and West Broadway where the bus would pick him up. She kept her eye on him as he proceeded to the first corner at Wooster Street. After he crossed, Julie went back upstairs, confident that Etan could make it the rest of the way by himself. It was just 150 feet to the bus stop.

A woman who lived nearby saw Etan as he stood on the corner of Wooster and Prince, a relatively quiet intersection, as he waited to cross. A mailman also saw him at that intersection. They were the last people known to see Etan Patz.

The Boy on the Milk Carton

The school bus arrived at the West Broadway stop at 8:10 a.m. A group of children got on, but Etan Patz wasn’t with them. Later that morning at the Independence Plaza School on Greenwich Street, Etan’s first-grade teacher noticed his absence but failed to report it to the principal’s office. Julie Patz was unaware that her son was missing until that afternoon. The bus returned to the West Broadway stop at 3:15 p.m. The neighbor who always picked up Etan along with his own daughter was puzzled when Etan didn’t get off the bus. His daughter informed him that Etan hadn’t been in school that day. The man wondered why Julie or Stanley hadn’t called to let him know that Etan was staying home that day.

At the Patzes’ loft, Julie was beginning to worry. Etan should have been home by now. She called the neighbor who usually escorted Etan and learned for the first time that Etan hadn’t been in school that day. Julie immediately called the police, then called her husband who raced home.

NYPD Detective William Butler got the call from his dispatcher at 5:15 p.m., and he and his partner drove directly to the Patzes’ loft. As soon as Detective Butler spoke to Etan’s parents, he knew instinctively that this was not a typical lost-child situation. In most cases it’s just a case of crossed signals, kids thinking they have their parents’ permission to go to a friend’s house when they really don’t. Other kids just wander off and play hooky. But Butler felt this case was different.
The search for Etan Patz began that evening. Nearly 100 officers combed the area, knocking on doors, searching rooftops and basements. The Patzes’ apartment was used as a temporary command post because Etan knew his phone number. Julie and Stanley hovered by the phone, praying for him to call. The police stood by in case a kidnapper called in with a ransom demand.

The night wore on. Just before midnight it started to rain. Julie fretted because Etan had left that morning with only a light jacket. Detective Butler quietly worried that the rain would wash away Etan’s scent. Bloodhounds were being brought in from upstate, but they weren’t scheduled to arrive until 8 a.m. He hoped there’d be something left for the hounds to smell.

The next morning when the bloodhounds finally arrived, they were given a pair of Etan’s pajamas to identify their subject, then they were sent out into the streets with their handlers. In the meantime the search area was expanded to encompass the entire lower end of Manhattan from 14th Street to Battery Park. Police helicopters hovered over the search zone, scanning rooftops. Police boats scoured the waterways.

The police appealed to the public for any tip that could lead to the boy’s whereabouts. Toll-free telephone numbers were set up, and calls started pouring in, some from as far away as California. Neighborhood residents helped in the search, papering the city with color posters of Etan’s face. The media jumped on the story and propagated several erroneous leads regarding Etan Patz sightings in Boston and other places.

On Sunday, May 27, a witness came forward who claimed to have seen a boy who fit Etan’s description talking to a “suspicious-looking man” three blocks from the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets where Julie had last seen her son. Under hypnosis, the witness described the man as white, about 40 years old, with freckles and dyed blond hair. It was a tenuous lead because the witness wasn’t sure if the boy she’d seen was actually Etan Patz, but the police couldn’t discount any possibility.
For days it seemed that Etan’s smiling face was everywhere—on lamp poles, in store windows, in the newspapers, on television. The police continued the search, giving it everything they had. But on June 6, 13 days after he disappeared, the emergency response was terminated. Etan Patz’s disappearance remained an open case, but most of the officers who had taken part in the search were eventually reassigned to other cases. But for Detective Butler, Etan’s case was still very much on the front burner. Nearly every day he would drive down Prince Street at 8 a.m., imagining what might have happened to Etan on the morning of May 25, hoping that something would occur to him that he hadn’t thought of before, that he would see something that would trigger an idea. He visited the scene every morning for years, and Julie Patz took comfort in looking out her window and seeing his car pass by. As long as the case was still active, Etan might still be alive.

But weeks turned into months and months turned into years. Etan became the first missing child to be featured on a milk carton. The search for the skinny, middle-aged, blond man with freckles was ultimately fruitless. It wasn’t until 1982 that detectives in the Bronx picked up a suspect in an unrelated crime and stumbled upon a solid lead. The suspect was a known pedophile.

I Was Ready to Explode

Jose Antonio Ramos
Jose Antonio Ramos was a drifter who sold cheap jewelry and small toys on the street to get by. His graying hair was long and unkempt, and his beard hung down to his chest. He weighed 180 pounds and stood five feet nine inches, his posture was hunched. Despite his off-putting appearance, his voice was unusually soothing and gentle. NYPD officers arrested him in 1982 for allegedly attempting to lure two young boys into the drainage tunnel where he’d been living. In searching the tunnel, the police found several photographs of young boys, most of them with light-colored hair similar to Etan’s. Detectives questioned Ramos about his interest in young boys and asked if he knew anything about Etan Patz. He denied knowing anything about the missing child, but he did say that he knew the woman who had walked Etan to the bus stop every morning during the school bus strike.

The detectives proceeded cautiously. Could it be possible that after all this time, they had stumbled upon the first solid lead in the coldest missing person’s case the city had ever seen? They urged Ramos to explain his relationship with the woman who had worked for the Patz family, but the suspect was cautious himself. He refused to say any more about the woman. He did, however, reveal that in 1979 when Etan had disappeared, he had suffered a nervous breakdown and that he had been hearing a voice in his head. It “would try to force me to get violent,” he said.

“I had to hold it back,” he said during the videotaped interrogation. “I had to do a lot of really forceful holding back, you know. ‘Cause I was... I was ready to explode.”

Ramos said nothing more about Etan Patz.

Detectives tracked down the woman who had been hired to walk Etan to the bus stop during the strike. The woman admitted that she had been seeing Ramos in 1979. At the time Ramos had been renting an apartment on the Lower East Side. She broke down into tears when she revealed that Ramos’ interest in her was just a ploy to get to her young son whom he had molested on several occasions. She never attempted to bring charges against Ramos.

Ramos was clearly a dangerous individual, but the police didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with a crime. They had no choice but to release him.


Three years later, in 1985, federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois was assigned to the Patz case. His boss at the time, then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, instructed him to do whatever it took to get a conviction, and Giuliani promised to give GraBois whatever he needed to make that happen. GraBois started poring over the old files. When he read the police reports on Ramos, he decided the man deserved further investigation. By this time Ramos was incarcerated at Rockview State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, serving a sentence on an unrelated child molestation conviction. GraBois arranged to have Ramos brought to New York for questioning, and U.S. marshals escorted the suspect to GraBois’ office in lower Manhattan.

Oddly, when Ramos was brought to New York, he thought the authorities there were after him for tax evasion. Two detectives from the NYPD Missing Persons Squad, Robert Shaw and Daniel Cavallo, sat in on the interview. Ramos was read his Miranda rights and offered a lawyer if he wanted one. He declined, saying that he didn’t need a lawyer. He had read up on criminal law while in prison and become a “jailhouse lawyer,” offering legal advice to other inmates at Rockview. Ramos was in good spirits as the interview began. Apparently he was looking forward to matching wits with a real attorney.

GraBois was patient. For an hour and a half, he questioned Ramos about his background, his childhood, and his prison experiences. Ramos remained cool and seemed to enjoy the attention. Then GraBois finally dropped the bomb: “How many times did you have sex with Etan Patz?” he asked.

Ramos’ face sagged. He was visibly rattled. As reported by Edward Klein in Vanity Fair, Ramos started to sob. “I’ll tell you about it,” he said. “I’ll tell you everything. I never told anyone any of this before. I want to get it off my chest.”

Ramos said that he saw a boy who fit Etan Patz’s description in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village “that morning.” The boy was alone, “bouncing a ball.” The park is roughly four city blocks north of the Patzes’ home in Soho.

GraBois asked him what the boy looked like. Blond and blue-eyed, Ramos said. He then described Etan’s distinctive blue sneakers with the “bright strips.” Ramos said he invited the boy to his apartment to watch television.

GraBois asked Ramos why he wanted the boy to go with him.

“For sex,” Ramos said.

Ramos described his attempts to molest the boy, but the boy “wasn’t interested,” so Ramos gave up. He said he then took the boy for a walk through the Village and finally put him on a subway “to visit his aunt in Washington Heights.” The Patzes have no relatives in Washington Heights.

GraBois and the detectives expressed their disbelief, but Ramos clung to his story. He said that the next night he saw television news reports on the search for Etan Patz, and he was “90 percent sure” that this was the boy he had taken to his apartment. Ramos claimed that he left his apartment and tried to help in the search for Etan himself. In his gut, GraBois felt that Ramos had not parted company with Etan Patz at the subway stop as he claimed and that Ramos was responsible for what happened to the boy. If Ramos hadn’t murdered the boy to eliminate a witness to his pedophilia, he might have sold Etan to another child molester or an illegal adoption broker. GraBois pressed Ramos to come clean, but the man wouldn’t say anything more about Etan Patz. He finally said that he wanted to tell GraBois everything, but “maybe I better have a lawyer here.” By law, GraBois had to terminate the interrogation until Ramos was provided legal representation. Later, as the suspect was escorted out of GraBois’ office, Ramos told Detective Shaw that when he finally told them everything, Shaw would get a “promotion” and become “famous.”

Jose Antonio Ramos - The Disappearance of Etan Patz

Investigators had connected Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted pedophile, to the Etan Patz case, but it wasn't until 2004, 25 years after Etan vanished, that a New York judge ruled Ramos responsible for Etan's death. Ramos is currently serving time in a Pennsylvania prison for molesting an 8-year-old boy in an unrelated case. He is expected to stay behind bars until 2012, but lawyers for the Patz family intend to fight to keep Ramos behind bars for the rest of his life. (ABC news)

The Light-Haired Teenage Boy

Jose Antonio Ramos never made a full confession. In subsequent interrogations, he flitted around the issue but basically stuck to his original story: he had taken a young boy who might have been Etan Patz to his apartment for sex and released him later that day. The police and prosecutors handling the case were sure he was lying, but they had no proof. Charges could not be brought against him. But Stuart GraBois was not about to let Ramos serve out the remainder of his sentence in Pennsylvania and go free. The Patz family deserved to know what had happened to their son, and GraBois vowed to do everything he possibly could to bring Ramos to justice.

Ramos, a Puerto Rican-American, was born in the Bronx on July 23, 1943. The oldest of five brothers, he claimed to have had sexual relations with one of his brothers when they were children. He also claimed to have been molested by an uncle. After dropping out of high school, he enlisted in the Navy in 1960. At various times he has claimed to have received decorations and commendations in the Navy and has boasted of having held an executive position in a New York advertising firm, accomplishments that cannot be substantiated.

By the early ’70s he had become a drifter, bumming his way around the country, earning money selling used merchandise on the streets. Over the years he had been arrested several times in several different states for a variety of crimes from burglary and battery to “exposing his person.”

When he was arrested in the Bronx in 1982 for allegedly luring young boys into his makeshift drainage-tunnel residence, the police were unable to assemble enough evidence to bring charges, but five months later he was arrested again, this time at a video-game arcade in Times Square, for propositioning three young boys between the ages of 9 and 12. Charges were filed against Ramos but were later dropped when the boys, all of them street-tough delinquents, failed to answer subpoenas for their testimony.

In 1983 Ramos showed up outside Watersmeet, Michigan, where several thousand members of the Rainbow Family, a loose collective of hippie holdovers, New Agers, and assorted free spirits, were having their annual gathering. Ramos was observed handing out Star Wars figurines and trading cards to the children at the convocation’s Kid Village. His behavior alarmed some of the caregivers, and they alerted the Rainbow Family’s internal security force, the Shanti Sena, who asked Ramos to leave. He departed without putting up a fuss.

Two years later he showed up at the Rainbow Family annual gathering at the Mark Twain Forrest in Missouri. He was traveling with a light-haired teenage boy. They’d arrived in a 1978 blue Ford school bus that Ramos had bought at an auction in Coconut Grove, Florida. Once again Ramos was spotted hanging around Kid Village, handing out small toys and trinkets, and the Shanti Sena were immediately alerted. They remembered Ramos from their last encounter with him, and this time they took his picture and kept an eye on him. While at the gathering, Ramos made friends with a couple from Erie, Pennsylvania, and their two little boys.

After the Rainbow Family reunion, Ramos showed up unannounced at this couple’s home on several occasions. Whenever he came, he offered to do work around the house—painting, car repairs, whatever needed doing. The couple eventually trusted Ramos enough to let him baby-sit their boys while they were away for a day or so. They later discovered that Ramos had molested one or both of the children while they were under his care.

Incredibly, the following year Ramos and the teenage boy arrived at the next Rainbow Family gathering at Hearts Content in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest. Once again the Shanti Sena caught him hanging around Kid Village, and this time they followed him back to his blue bus and banged on the door. Ramos was inside with his teenage friend and a little boy he’d met at the gathering. He swore he hadn’t touched the child, but the Shanti Sena didn’t believe him. They photographed both him and the light-haired teenager, and gave Ramos a stern warning to stay away from the children. At least one of the Shanti Sena was convinced that Ramos was scouting out children he could kidnap and sell.

Sensing that they meant business, Ramos abandoned his companions and fled from the gathering with only his dog, an akita named Jesse. But the Shanti Sena finally decided it was time to notify the police about this man. State troopers intercepted Ramos near Route 80 in Shippenville, Pennsylvania. He was arrested and charged with “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, statutory rape, and indecent assault.” He confessed to sexually assaulting the child in his bus, but because the police failed to read him his Miranda rights, the confession had to be thrown out and the case was dropped.

Ramos went free but not for long. The next year he was convicted of molesting the two young boys in Erie and sentenced to prison at Rockview State Penitentiary in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.

His blue bus, which had been impounded by the police in Shippenville, was declared abandoned and sold to a salvage dealer who towed it away and cleaned out its contents. Among the items found in the bus was Ramos’ diary. The man who found it flipped through it quickly, decided it was worthless, and tossed it into the fire where he was burning the rest of Ramos’ trash. No one will ever know if Ramos had written anything that could have connected him to the disappearance of Etan Patz.
But what became of the light-haired teenage boy who had been traveling with Ramos? The Shanti Sena had noted in 1986 that he was about 13 or 14, which was about how old Etan Patz would have been. Could this have been him? What happened to him after Ramos had fled the Rainbow Family gathering?

"He's a Predator"

Federal Prosecutor Stuart GraBois had Ramos transported from prison in Pennsylvania to his office in New York for interviews on several occasions. Sometimes Ramos would be a wiseass, once showing up wearing a yarmulke and speaking in a Yiddish accent. Other times he behaved himself, but he always clung to his original story. Yes, he admitted, he had been with a boy who could have been Etan Patz the day Etan disappeared, but he did not harm the boy. Ramos insisted time and again that he had put the boy on a subway headed for his “aunt in Washington Heights.” But when GraBois found out about the charges that were dropped in Warren County, Pennsylvania, on a technicality, he took a new tack. At one of the interviews, he made Ramos a solemn promise. If Ramos didn’t start cooperating, GraBois would get himself deputized in the state of Pennsylvania and try that case himself. He wasn’t bluffing. If he couldn’t persuade Ramos to confess to what he had done with Etan Patz, GraBois would make sure that Ramos would stay imprisoned for as long as the law allowed. Ramos was taken back to Rockview, and GraBois set the wheels in motion for his legal debut in Pennsylvania.

While investigating the Warren County case, GraBois received a surprise assist from the members of the Shanti Sena who had been alerted to Ramos’ suspicious behavior at Rainbow Family gatherings. Overcoming their counter-culture distrust of law enforcement, the Shanti Sena gave GraBois the Polaroid they had taken of the teenager who had been traveling with Ramos. As soon as he saw it, GraBois was afraid to even think that after all these years this could possibly be Etan Patz. The photo was sent to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where it was compared with photos of Etan’s parents when they were in their early teens as well as photos of Etan’s siblings. Existing photos of 6-year-old Etan were fed into a computer that aged the image and predicted what Etan would look like at age 14. The photo the computer produced was nearly identical to the Polaroid of the teenager who had been traveling with Ramos.

Still, GraBois was reluctant to jump to conclusions. He had learned from the Shanti Sena that the teenager’s parents ran an orphanage in Columbus, Ohio. GraBois and his investigators flew to Ohio and searched for this teenager. They learned that the boy had been adopted, which would have been a logical cover story if Ramos had sold Etan to the owners of the orphanage. GraBois wanted to believe that this was indeed Etan Patz, but he knew that he needed proof, and he was determined to get it. Before attempting an approach, GraBois wanted as much information as he could find. Further investigation revealed that the teenager had been arrested, which meant his fingerprints had to be on file in Ohio. Thrumming with anticipation, the investigators had the fingerprints analyzed and compared to Etan’s fingerprints. When the results came back, the news was disappointing. The fingerprints didn’t match. Police finally approached the teenager and obtained samples for DNA analysis. Once again, no match. The teenager wasn’t Etan Patz.

Nevertheless, GraBois pressed on with the Warren County case against Ramos. His investigators located the little boy who had been in the bus with Ramos at Hearts Content and discovered that he had indeed been molested by Ramos. GraBois figured that, even if he couldn’t solve the Etan Patz case, another conviction would keep Ramos off the streets that much longer, sparing more children from the man’s abuse.

The trial began in October 1990. Ramos, now clean shaven and with short hair, spoke to reporters as if he were insane, inviting them to a “shrimp dinner” at the jail that night. Ramos, the jailhouse lawyer, had already filed numerous motions with the court, and in a letter to the judge he admitted his crime and asked that the child he had molested not be put through the anguish of having to relive the incident in court. The request was unnecessary. His attorney had already worked out a plea bargain with prosecutors in which Ramos would plead guilty to oral intercourse if the charges of anal intercourse were dropped. GraBois agreed to the deal because he, like Ramos, did not want to put the boy through the turmoil of testimony in open court. The judge sentenced Ramos to 10 to 20 years on top of his existing sentence. It was the strictest sentence the law would allow.

Some felt that GraBois had missed a golden opportunity to get Ramos on the stand and grill him about Etan Patz, but GraBois didn’t think that Ramos could be intimidated. GraBois’ strategy was to pile so many years on top of Ramos that he might finally see the logic of coming clean. GraBois was willing to have him transferred to a more desirable federal penitentiary in exchange for the truth about Etan Patz. GraBois even sweetened the deal by offering to reunite Ramos with family members he hadn’t seen in more than 18 years. But Ramos didn’t budge from his original story, and so he was sent back to Rockview to serve hard time.


Ramos was subsequently transferred to the Smithfield Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. Two inmates who had served time with Ramos over the years each swore that Ramos had separately told them details about Etan Patz, but when confronted with these statements, Ramos insisted that he knew nothing more than he’d already admitted.

In October 1985 the focus of the investigation shifted to Israel where a previously unpublished photo of Etan appeared in an Israeli magazine with the caption “Etan Ben-Haim.” The photo had been taken by Stanley Patz, who had given prints to friends and relatives. It was not one of the photos that had been released to the press, which made the investigators suspicious. Stuart GraBois traveled to Israel and enlisted the help of the Israeli police, but attempts to track down the source of that photograph yielded nothing of substance. The focus of the investigation remained on Jose Antonio Ramos.

In the summer of 2000, police in New York did a thorough search of the building on East 4th Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Ramos had lived in 1979. They scoured the apartment and the basement, looking for bone fragments that could be used for DNA analysis. Their efforts were exhaustive but ultimately fruitless.

“He’s a predator,” Stanley Patz said of Ramos in an interview broadcast on 60 Minutes II, “and he should never be allowed to be near children again. He should be kept behind bars until he’s too old to walk.”

Every year on October 9, which is Etan’s birthday, and May 25, the day he disappeared, Stanley Patz sends Ramos a copy of Etan’s missing-persons leaflet. On the back he always types the same message: “What have you done with my little boy?”

On November 15, 2000, Stanley and Julie Patz signed a petition asking the court to declare Etan legally dead so that they could file a wrongful-death suit against Ramos. They are convinced that Ramos is responsible for the disappearance of their son.

Ramos’ sentence will be up on March 13, 2014, unless he is granted parole. He was denied parole in June 2000, but he will become eligible for reconsideration in 2003.

Etan Patz, if he’s still alive, will be 36 years old this year.


Battelle, Phyllis. “Help Find Etan Patz.” Good Housekeeping Feb. 1980: 66-74.

CBSNews.com. “Etan’s Parents to Sue Child Molester.” Sept. 5, 2000.

De La Cruz, Donna. “Missing Boy Whose Case Sparked a Movement to Be Declared Dead.” Crimnews. June 2001.

“Final Reckoning.” People 4 Dec. 2000: 212.

Klein, Eric. “The Long Search for Etan Patz.” Vanity Fair June 1991: 136-158.

Mabrey, Vicky (correspondent). “60 Minutes II: What Happened to Etan Patz?” Sept. 5, 2000.

Meek, Miki. “An Icon of Tragedy.” U.S. News and World Report, 13 Aug. 2001: 18.

“MP-8M.” New York Missing Persons.
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  1. Maybe if he got a life in prison sentence he'll finally fess up to what he really did to Etan Patz. Child preditors should be banished just as intensly as a murderer.

  2. Ajlounyinjurylaw you're right.


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