In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz had been begging his parents to walk the short distance from their home to the school bus stop alone. On May 25, 1979, they finally agreed. With a dollar in his hand from a neighbor to purchase a soda at the corner deli, he left his lower Manhattan home and was never seen again.
Because Etan’s disappearance occurred before the age of the internet and social media, investigators needed to be creative in order to spread his photo. They printed his photo on milk cartons, making his picture one of the first to ever appear on them.
The young boy’s body was never found, but he was declared dead in 2001. Thirty-six years after his disappearance, investigators received a tip that led to a confession and conviction of the man believed to be responsible for his abduction and death.
Although Etan’s case was solved, his disappearance resonated with parents across the country, ultimately changing the way both parents and law enforcement approach missing children cases forever.
What happened on the day of Etan Patz’s disappearance?
It’s common for children to fight for more independence. Even from a young age, they insist that they are able to do things on their own — whether it’s trying to build the tallest Lego tower, tying their shoes or walking to the bus stop alone.
So when 6-year-old Etan Patz begged his parents to walk the two blocks from their lower Manhattan home to the school bus stop on his own, it wasn’t out of context. “It’s fine, Mom,” his mother Julie Patz recalled her son saying, according to The New York Times. “I can do it.”
Julie reluctantly agreed.
He left his home with the dollar a neighborhood handyman gave him the day before and planned to buy a soda from a nearby corner store. Julie didn’t know it yet, but it would be the last time she ever saw her son.
She didn’t realize that Etan had gone missing until that afternoon when he didn’t come home. She called the mother of one of Etan’s friends and learned that her son had never even made it onto the bus.
“My legs started giving out,” Julie said in 2015. Still in shock, she asked her assistant to watch the children in her in-home daycare so she could tell her husband, Stanley, and contact police.
Investigators quickly began coordinating searches for the young boy while volunteers and journalists helped spread Etan’s story.
What happened after Etan’s disappearance?
Etan’s disappearance was one of the first to gain widespread national attention. His picture covered lower Manhattan on missing person’s posters, was featured on front pages and on news broadcasts across the country and was even one of the first to be printed on milk cartons.
Despite the proactive efforts, investigators were unable to find Etan or the person responsible for his disappearance.
Over the next 36 years, tips pertaining to Etan’s case continued to trickle in and some were further explored, but they all failed to produce legitimate evidence.
In 2012, authorities investigated the workshop of a handyman who had befriended Etan prior to his disappearance. The handyman, Othniel Miller, was the man who gave Etan the $1 that the 6-year-old was last seen holding.
Investigators dug up Miller’s workshop after they learned that the concrete floor was poured shortly after Etan was reported missing. Etan’s remains were not found, but the media coverage surrounding the search did prompt a new tip that eventually led the investigators to the man now believed to be responsible for Etan’s abduction and murder.
How and when was Etan’s kidnapper caught?
A few weeks after the media covered the search of Miller’s workshop in 2012, a New Jersey man, named Jose Lopez, called investigators; he thought that his brother-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, could have been involved in Etan’s disappearance.
Hernandez was 18 years old in 1979 and had recently moved to New York when Etan went missing. He also worked at a bodega near Etan’s bus stop.
After Etan disappeared, however, he quickly moved back to New Jersey and began telling people that he had killed a child in New York City, including his pastor, his prayer group and his former wife before they got married.
Investigators pulled Hernandez in for questioning where he eventually confessed, on record, to killing the young boy.
Based solely on his confession, the case against Hernandez went to trial. The defense argued that the New Jersey man had a history of mental illness and attempted to undermine his credibility.
Despite his defense’s efforts, Pedro Hernandez was found guilty of the murder and kidnapping of Etan Patz on Feb. 14, 2017 — almost 34 years after the young boy had gone missing.
He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
“The Patz family has waited a long time, but we’ve finally found some measure of justice for our wonderful little boy, Etan,” Stanley said at the trial, according to The Associated Press.
What impact did Etan’s case leave on the country?
Etan Patz’s case was one of the first missing children cases to spread across the country to the degree that it did. Not only did it influence how parents watch their children today, but it also called for a new way to handle investigations of missing children.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25, the anniversary of Etan Patz’s disappearance, National Missing Children’s Day.
“Each year hundreds of thousands of American families are confronted with a unique tragedy — a missing child. While most of these children return home safely, far too many are exposed to serious danger and exploitation. Often the child’s fate is never known,” Reagan said. “Finding and safely returning these children to their homes has become a national problem.”
“Our children are the Nation’s most valuable and most vulnerable asset. They are our link to the future, our hope for a better life. Their protection and safety must be one of our highest priorities,” he continued.
Etan’s case along with the case of Adam Walsh, a young boy was abducted and murdered two years later, highlighted the overwhelming need for an agency specializing in helping investigators search for missing children — a cause that Etan’s parents began advocating for after their son went missing.
“Etan is the reason why NCMEC began and he’s the reason why we are still here today trying to bring home missing kids,” Rebecca Kovar, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children told Liftable, a section of The Western Journal.
“His legacy that he has left is really remarkable,” Kovar said. “He’s one missing child, that went missing in the late ’70s, off a New York City street, on his way to school, but the impact he’s had on all the other missing kids, you can’t even quantify that in any way.”
Liftable, a section of The Western Journal, is sharing unsolved cases, like Etan’s, in hopes of keeping these stories alive and encouraging anyone with new information to contact the proper authorities. To read more of our “Unsolved” series, click here.
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