The parents of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old child who went missing on May 25, 1979 from lower Manhattan, have been waiting for decades for justice. Two days ago, however, the Patzes asked a civil court to overturn a 2004 wrongful death judgment against Jose Ramos, a man they once believed to be their son’s killer. They now believe another man, Pedro Hernandez, killed Etan.
Justice for the Patzes may come later this year with the retrial of Pedro Hernandez which begins early next month. Hernandez, charged with murdering Etan, wasn’t arrested until 2012 after the police received a tip. Hernandez confessed to police and walked them through the Soho neighborhood where the murder happened and where he says he disposed of the child’s body.
Hernandez now recants that confession and denies the murder. He is relying on his psychological history and testimony of experts to poke holes in the reliability of his statements to police. Hernandez was 18 years old in 1979 and worked in a bodega near the Patz’s apartment—a bodega Etan stopped at on his way to the bus stop the morning he disappeared. Hernandez told police he killed Etan in the basement of the bodega.
At Hernandez’s first trial last year, jurors deadlocked 11 to 1 for conviction. The new jury is expected to hear much of the same evidence.
That evidence includes the testimony of a defense witness—a former federal prosecutor, Stuart GraBois, who investigated Etan’s disappearance and murder decades ago. At the time, GraBois focused on Jose Ramos as the killer. Ramos is a convicted child molester in Pennsylvania who is still in prison. At the time Etan disappeared, Ramos was living in New York City and knew a woman who worked a short time for the Patz family. She was hired to walk Etan and his siblings home from school during a school bus strike. Ramos also said he was 90% sure he saw Etan on the day he disappeared although he denies killing the child.
The testimony of a former federal prosecutor who believes the state has the wrong man in custody is a huge boost to the defense. But it didn’t sway some of the jurors.
The Manhattan District Attorney never brought charges against Ramos because there simply was not enough evidence. The Patz family, however, filed a wrongful death civil suit against Ramos in 2001—more than a decade before Hernandez’s arrest. A default judgment was entered against Ramos in 2004 that awarded the Patz family $2.7 million. It’s unlikely the new jury will know about the civil suit and the Patzes recent request to overturn the judgment.
Soon after his disappearance Etan Patz’s photo appeared on milk cartons across the country. Five years later, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was established to serve as a clearinghouse for information about missing and exploited children and to assist law enforcement and families.
In 1983, President Reagan named May 25 as National Missing Childrens Day.