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

Schmetterer: One of the things that helped drive the story was that he—the father Stan—had these excellent photographs of Etan.

Miller: You had this clear-eyed, blonde-haired boy, with this impish grin who would mug for the camera in different ways, and a father who had hundreds of high-quality photographs. It was something that was very organized for television and the newspapers because of the imagery.

Quindlen: The photograph. There’s probably no little boy who’s ever been photographed in history who is as alive in the frame as that child is in those photographs.

Miller: With most missing kids what you got was a blurry picture from a Kodak Instamatic of the the boy or the girl of them in the middle of a family photo.

Goodman: I’m a black guy, but still a picture of a child at that age and so vulnerable would make anybody feel, you know, anybody would react that way, but they wouldn’t be the same pictures of a kid in tough shape. But it was a lost white kid, and that’s a big deal. In the ideal world it would be different, but this was a kid that looked like he could be in the movies, so he had a certain photogenic appeal no one could deny.

Schmetterer: At the Daily News, the brilliance of the editor, Dick Oliver, came up with the idea of doing a column called Have You Seen This Person? And I started writing that column. It was a weekly column, and I wrote it for about five years, until I left the News. And I found, helped find, 123 people.

Arpadi: Then it slowly ebbed. I remember when the milk carton came out with Etan’s image on it, it was already old news.

Miller: You knew there was something bad happening, but you also had a sense that it would have a logical ending. That there would be word from the kidnappers, that there would be a ransom. That there would be a body found. That there would be an ending within sight… that weekend, the next week, the week after that.

Hershkovits: There was nothing really to report, you know. There were no leads.

Goodman: That was the really scary aspect, that it just went on and on. I don’t think anybody had a sense that it could go on for so long without any leads that panned out.

Dunleavy: There were many, many rumors, but no real breaks, you know. It was so, it was so tragic, but more than tragic it was just an absolute mystery. There’s not much to say except that we were as baffled as the cops. And if the cops are baffled, who’s that make us?

Miller: It’s been a tough and frustrating case from a reporting standpoint. Also, the personal attachment to it. Every reporter who works hard on a story, especially if you’ve been on it for a long time, you expect it to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The Etan Patz case seems to just have a middle.

Quindlen: More than any story I’ve ever covered, this was one where I didn’t feel so much like a reporter. We’re used to walking away from things. You know, you write your 800 words and you go on with your life. This story has stayed with me my entire life. In part because we’re used to writing stories that have endings to them.

Tannenbaum: I wasn’t there and I haven’t staked out their doorstep, but apparently [last week] Mrs. Patz berated the journalists and yelled at them twice, calling them low-life scum.

Miller: They’ve been extraordinarily patient, for a longer time than many of those reporters have been alive. When that patience frays, it’s usually fairly reasonable. Nobody who’s covered this case has as much experience with this case as they have. This is all remarkable to all of us, because we think of it as development in the Etan Patz case, potentially, but they’ve been through this before, there have been other basements dug up, other garages, other fields, other close calls. The reporters who are coming in in the last 10 years or the last 15 years or the last week, have seen a part of it. But the Patzes, because they lived it, they never miss one of these. It’s not like they were off covering something else when the third one or the fifth one happened. They’ve been through all of them.

bgallagher@observer.com