On May 25, 1979—the first day his mother allowed him to walk to the bus stop alone—6-year-old Etan Patz went missing just blocks from his parents’ Soho loft. The case roused the fears of the nation and changed the way parents raised their children. In the days and months after, the full force of the New York press was trained on the family. The case became as much of a media phenomenon as a police investigation.
Despite thousands of man hours on the part of law enforcement, and the identification of at least one suspect in 1990—a convicted child molester named José Ramos, currently in prison in Pennsylvania on other charges—no arrests have been made in the Patz case. Last week, the FBI and NYPD excavated a basement on Prince Street, just one block from the Patzes’ apartment, and once again the media descended on the family. Law enforcement officials are analyzing a stain they found, but so far they have “nothing conclusive.”
On the slim chance that Etan would find his way home, the Patzes have never moved or changed their telephone number, and each time a possible development arises, a new onslaught of reporters arrives at their door. In the 33 years since the disappearance, the Patzes have lived with the media as a fact of their life. We talked to reporters and editors who covered the case in its first year.
George Goodman, then a reporter for The New York Times, now at work on a biography of Sonny Rollins: It was a beautiful spring afternoon on Spring Street. And nobody really knew the distress that the Patz family was going through.
John Miller, then a reporter at Channel 5 News, now a senior correspondent at CBS News: What I remember that day was walking up the couple of flights to get to the Patzes’ apartment and walking in and seeing the pandemonium inside. The police had set it up like a command post. They were stringing telephone wires to bring in extra lines so that the Patzes’ line would be free in case there was a call from the kidnappers. They had 300 cops there, and they were doing a grid search of the neighborhood, every apartment every backyard, every basement.
Alan Tannenbaum, then the chief photographer and photo of the Soho Weekly News, now a photojournalist at Polaris Images: It was a big shock that something would happen in that neighborhood, which was kind of a quiet neighborhood not known for having a lot of kids. And then he just disappeared so quickly and without any trace at all, so that was pretty mind blowing.
Jerry Schmetterer, then the police bureau chief of the Daily News, now a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office: Soho back then wasn’t like it is now. It was an artsy neighborhood. Etan’s father was a photographer. It had galleries, but it wasn’t the trendy, chic place that it has been over the last 10 years or so. It was a little meaner and there were still areas of warehouses and printing companies. The Apple store wouldn’t have opened down there.
Tannenbaum: There was a law called Artists in Residence, and a lot of these loft buildings had signs on the outside that said “AIR. floor five,” things like that. So the firemen would know there were people living there, if there was a fire.
Miller: I met Julie Patz that day and I said, “Tell me what happened.” And she said, “He walked to school, and I stood out on the fire escape and I watched him walk all the way to the corner where the bus stop was, and that was the last I saw of him.” I asked her would you step outside on the balcony and point in that direction and show me how you watched, ’cause I was thinking, it’s a television story, we’re going to have to make it visual. So we had the cameraman shoot her on the balcony kind of looking in the direction she was looking.
Goodman: She was just gulping coffee. And I think she might’ve been smoking cigarettes. It’s like every reporter feels when they’re going out to do a story like that. You ask people how they feel. It’s an intrusion in a way and you feel very self-conscious asking them questions that they’ve answered already for a dozen times.
Allen Arpadi, then a photographer for the Soho Weekly News, now a retired photography professor: When I went to the apartment, there were some—let’s call them friends of the family—as well. And I asked somebody a kind of religious question: “Can you have a funeral?” And I remember a guy saying “No, you need a body to bury.”
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 DNAinfo.com: 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.
Raab: I mean, it’s a hell of a story. Anyone who doesn’t see that as a great story, especially after it’s early stages, shouldn’t be in journalism. I mean it’s simple, if you don’t know a story then sit down.
Jimmy Breslin, then a columnist at the Daily News; now an author: I didn’t write about it. Do you know how many fucking kids die in Brooklyn and Queens?
David Hershkovits, then a reporter at the Soho Weekly News; now co-editor and publisher of Paper magazine: I read that Philip Glass had said that The New York Times had a policy of not covering anything below 14th Street.
Weiss: Right from the get-go there was an enormous competition between all the papers. There’s always civility and cordiality, but underneath it is a brutal competition that goes on. All the newspapers were fighting to find out what each newspaper had or find out what the cops were doing or their leads.
Schmetterer: That was a time where the police and the press had pretty good relations, but they didn’t really know anything. They were canvassing the neighborhood and they were looking everywhere. One of the things I remember most about this were how many cops were in the street looking under garbage cans, opening up the dumpsters, going into alleys and basements. I mean you could walk up to them and get their observations.
Miller: The thing to do was to stay on it, to stay connected to it, because if you didn’t, you were likely to miss an important development as a reporter.
Schmetterer: It was a time when the News and the Post were engaged in real tabloid battle.
Sam Roberts, then the city editor at the Daily News; now the urban affairs correspondent at The New York Times: I think the News had a much better sense of the city. Murdoch came in very aggressively, but with a large number of people who didn’t know the city particularly well. They made some sort of glaring mistakes early on. I remember one story, during the David Berkowitz case. One of the mothers of the one of the victims was interviewed and it said she was sitting on her veranda in Brooklyn. Someone at the News, I think it was Jimmy Breslin, said, “A Jew hasn’t sat on a veranda in 2000 years.” But they were very aggressive.
Steve Dunleavy, then a reporter at the New York Post; now retired: I don’t know that you’d say it was the dream story for a new New York Post. It was a horror story for the New York Post.
Raab: The Times did respectable stories. Even if the tabloids might have feasted on it, for us it was still a great story. Nobody had any problems, I had no problems with the Times editor.
Goodman: The paper then was the paper of record, so a story like that was a very important story. The paper wanted to be on top of it, wanted to have everything, and then anything the tabloids would have, you had to have at least that much in your story.
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.