Etan Patz Case Still Captivates 30 Years Later

"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.

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