Etan Patz: Imprisoned Molester Confesses?

Prison informants assemble new evidence in disappearance of 6-year-old boy.

May 28, 2009, 1:16 PM

May 29, 2009 -- On May 25, 1979, a little boy left for school and never came home. Thirty years and countless investigations later, his family is hopeful the time has finally come to prosecute the man they believe is responsible.

Etan Patz was 6 years old, the middle child of Stan and Julie Patz, who lived in the SoHo district of New York City. Today, SoHo is a bustling, high-end shopping and tourism area. Back then, it was an emerging neighborhood, full of artists and adventurers. As Stan described it: "It had the lowest crime rate in New York City, mostly because there was no one here."

Because it was safe and very familiar, Stan and Julie had decided to allow Etan walk alone to his school bus stop two blocks away. Etan had asked for permission for some time, and on this day, they finally agreed. It was a different era -- in those days it was not uncommon for children to make such a solo journey.

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"At some point in every parent's life, they send their children to school alone," Stan said. "Did we do it too early? Obviously we did. Every parent wants their children to be outgoing, they want them to be friendly. When do you let them out of your sight? When they're 21?"

By late in the afternoon, when Etan had not returned home, the Patzes called the police. Officers searched the neighborhood. Stan Patz, a commercial photographer, scoured his darkroom. He had taken many photographs of Etan, and he took those pictures around the area, showing anyone he could. No one had any information to offer.

It was a difficult investigation, according to Lisa Cohen, author of a new book, "After Etan," containing never-before-revealed details of the case. "There were no leads. There was no crime scene. They couldn't dust for fingerprints ... They didn't even know where he disappeared."

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But those pictures helped turn the case into much more than just another crime. The images helped keep the story alive over the years and served as a reminder of lost innocence. Many people remember the case, and some say the way we raise our kids in this country forever changed on that day.

Anyone wishing to offer information in regards to this investigation is asked to call FBI/NYPD Cold Case personnel at (212)384-2200. All calls will be kept confidential.

Etan Patz: Years Before Suspect Emerges

At first, detectives considered the Patzes as possible suspects. But they quickly determined the parents had no involvement. So who did? It would take years before a suspect emerged.

His name was Jose Antonio Ramos. Some boys had accused him of trying to lure them inside a drainpipe, where he lived in 1982 in the Bronx. When police searched the drainpipe, they found photographs of Ramos and young boys who resembled Etan.

Ramos said the boys were "friends," and none turned out to be Etan. Ramos did tell detectives, however, that his former girlfriend had worked for the Patzes, walking Etan to and from school during a bus strike.

To this day, Stan Patz wonders why police did not make more of the direct link between what he calls this "horrible man" and his family. When no one pressed charges, the case was dropped and Ramos vanished.

He might have disappeared for good if not for a former federal prosecutor named Stuart GraBois. After taking over the case in 1985, GraBois labored persistently for justice for the Patz family. He eventually found out that Ramos was in custody in Pennsylvania in connection with an unrelated child molestation case.

GraBois brought Ramos to New York to meet face-to-face. Ramos had no idea why he was there. Out of the blue, GraBois asked him directly, "How many times did you have sex with Etan Patz?" According to GraBois, Ramos "froze" and said, "I'll tell you everything."

Ramos' response is now known as "the 90 percent confession." He admitted taking a young boy back to his apartment for sex on the day Etan disappeared and told GraBois he was 90 percent sure it was the boy he later saw on TV. As GraBois pointed out, "the only boy missing and on television that evening was Etan Patz." GraBois said that at that moment he "believed we had the right guy."

But the confession was not complete. Ramos did not use Etan's name and he claimed he had "put the boy on a subway."

GraBois himself would never hear the last 10 percent of the story that he was after. However, working with FBI agent Mary Galligan, he came up with a plan to get it another way.

During Ramos' time in lockup, two convicted criminals, acting separately, approached GraBois and Galligan. Each claimed to have knowledge about Ramos and volunteered to try to get more information from Ramos about the Patz case.

Etan Patz: The 'Ah Ha' Moment

The arrangement was special, according to Galligan. "The unique situation in this case, which I don't think I ever had again in my career was, we had two informants at the same time who didn't know there was another informant." Each convict's story could be corroborated by the other, making both stories more credible.

The first informant, called "John Morgan" in Cohen's book, told Galligan and GraBois that Ramos told him that he knew what happened to Etan. Ramos had even drawn a map of Etan's school bus route, pointing out that he knew Etan's stop was the third one, Morgan told the investigators. Galligan called this an "ah ha" moment in the case, "because there was no way that John could have known that information. I mean there are moments in this case that are beyond chilling ... Your mind has to take a moment to digest."

Then the second informant, "Jeremy Fischer," took his turn as Ramos' cellmate. A convicted con artist, Fischer's skills worked to perfection. "I set the stage and he spilled it, shall we say," Fischer told ABC News in a phone conversation from his current prison in Texas. "Pure and simple, it was a con!"

Ramos had a sex therapy workbook he needed to complete in order to be considered for parole. Fischer acted as his personal therapist, encouraging Ramos to "open up" about what he had done. Eventually, Fischer said, Ramos told him graphic details of what he had done that day. This time, according to Fischer, Ramos used Etan's name ... repeatedly. Fischer told the investigators that Ramos drew another map, identifying the exact spot where he claimed to have picked up Etan in SoHo and where he took him -- his apartment in the East Village. But he did not admit to killing the boy.

When Morgan later returned to the cell, that last piece of the puzzle may have fallen into place. Morgan told GraBois and Galligan that Ramos woke him in the middle of the night screaming that "there is no body, they're never going to find a body." According to Morgan, Ramos had dreams he described to Morgan about people burning. Morgan said Ramos told him that he helped the superintendent in his old apartment building clean out the incinerator in the boiler and that the "firebox was big enough for, like, two people to crawl inside of."

Etan Patz: Authorities Decline to Prosecute

The information could potentially answer the difficult question of what happened to the body. But GraBois, as a federal agent, was never able to prosecute the case, because there was no evidence Etan was taken across state lines. The proper authority, the New York City district attorney, has so far declined to proceed.

GraBois thinks the lack of a body could be part of the reason for the holdup but admits, "I don't have an answer. ... I can't figure it out."

For Stan Patz, the 30th anniversary of the abduction is "our last best chance" of getting an indictment. There is an election coming for New York City district attorney this fall, and at least one candidate has said she is open to the first step: presenting the evidence to a grand jury.

In the meantime, Stan says he is doing what he always does at this time of year: he sends a special reminder to Ramos in prison that the case is not forgotten. He mails one of the old lost child posters to Ramos with a simple typewritten line on the back that reads: What did you do to my little boy?

Anyone wishing to offer information in regards to this investigation is asked to call FBI/NYPD Cold Case personnel at (212)384-2200. All calls will be kept confidential.

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