The Story of Etan Patz: Reporters Remember the Quest to Cover (and Find) Soho’s Missing Boy

Julie Patz, on the Today show, two years after her son Etan’s disappearance.

Selwyn Raab, then a reporter for The New York Times, now, an author and investigative reporter: They invited me up to their apartment. There was no difficulty on their part. You have to be sensitive. When I did interviews, regardless if they were organized crime figures, or they were police officers, or they were parents with problems or victims, you’re always sensitive to their feelings. Listen, you’re not dealing with some politician.

Schmetterer: I can only speak for myself that I never liked doing those kind of interviews, and as a police reporter you’re often calling up people and saying how did you feel when you found out your kid was killed? It was tough. You’re dealing with two people who are naturally upset. They’re a nervous wreck, and they’d rather not be talking to you. These two people recognized the importance of talking to the press. They recognized the value of the publicity that may help find him.

Raab: My thinking at the time was to make sure the story didn’t disappear, even though you know it’s a million-to-one chance that somebody would see. The perverts probably didn’t read The New York Times, but somebody might’ve seen something in that neighborhood, and I still think so.

Miller: Are they available for an interview on the first day, the second day, during the first week? Yeah. After that, they kind of withdrew, on the idea that doing more interviews wasn’t really moving the ball forward. They were then, and they remain today, extraordinarily self-possessed and dignified people, who never got bitten by the media bug. To them, this was always a family tragedy and a missing child.

Anna Quindlen, then a reporter at The New York Times; now an author: A couple of days in, it became clear that it was going to be a big deal, but I don’t think any of us saw it as as big a story as it became. I think early days you think it’s going to resolve itself.

Murray Weiss, then a reporter at the Daily News; now a columnist and the criminal justice editor at The cops went looking, and after a very short period of time it was like, “Oh my God, nobody knows where he is,” and, “Oh my God, is this the worst nightmare kind of concept?” Then it became, “Yes, it is.” The police very quickly ramped up their investigation. It went from a bunch of detectives and cops on searches, to dozens and hundreds. It became a Son of Sam kind of a scale and very rapidly.

Schmetterer: I think that the editors recognized all the different elements in this story. This was a big story almost from the first minute it broke. So you didn’t have to create anything or blow things out of proportion. This story had every element of tabloid journalism, but The New York Times and everyone else covered it just as heavily, because you had this wonderful little kid. You had the very cooperative and intelligent parents. They had the neighborhood that knew the kid, and he was kind of a beloved character.

Quindlen: All the pieces of the Etan case you could see in your mind’s eye. You could see him leaving, and his mother looking out the window. And the bus stop so close and all that. And it was as though he just was gone.

The Story of Etan Patz: Reporters Remember the Quest to Cover (and Find) Soho’s Missing Boy