Etan Patz Case Still Captivates 30 Years Later

PHOTO After EtanCourtesy of Grand Central Publishing
In "After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive," author Lisa R. Cohen returns to the night of May 25, 1979 -- the night the greatest fear of one family, and parents everywhere, terrifyingly hit home.

On the morning of May 25, 1979, Julie Patz finally agreed to allow her middle child, 6-year-old Etan Patz, to walk the two blocks to the school bus stop alone. He had been asking for months. It was not far, through a New York City neighborhood he knew well.

The terrible drama that unfolded in the weeks and months after the disappearance of Etan Patz captivated the country. Now author Lisa R. Cohen has told the entire story, beginning with the morning Julie watched Etan walk down the block and turn the corner, in "After Etan: The Missing Child Search That Held America Captive."

Watch the story on "2020" Friday, May 29 at 10 p.m. ET.


May 25, 1979

Police hypnotist: About what time is it?

Julie: About 7:00 a.m.

Hypnotist: What do you do?

Julie: Get out of bed.

— Julie Patz hypnosis transcript, August 7, 1979

In August of 1979, nine weeks after Etan Patz disappeared, his mother, Julie, was hypnotized by police to recall the events of Friday, May 25.

She was nervous but eager to do anything to add to the shortage of clues. She began to retrace her steps that day, minute by minute. After a stoic 10 minutes, the NYPD hypnotist stopped her and told her she was doing a wonderful job, but that she had to start all over again from the beginning. And this time, he said, she needed to stay completely in the present tense, as if every minute were just happening now. He thought it would help her to recall the day more easily. He actually used the word "easily." Julie started again. "The alarm clock is ringing," she said. "Stan is shutting it off."

Her husband turns over and goes back to sleep. He had worked late the night before. Julie pulls herself out of bed, unwillingly, but she has a lot to do. Their across- the- street neighbors, Larry and Karen Altman, have invited them to their country place for the weekend. The weather is changeable this time of year—lots to pack. Julie's in-home daycare group will be arriving soon, bringing their daily chaotic mess of arts-and-crafts supplies, spilled Cheerios, and sweet cacophony. The other wild card this morning is Ari, her 2-year-old. A playmate of his had slept over the night before, the toddlers snuggled under blankets on the floor in the front room that doubled as the daycare center. This means an extra wiggly body to keep track of. And when Julie peeks in, sure enough they are awake already, "reading" their books amid the bedclothes.

As usual, when Julie wakes Etan, he hops right out of bed. Eight-year-old Shira is a different story. Once awake, Shira might lie in bed imagining ways to get out of having to go to school. Today is really part of the long weekend, she might argue, and then it's almost the end of the term, and it isn't like anyone's learning anything this late in the year anyway. Julie has already decided she isn't going to push her daughter too hard. She goes to her room to throw on a long blue-and-yellow peasant dress with white flowers and pull her shoulder-length brown hair back in its usual casual ponytail.

Then she checks on Etan, who is putting on his blue pants and a T- shirt. While Julie goes to the kitchen, he laces up his racing sneakers, the light blue ones with the fluorescent green lightning stripe on the side. His best friend Jeff has just grown out of a blue, wide-wale corduroy jacket and Etan is now its proud owner, even though the name sewn inside hasn't been changed. He already has on his favorite hat, the Future Flight Captain pilot's cap he bought for a dime at a garage sale and sometimes slept in, as he comes into the kitchen where his mother is making lunches.

Julie watches as, unbidden, he takes the milk out and pours himself a glass. With a naturally contrary older sister and a typically terrible-twoish younger brother, Etan is an easy middle child. There are the usual qualifications, of course. He actively tries to please, a refreshing change of pace after Shira, but he knows the secret ways to provoke his sister as only a sibling can. He is fiercely protective of baby brother Ari, but equally jealous. He is sunny and sweet, but has a stubborn, moody streak. He is fanciful and full of stories, planning trips to far-off lands with his imaginary playmate Johnny France-America. For a while, he felt like he could walk on water as Jesus had, if only he practiced hard enough, so he spent hours walking flat-footed around the house.

He is on the slight side, but not undersized. His smile reaches up his whole face and through his blue, blue eyes to light up a room. He looks a lot like his mother. She encourages his self-sufficiency, and every morning he fixes his own breakfast of toast and chocolate milk. Now he quickly finishes up both, picks up his cloth lunch bag, the blue one with the white elephants, and heads into the front room to position himself by the door.

Etan has a reason for being one step ahead of his mom. This is a big day. The school bus stop is two short blocks away, down Prince Street, then a quick right onto West Broadway, in front of the corner bodega. All year he has been begging his mother to let him walk it on his own. A lot of the other kids are allowed, why not me, Etan would say, with classic 6-year-old logic. Now first grade is almost over, and he has only a few more weeks to carry out his mission.

Stan and Julie were of mixed minds about this walk to the bus stop thing, but Etan's pleadings wore them down. It wasn't as if there had been one moment when they decided, yes, this was the day. It just sort of happened. His parents also thought it would be a good confidence builder for him— they were concerned about the tentative streak that coexisted with his thirst for adventure. Etan was particularly fearful of being lost. Once, when he was five, he and his mother rode an elevator, and when the door opened, she made it off but he didn't. She turned as the door closed and would never forget the expression on his face. She could hear him screaming all the way to the top and back down safely to her.

But this morning he is so pleased with himself, acting so grown- up, and at the last minute he even remembers to bring the dollar he "earned" the day before. On his way home Etan had run into the neighborhood handyman who'd pretended to need the boy's help in some small task. Now Julie tells her son to put the dollar in his pocket, but he wants to hold it in his hand as he walks. He plans to stop at the bodega before getting on the bus, to spend his pay on a soda for lunch.

Just before eight, Julie calculates it's time to go. Etan walks ahead of his mother down the three flights to the front door. He isn't tall enough to reach the lock himself, and has to wait while she opens the door. Julie looks up the street. It's a gray day, and at the moment the sun is behind her back, hiding around the corner. She feels it rather than sees it, struggling to come out.

The detective poised taking notes beside Julie in the hypnosis session had never sat through one of these. He was skeptical and suddenly confused. May 25 had been a drizzly day; how could Julie see the sun? Later, after she'd gone home, she called him. She'd just realized that the time sensor on a streetlamp behind her that morning had been defective and it had flickered on and off. That must have been what I felt as sunshine, she explained. Looking up the street, Julie hopes the weather will be better for the next few days, since they plan to spend most of it outdoors, on this holiday weekend in the country. She sees the familiar figures of other parents and their children beginning to congregate near the bus stop, which is just barely out of sight around the corner. Mother and son stand in front of their door, heads together, talking briefly about afterschool plans. Come home quickly, she tells him, you have to help pack for the trip. She kisses Etan goodbye.

He smiled and waved, turned around and walked away. She watched him, head down, as though he were counting his steps. She waited until he crossed the first of the two streets that stood between their home and the bus stop. If she was wavering at all, well, there were the babies upstairs, unsupervised. She turned and went inside, back upstairs to contain whatever toddler havoc Ari and his friend had wrought in the few minutes she'd been gone.

As Julie relived those few last moments to the hypnotist, she slipped unaware from present tense to past. Living in that exact moment again seemed to be just too hard.

Julie: I'm kissing him and I give him a hug. I say so long, tell him to have a good day. I watched him for a little while and I went in the door and flipped the lock and closed it, I ran upstairs. ... [long pause]

Hypnotist: Let me just wipe those away.

Julie: No, that's alright. They feel good. There haven't been enough.

Hypnotist: Well, you can have all you want here.

— hypnosis transcript, August 7, 1979

The account contradicted one important detail widely reported in the days following May 25. When Julie Patz first told police about her movements that morning, she remembered coming back inside and going out on the balcony fire escape that fronted Prince Street, to watch her son reach West Broadway and turn the corner.

But under hypnosis, she discovered her mind had played a trick on her. Perhaps her unconscious wanted her to have gone out on the balcony so badly, it had given her the false memory. In reality, back upstairs, she eyed the toddlers, then went off to take a quick shower and get ready for work. The rest of "her" kids would be showing up soon, as well as her staff. Julie's in-home daycare made good use of their space. Five days a week eight kids and two assistants filled the rooms with snack time, rest, and play. Showered and ready, Julie tidied up, packed Shira off to school after all, and began gathering the weekend belongings before the daycare kids arrived. Karen Altman would be picking up Etan along with her own daughter Chelsea at the bus stop after school, as she often did, so at least Julie would have a little extra time to prepare. But soon, her chattering, riotous group was spilling in, pushing at every molecule in the room, and bouncing back off them, and Julie was immersed in her day job.

By 3:30 p.m. Etan was still not home, and Julie was a little concerned. A lengthy school bus strike had just ended. This was the drivers' first week back, so maybe the bus had been delayed. Julie kept sticking her head out the wide expanse of windows in the front, where she was always able to see her children approaching from well up the block. Finally she phoned Karen Altman, whose own windows looked in on the Patz loft from directly across the street. "Is Etan over there with you?" Julie asked. "No," said Karen. She'd assumed that when Etan hadn't gotten off the bus he had gone to another friend's, as he often did, for a semi-regular playdate. With Julie on the line, she asked Chelsea if she knew where Etan had gone after school.

"Etan wasn't in school today," Chelsea said. Julie tried to contain her panic, but her voice, one of her most revealing features, betrayed her with a tight shake, and she immediately ended the call.

At 10 minutes to four on Friday afternoon, at the start of a holiday weekend that would shut the city down for three days, Julie Patz phoned the First Precinct to report her son missing. The officer who answered asked Julie if she and her husband were having marital troubles—maybe a custody dispute? No, said Julie. Maybe he ran away? No, Julie insisted, her voice rising. The officer promised to send someone over.

Julie hung up and called her husband, Stan, a photographer who was working at a friend's photo studio uptown. By this time she was frantic. Stan, in a moment of pure denial, finished the soggy cheeseburger that was his late lunch, then jumped on the subway downtown.

At the loft, a group of preschoolers were being shepherded into the lobby, Julie's assistants handing off children to their moms, trying not to frighten any of the youngsters. The contained, tense faces of the adults gathering outside shook Stan and a sense of urgency overtook him. He ignored the elevator, running up the back stairs to the third floor. It was almost 4:30.

Stan took one look at Julie and knew nothing good had happened during the time he had been on the subway. She was ashen. Stan's fantasy as he sat on the R train rattling down Broadway, that he would arrive to learn the whole thing was a big misunderstanding, was just that—a fantasy. In between calls to neighbors and friends, his wife had been dialing local emer- gency rooms, and wondering where the hell the cops were.

Time— 16:25. No cops yet. Julie was very nervous. She had called everybody for a clue. I called 1st Pct to find out where the cops were. Minutes later two patrolmen were in our place, asked basic questions (marriage, friends, family) and jumped in their car to go down to PS 3 Annex.

— Stan Patz's account of May 25, 1979 (written June 1979)

The police told Stan and Julie they needed to confirm that Etan really wasn't in school that day, but on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend, there was no one at the school to call. When one of the officers realized he knew the custodian there, they headed over.

Stan went into his home darkroom. He had no photos of Etan lying around, but remembered that back in March he'd done a lengthy photo shoot of the boy and there were proof sheets—thirty-six miniature headshots on each page. He grabbed a few of them and ran down the stairs, heading out onto Prince Street to show them to shopkeepers, brushing past his downstairs neighbors on the landing coming in. Peggy Spina had just picked up her 7-year-old daughter, Vanessa, from afterschool art class. Vanessa was one of Etan's constant companions, but Stan didn't even notice the girl, let alone question her. He tossed back one sentence to Peggy as he bolted past. "I think we've lost Etan." Then he was up the street, leaving a bewildered mother ushering her own child in the front door of their apartment.

"Lost Etan," Peggy thought. "How do you 'lose' a kid? And how could he be lost in the middle of the afternoon?" Her older daughter, 10-year-old Paula, was home, having shamelessly faked sick that morning to skip school. Julie had just called down, she told her mother, to ask if anyone had seen Etan. Still, Peggy assumed this was a simple mixup.

Stan took his proof sheets to the health food store, the bodega, the M&O Market, and the Eva Deli, then to the Houston Street playground. No, everyone said, shaking their heads as they looked at the tiny pictures, they hadn't seen Etan.

Sometime that afternoon Sandy Harmon, a woman who sometimes worked for the Patzes, arrived at the loft. She had come to pick up the keys from Julie. The place had once been burglarized in their absence, and Julie had asked Sandy to housesit while the family was away for the weekend. Sandy, of course, now learned she would not be staying in the loft that weekend after all; instead she helped Julie look for phone numbers to nearby hospitals, sitting awkwardly in the front room, trying to think of other places to call. After a brief stay she left, to pick up her own son, who himself was in daycare nearby.

At the P.S. 3 Annex school, a police officer went through the school records to confirm Etan's absence, before he finally called back to headquarters to ask for backup. Ten long hours after Etan was last seen, a full- on search for him began.

At 5:15, Detective Bill Butler got the radio call. He and his partner immediately drove to Prince Street, where by 5:30 they were joined by three other detectives from the First Precinct. Stan showed them pictures of Etan, while Julie repeated the day's events as she knew them. She would recite them again and again countless times in the days to come.

"He's a very friendly boy," she said. "Very loving, trusting and warm." By 6 p.m., as if to compensate for the first hour of inactivity, radio patrol cars began to roll up, and through the night some three hundred police officers descended on Prince Street. A temporary police headquarters was set up in the Patz loft. Up and down the block squad cars were left standing in the middle of the street. As the light grew dim, the car doors were propped open and high beams left on to illuminate the evening air. An area diagram was drawn, to divide up and designate the different buildings. Uniformed cops patrolled on foot, moving door-to-door in the streets around Prince, knocking to gain access, to shine their flashlights into dark basements and onto rooftops. Helicopters with floodlights swooped back and forth. Walkie-talkies crackled as false leads and rumors flew.

Peggy Spina answered her door to find a policeman politely asking to come in. She examined the card he handed her, ushered him into her home, and told him everything she knew, which was almost nothing. She was shocked to find herself following him as he began methodically opening all her closed doors, rummaging behind the clothes in her closets. She wasn't outraged at this invasion, but sickened by the realization that the cops had to think this way in such cases—had to assume a small child might be secreted away in the downstairs neighbors' closet. It must actually happen like that sometimes, she thought, horrified. The experience was so disorienting that afterwards she couldn't remember the man's last name, but spent weeks thinking his first name was "Det," until someone pointed out that he most certainly was of detective rank.

Upstairs Julie Patz sat in the loft surrounded by officers. She felt almost incapable of functioning, although the only outward signs besides the tears were the trembling tic in her jaw and the occasional stumble as she got up to answer phones or to walk across the loft, to forage for Etan's toys and other items potentially laden with his fingerprints. His stuffed hippo, Biggie, or his Star Wars X-wing fighter. But inside she quelled the overwhelming urge to vomit and the uncontrollable flood of guilt: Why had she let her son walk to the bus stop alone? As night fell, the guilty feelings were supplanted by more damaging fears of the horrors he might be living through, or whether he was even alive.

For Stan Patz, who spent hours conferring with police from the front of his loft turned temporary staging area, the rest of the day and night were as lost to him as his son. It was as if it had all never happened, as if he had never experienced it in the first place. Or maybe, in the way that Julie imagined the balcony scene, remembering was just not permitted.

Karen Altman had already come and gone, taking Shira and little Ari back across the street, where she made everyone soup. There would be no more talk about the trip upstate. Instead, 2-year-old Ari Patz watched the goings-on from the Altmans' front window. This was turning into his second sleepover in a row and his first away from home, but he didn't cry. When Shira and Chelsea stopped playing cards in the other room and drifted off to sleep, Ari stayed at the front window. His face pressed up against the panes of glass that stretched the length of the Altman loft, he watched his mother and father, moving from the street below to the Patz front room across the way, and back again. The Patzes' tall windows showcased the blur of activity. From her vantage point over Ari's shoulder, Karen Altman watched Stan too, as his wiry frame paced the length of sidewalk in front of the building, the floodlights illuminating his thin, now pinched face. Karen could see just by the way Stan was holding himself and by the expressions on his face that he was enraged. Not at the cops, not at his wife, but at the gods, she thought. She half expected him to start shaking his fist at the skies. The gods seemed to be piling on when, shortly before midnight, they began spitting on the searchers in a slow, steady drizzle. By 1:15 a.m., when authorities requested bloodhounds to be brought in from upstate, any traces of Etan— his prints or a scent the dogs could follow— were in the process of being washed away.

"Wouldn't it be awful," whispered Karen's husband, Larry, from behind her and just out of Ari's earshot, "if they never found Etan, and they never found out what happened?"