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A Little Boy Vanishes, Leading to a Book, a Movie and a Family's Four Years of Pain

updated 04/04/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 01:00AM

One misty spring morning in 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz set out for school by himself for the first time. His mother, Julie, escorted him downstairs from the family's third-floor loft at 1.13 Prince Street in Lower Manhattan and watched him start cheerfully toward the bus stop only two blocks away. She has not seen him since. Her ordeal, shared with her husband, Stan, a commercial photographer, and their other children, Shira, now 12, and Ah, 6, has been the inspiration for Beth Gutcheon's novel Still Missing and 20th Century-Fox's recently released feature film adaptation, Without a Trace. But while the book and the movie have a beginning and an ending, the Patzes' trial by uncertainty simply continues. Following is an account of the search for Etan Patz, the tenuous leads and countless frustrations, and the refusal of either police or his parents to surrender to feelings of hopelessness.

May 25, 1979: At about 3:40 in the afternoon, when Etan fails to return from school at his normal time, Julie calls a neighbor and discovers that he never arrived for classes that morning. She immediately calls police at Manhattan's First Precinct. "They talked for at least 10 minutes about whether or not there was a custody fight between my husband and me, if there was a divorce or a separation," she recalls. Finally the policeman on the phone agrees to send a patrol car, which arrives an hour later.

Detective Bill Butler, working the 4 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift with his partner, first hears the report of a missing boy over his police radio. "We were working another case, but we went right up there," he says. "At that point it was no big thing. It happens all the time—a kid doesn't get home from school at the right time. But you have to do everything right down the line, no matter what you think. Usually in a few hours the kid pops up."

But Etan does not. By dark more than 300 uniformed officers are combing the apartments, alleys, rooftops and cellars of the Prince Street area. Extra phone lines are installed in the Patzes' loft, and detectives begin monitoring calls there. A police communications trailer is positioned outside. Helicopters make the first of countless sweeps over the neighborhood.

The case is a difficult one from the beginning. There is no crime scene to examine, no witnesses, no tangible evidence of a murder or kidnapping. And because schools do not routinely notify parents when a child fails to report to class, the trail is 10 hours cold before police begin searching. Moreover, Friday is the beginning of the four-day Memorial Day weekend. Many businesses have closed early, and some buildings cannot be gone through until Tuesday. Late Friday night Butler asks the state police to bring in two bloodhounds to pick up Etan's scent. Early the next morning the dogs are pulling their handler through the congested streets of SoHo, already brimming with weekend visitors to the galleries, boutiques and antique shops that flourish in the area. Conditions for the bloodhounds couldn't be worse. "The day it happened was a misty, drizzling morning," says Butler. "That doesn't help. But the troopers still felt the dogs were onto his scent. Anywhere the dogs stopped we looked into carefully later."

Over the weekend the Patzes' neighbors visit shop owners and compile lists of people who made deliveries in SoHo that Friday. Friends make up posters in five languages: English, Spanish, Italian, Yiddish and Chinese. To help prepare a detailed picture of the boy, a police helicopter is dispatched from John F. Kennedy Airport with a replica of the black Eastern Airlines cap Etan was wearing at the time of his disappearance.

Phones in the Patz loft, manned by police around the clock for 10 days after Etan's disappearance, have been handling 500 calls a day. Some of the leads send hopes soaring. On Saturday an employee of a lumber company a few blocks away reports he saw two boys in the lumberyard late Friday afternoon. Butler, carrying wallet-size cards bearing Etan's photograph, interviews the man, who says the picture is of the boy he saw. "What a feeling that was," says Butler. But within hours police track down two boys, one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Etan, who say they were at the lumberyard. The employee admits his mistake.

Another caller reports seeing a boy resembling Etan riding in a car with a man and provides a partial identification of a New Jersey license plate. Police work the information through the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles computer system until it surrenders the name of a man with a record of sexual assault of a minor. But when the police check further, they learn that the man was at work—"on the clock," in police parlance—at the time Etan dropped out of sight.

May 30: When Julie Patz arrives at the polygraph examination room on the eighth floor of Manhattan's Police Academy, she says, "I'll bet you get a lot of people you want right here." "You better believe it," comes the terse reply. It had fallen to Bill Butler to ask the Patzes to submit to the polygraph. "It was a touchy thing," he says. "I was on the case from the beginning. There was a closeness that had developed. I beat around the bush. Finally I got it out and they said, 'Bill, we thought you'd never ask. We know everyone is a suspect.' "

For the Patzes the polygraph tests are a means to an end. "The police were spending so much time with Stan and me," Julie says, "that we figured with the polygraph and hypnosis they could get over us and get on with other parts of the investigation." Still, she is not entirely prepared for the depressing reality of the polygraph. "It's an experience no one should have to go through," she says. "The room is set up like an electrocution chamber, with the chair in the middle. It's not a long-drawn-out event, but it's terribly emotional. They do a very quick control. They ask you things they know are correct—your name, date of birth. Then they ask you to give an incorrect answer to a question. I remember thinking, 'This is silly. I'm not going to get upset answering that incorrectly.' Then they asked me very direct questions about that morning. Did I have any knowledge of what happened to Etan? Was I in any way involved?"

Two days later Stan Patz takes the test. "I didn't see any problems with either of them," says Butler, but not even in machines is there certainty. "I can say that I don't see any need for further investigation," adds the detective. "But you have to be careful writing reports in a case like this. I can't afford to have tunnel vision. I can't say at this point anything is definitely out of the picture."

June 4: Ten days into the investigation police have put in 688 man-hours answering phone calls, 2,760 hours carrying out searches, and 880 hours investigating more than 100 leads. The aviation unit has conducted aerial searches daily since May 26, and detectives have turned in more than 500 DD5 forms indicating the status of follow-up investigations. Within four square blocks of the Patz home, every floor of every building has been searched at least once.

With the assistance of the FBI, police have interviewed all Etan's classmates, their parents and school personnel, as well as all his relatives. Still, investigators know little more than when they began. The number of calls to the Patz home has dwindled, so police decide to strike their temporary quarters there and form a five-man task force to continue the investigation of what is officially known as Missing Persons Case No. 8367. Butler will be temporarily assigned to the task force.

Midsummer: For Butler the case has become a vocation. Two months into the investigation the 49-year-old father of six still walks the streets every morning, tracing the two-block stretch between the Patz home and the school bus stop, hoping to spot something new. He looks for anyone who might have been out of town since Etan disappeared or someone who passes through the neighborhood only occasionally. Someone remembers seeing a man walking two dogs on Prince Street at about the time the boy was last seen. He might know something, he might not. Either way, Butler wants to talk with him.

Looking back on this time three and a half years later, Butler doesn't remember when he took his first day off. He does remember that he and his wife had plane reservations to fly to a wedding. His wife went; he did not. "A wedding is what, a party for five hours? Then it's over," he says. "This is a matter of a little boy's life." The Patzes, at first as wary of the police as the police were of them, soon find their attitudes softening. "It was a whole awakening for me as I realized how I viewed the police subconsciously," says Julie. "It was a real shock to find out that cops are people."

October 18: Police release a sketch of a man who was seen talking to a small boy just two blocks from Etan's bus stop on the day of the child's disappearance. The woman had called police more than four months earlier and was hypnotized to help her remember details more clearly. The Patzes want to know the reason for the delay. "The report has to be investigated," explains Butler. "The woman said she saw a guy talking to a young boy. We don't know if it's our boy. Then we have to review all other reports on this case and see if there are any similarities. Then we check this report against any other cases involving children. You don't just go out and broadcast a picture through the media."

December 1980: Two detectives from the Missing Persons Squad sit patiently at the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton, N.J. waiting to talk to Malcolm J. Robbins, 20, who is charged with the sexual assault and murder of an 8-year-old boy. Two detectives from California are quizzing Robbins about the killing of a 6-year-old boy in Santa Barbara. Authorities in Texas want to talk to him about the murder of a 7-year-old in their state. Robbins says he knows nothing about Etan Patz, and his alibi checks out. "He's been fairly honest," says one investigator of the case. "If he killed someone, he'd say so."

Inevitably, some missing persons cases end in the polluted waters of New York's Hudson and East rivers, a convenient depository for homicide victims. But New York police believe the bodies nearly always float to the surface, even if the process takes several months. "Still," concedes one officer, "I don't know how many children come up. It's a very small item—not like a 200-pound man."

January 13, 1981: At Kennedy Airport two men from the missing persons task force are scanning the faces of passengers boarding TWA Flight 800 to Paris. According to a tip from the U.S. passport office in Rockefeller Center, a man has been trying to obtain travel documents for himself and a boy resembling Etan Patz. He has told officials he needs the documents in a hurry in order to make the Jan. 13 flight. The suspect never appears at the airport, but police later discover he is involved in a child custody dispute with his wife, who has sent their son to Poland. The man, who falsely identified himself to passport officials, hopes to retrieve the boy and bring him back to the U.S. Federal agents arrest him for attempted fraud.

Look-alike reports, including some from countries where child prostitution is widespread and there is an active white-slave traffic, filter in from around the world. "A guy overseas on business said he saw a boy who looked like Etan in a restaurant," says Butler. "We went through Interpol and the local police, and it was investigated as thoroughly as possible, but we never found the boy. The businessman is going back, though, and he's going to look again."

May 19: Several dozen child-protection advocates, including actress Liv Ullmann, have gathered at a Lower East Side art gallery for the opening of an exhibit on the theme of missing children. Julie Patz arrives alone. "Why isn't Stan here?" someone asks. "Can you believe it, we have a lead," says Julie. "The police are at the house now." The lead involves a phone call from a Long Island man who says his girlfriend has Etan and wants to return him but needs $2,500 to go to California. Could the Patzes bring the money to a West Hempstead motel? Accompanied by detectives, Stan goes to the motel. There is no girlfriend, no child, only a man police charge with extortion. "You could sense a con game," says Butler, "but anytime you get something like this, you have to figure it just could be something."

In the course of the investigation, Butler estimates he has also spoken with at least 300 self-proclaimed psychics. No two have provided the same lead. Acting partly on the advice of people claiming extrasensory powers, police have combed the entire Hudson River waterfront from the southern tip of Manhattan north to 59th Street—to no avail. "I don't know if there are people with psychic powers or not," says Butler, barely hiding skepticism. "I do know we can't pass anything by. You get a call and you say, 'This is a nut.' But you can't throw that out either because, after all, who did this?"

March 18, 1982: Police in the Bronx arrest Jose Ramos, 38, a drifter who lives in a drainage pipe. The parents of two young boys have complained that Ramos took their sons' schoolbooks and tried to lure the boys into his lair. Police investigate and discover a collection of toys and photographs of children, many resembling Etan. "We're very unhappy with the drainpipe case," Stan Patz says several weeks later. "We heard reports that we had been shown pictures and toys, but we haven't. The woman who was the guy's girlfriend was, in fact, a woman who had cared for Etan. The police said there was no connection—just believe us. I'm finding it very upsetting that no one tells us what's going on." "Stan and Julie don't know everything we're doing," Butler says later. "Jose was spoken to. Everything is still being investigated." Ramos is eventually acquitted of petty larceny charges.

December 20: At 6 a.m. the Patzes are awakened by a reporter from the New York Post demanding their reaction to a photograph that has been found in a Massachusetts cottage occupied by members of something called the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Police have already shown them the photograph. "As far as we were concerned, it was all over," says Julie. "The photograph showed a boy with a cleft chin. We told the police Etan didn't have a cleft chin. Then we looked at each other—did he? You start losing all sense of your ability to really recognize him. There was the usual panic—are we going to say 'No' to a photograph of Etan? The passage of time makes it difficult, and it's even more difficult with a photograph. The life is gone, the animation, all the things you use to recognize people."

The NAMBLA uproar quickly leads to a dead end but unexpectedly brings forth a witness. Chester Jones, 69, a retired cab driver, says he picked up a man and a young boy near the Patzes' home on May 25,1979. He drove the pair a few blocks until the youngster began protesting that he wasn't supposed to go places with strangers and that he should return to his school bus stop. The man then abruptly took the boy from the cab. Jones says he didn't come forward earlier because he was fearful of getting involved. Though his memory of the incident is sketchy, his description of the man does not contradict the one given by the woman who helped provide police with their earlier sketch. "His information has changed as he repeats his story," says Lieut. George Greenberg, commander of the Missing Persons Squad. "That's why we'd like to improve his definition with hypnosis." But some recent court rulings have prohibited people who have been hypnotized from appearing as witnesses in court. "If Chester did see Etan and his abductor, he's the only witness we have," says Greenberg. "We'd hate to lose that."

December 26: Bill Butler, who resumed his regular detective duties in June, is suddenly back on the case. On Christmas Eve he began a 16-day vacation. Today he receives a call from the task force commander telling him the unit has been increased in size from two men to eight and asking if he would object to going back on duty at once. "Of course not," Butler tells him. "On this case, you're not looking for a vacation."

March 1983: The search continues. "We're reexamining every aspect of the case," says Greenberg. "We're re-interviewing every person connected with it. Aspects of their recollections are different now. It doesn't mean they withheld anything—just that they remember things differently. Someone might mention a name they never mentioned before." Stan and Julie Patz, too, are asked to plumb their memories once more, but are not told immediately about possible leads. "We have a new arrangement with the police," explains Julie. "When something is all over, then they tell us. It's easier to live with. We have to let go of some of it, or we'll go stark raving mad."

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