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Suspicious stain found in search for Etan Patz

Suspicious stain found in search for Etan Patz
Investigators and their vehicles massed in front of a building at Prince and Wooster Streets
in SoHo on Thursday morning in their search for traces of Etan Patz in the basement.

F.B.I. Renews Search in Etan Patz Case in SoHo Basement.
Investigators equipped with jackhammers entered the basement of a building in SoHo on Friday morning, starting the second day of the most extensive search to date for the remains of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy whose disappearance more than 30 years ago focused national attention on the problem of missing children.

Before the work began, Con Edison crews turned off utilities in the area where the search was being conducted. A law enforcement official at the scene said the goal was to remove an entire floor in the basement.

Officials said they would dig for five days, a much more extensive effort than was made 12 years ago, when detectives searched the basement of an apartment where the primary suspect, Jose A. Ramos, a former mental patient who was serving time for molesting a boy in Pennsylvania, lived when Etan disappeared.

The new search focused on a basement area that had been used as a workshop by a carpenter and handyman from Etan’s building. Investigators are working on the theory that the handyman, Othniel Miller, killed the boy and buried him there, one law enforcement official said.

In recent days, according to the law enforcement official, Mr. Miller was interviewed by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and when the possibility was raised that the boy had been buried in the basement, he blurted out, “What if the body was moved?” the official said.

Investigators from the Police Department and the F.B.I. spent much of Thursday dismantling shelving in the basement, in a seven-story building less than a block from where Etan lived with his parents, Stanley and Julie Patz (rhymes with plates). The walls were to be checked for traces of blood, and the concrete floor was to be excavated.

“I think that there is guarded optimism that they’re going to find something,” an official said.

The search signaled a revival of a case that changed the rhythms and routines of a generation, and that Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said in 2010 he would reopen. In the wake of headlines and a widespread search, many parents stopped letting children go to the school bus stop by themselves. Etan, a first grader who was wearing sneakers and an Eastern Airlines pilot’s cap, had pleaded with his parents that he was old enough to make the trip alone. He disappeared on the first day he was allowed to do so.

The basement being searched — at 127B Prince Street, at the corner of Wooster Street — had also been used by the SoHo Playgroup, a parent-led space for preschool children. A woman who had participated in the group as a child said she believed Etan was a member of the playgroup.

The basement is along the route Etan was to have followed that morning in May 1979. Somewhere between his parents’ loft at 113 Prince Street and the bus stop, on West Broadway, he disappeared.

Since then, the timeline of the case has been filled with despair. In the days after he vanished, parents tacked up posters in SoHo, and later his photograph was printed on milk cartons in hopes of jarring memories and generating leads.

On Thursday, officials cordoned off the corner, stretching a blue tarpaulin between the basement entrance and the back of one of the police vans. Onlookers took pictures as investigators milled beneath signs for boutiques like Lucky Brand, WiNK and Fred Perry, which now occupy the corner.

The stores and tourists threw into dramatic relief just how different SoHo is today than at the time of the boy’s disappearance, when it was gritty and largely empty, with many of the former light-manufacturing buildings now occupied by artists. It was almost as though those taking pictures were witnessing a dig into a distant epoch, one that felt far further in the past than 33 years.

In fact, the corner at the time had been home to the cooperative restaurant Food, one of the only places to eat in a neighborhood now jammed with expensive dining options.

The current search is largely being conducted by an F.B.I. evidence recovery team as part of a joint investigation by agents from the bureau and the Police Department’s missing persons and cold case squads. Archaeologists from the medical examiner’s office were also on hand.

Three law enforcement officials said that investigators had brought a cadaver-sniffing dog to the basement within the last few weeks and that the dog had indicated the possibility of remains.

F.B.I. agents were seen escorting Mr. Miller to his apartment in Brooklyn on Thursday afternoon; a law enforcement official said investigators had tried to elicit information from him.

A grandson of Mr. Miller’s, Tony Miller, on Friday dismissed any suggestion that his grandfather might be a suspect in Etan’s death.

“I don’t think he could have done anything like this,” Mr. Miller, 33, said in an interview outside his grandfather’s house. “That’s not in his character. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s always been a good, hard-working man. He helped to straighten me out and guide me when I was a kid.”

Mr. Miller, a trucker who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said that the first time he heard about the Patz case was from watching television news on Thursday.

“He never told me about it,” Mr. Miller said of his grandfather.

Asked how his grandfather was responding to the renewed police attention and to the extensive news media presence outside his home, Mr. Miller said: “He’s taking this real hard. He had a stroke, he’s diabetic, he’s not in good condition. This is really hard for him.”

Efforts to reach Mr. Miller were unsuccessful.

The night before he disappeared, Mr. Miller had given Etan “his dollar wage” for doing chores, wrote Lisa R. Cohen, in “After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive.”

More than a decade ago, Mr. Miller invited the police to come in and examine the basement, suggesting that they could tear up the floor if they wanted, but that they would have to pay to replace it, a person involved in the inquiry at the time said. Because Mr. Miller was not a suspect, they did not take him up on his offer, the person said.

Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the police, said investigators would tear apart the 13-by-62-foot space, removing drywall and searching the cinder-block walls underneath. He also said they would break through the concrete floor.

No criminal charges have ever been filed in Etan’s death or disappearance.

When Etan vanished, the police assigned 30 officers and 5 detectives to the case and began what a deputy inspector called a “floor-by-floor, wall-by-wall, rooftop-by-rooftop, backyard-by-backyard search.” They also called in helicopters and bloodhounds.

Within a week, the police contingent had grown to 300 officers and detectives. They were handling 500 calls a day from people who said they had seen Etan or had ideas about how to crack the case. But nothing panned out, and two months after he disappeared, the missing persons squad said it had been the longest search for a missing child in New York in decades.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25 — the day on which Etan had vanished four years before — National Missing Children’s Day.

In 2001, Etan was declared legally dead. His family filed a wrongful-death suit against Mr. Ramos, the man convicted of abuse in Pennsylvania; in 2004, a Manhattan judge ruled that Mr. Ramos had been responsible for Etan’s death. But the authorities said they never had enough evidence to file criminal charges against him in Etan’s case.

Mr. Ramos has been in prison in Pennsylvania since 1987 and is scheduled to be released on Nov. 7. He has been denied parole nine times in the last 13 years. Leo Dunn, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole, said Mr. Ramos’s last parole review, in July 2009, referred to a “negative recommendation” from the Department of Corrections and said he would pose “a risk to the community.”

In 2000, the police searched the basement of the building at 234 East Fourth Street on the Lower East Side where Mr. Ramos was living when Etan disappeared. Investigators carted out an old coal-fired furnace along with barrels of ash and dirt from the basement floor.

Mr. Ramos was said to have admitted that he was with Etan the day he vanished, but denied abducting and killing him.

Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, did not return a call for comment on Thursday.

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