I received this email recently from a friend with small children. She knew I’d written AFTER ETAN: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive, and that my interest in the iconic, mysterious case of six-year old Etan Patz had led me to immerse myself in the issue of child safety in general:
"Dear Neighbourhood Parents, They clearly want to be in the proximity of small children and want to build up some sort of a trust or friendship with kids - quite possibly to harm them. It's only going to take one situation (a parent or caregiver's head turned for a moment) and something terrible could happen to a child in our community. There is absolutely no good reason this guy should be at our playgrounds.
outside the playground area. A few weeks ago one of the playground mothers asked him to leave since he was unaccompanied by a child and he became quite confrontational. She later reported him to the police and was told not to confront him but rather to call the police if he's seen again. The guy was back to the playground that same day and the police were called and escorted him off the playground.
I was at the 110 St playground this morning, and the guy was back again!!!- with a different older man this time. He is obviously very persistent and has some sort of personal motivation to be here. He's also getting craftier - this time he set up a balloon stand right outside the gate and was handing out free balloons and chatting with the kids.I called the police and several police cars arrived soon after and talked to him and he finally left. The problem now is that he's not on the premises of the playground, nor is he selling anything so he's not really doing anything legally wrong. However his and his companion's behavior is VERY suspicious since he's not selling or promoting anything and just wants to hand out fancy balloons to young children.
We need to have ZERO TOLERANCE with this guy and let him know that he's not welcome at our playground or anywhere else.
PLEASE CALL 911 if you see this guy (or his companion).
DON'T accept his balloons. He needs to realize that he's not welcome.
AND PLEASE also pass this message on to friends or parents in the neighbourhood since many people don't read this yahoo group and many people come to the playground at different times of the day and may not know this has been going on. Let's keep our neighborhood safe! Feel free to email if you want further details…."
First of all, let me hasten to say that, of course, “balloon men” are not by definition pedophiles. The ones you hire to come to your supervised birthday party, etc, have a perfectly rational, explicable reason for doing so.
But the ones who hang around children’s playgrounds handing out their artwork for free, who are asked to leave the premises by the police and return time and again, now that’s a different story. And I’m not saying they definitely are a danger to children. But I was pleased to see the level of vigilance in this email, and reminded again of the positive power of the internet as a source of information in today’s global village.
The email also gave me a chill that harkened back to the research I did on AFTER ETAN. Thirty years ago, when Etan disappeared, a “bubble man” was a fixture on the scene of Washington Square Park, where Jose Ramos, Etan’s alleged abductor, also hung out. Ramos and the “bubble man” were reputed to compete for boys. They were both soft-spoken, sociable, and befriended the kids who played there after school and on weekends.
The “bubble man” blew bubbles endlessly for the children who gleefully chased them around the park. He himself was ultimately chased to Amsterdam where he was finally arrested on charges of child molestation and extradited to the U.S., serving his sentence in a Florida prison. Jose Ramos himself didn’t blow bubbles or twist balloons into animals – he handed out toys he’d collected in his travels as a “recycler” of people’s castoffs.
In 1982, three years after Etan’s disappearance, Ramos was arrested while unzipping his fly as he huddled with three young boys on a rooftop at midnight in the Times Square area. In his wallet at the time were photos of other youngsters, one of whom posed next to his mother with the Washington Square Park arch over his shoulder.
I tracked his mother down. At first she was reluctant to reveal she knew Ramos, given what he had turned out to be. Finally, she said yes, he’d often spent time there surrounded by children, befriending them and giving out these little toys. He’d seemed like a nice enough fellow, she said, and the kids had really liked him.
That’s what pedophiles do. The groom their young victims, sometimes for weeks or months. They don’t automatically snatch them from behind a bush and spirit them away. They often target the ones who seem less attended, with few friends. Perhaps they’re from broken homes and don’t have a man in their life. Or the adults who look after them are weakened in some way, by alcohol or poverty, or other distractions. The bubble man and Jose Ramos weren’t “strangers” to avoid after a while, but solicitous figures to embrace.
At times they befriended the parents too. Ramos met his “lady friend,” as he referred to her in a police interview, on the welfare line. He learned she was a single mother with a young son. And eventually he helped care for the boy, babysitting him, taking him to the Empire State Building and the movies, inviting him on sleepovers in his West 4th St. apartment. The boy would later tell authorities that there he’d take baths with Ramos, who would then molest him. The boy was four or five at the time.
Ramos's girlfriend briefly took care of six-year old Etan Patz in the weeks before his abduction, and she was the thread that connected Jose Ramos to Etan.
I recount all this because even though I don’t think people who position themselves in children’s playgrounds and hand out trinkets should be automatically treated like monsters, I do believe they should be suspect and watched. But when a warning, much like the email above, was posted in the online talk fest of that arbiter of parental public opinion, Urban Baby, it was met by a lengthy, animated thread – some horror, some gratitude for the warning, but also some derision, including this post:
"That's a whole bucket of paranoia right there. What if the guys just want to give out balloons because they make the children smile? Geez. People."
And this one:
"That guy is not breaking any laws and the cops or the parents cannot do anything about this. I am very sure he just loves making kids happy and does not let some over-paranoid parents spoil it."
In fact, many of these playgrounds are designated by NYC Parks regulations as exclusively for the use of children, and only for adults who are accompanied by children. That’s why cops can escort a “balloon man” from the playground, but there’s little they can do outside the playground gates, where the Urban Baby poster is right - no laws are being broken.
I asked the now-retired cop who himself arrested Jose Ramos on that rooftop back in 1982 what WOULD constitute a chargeable offense. Former detective Joe Gelfand, who went on to become the senior investigator on the NYPD pedophilia squad, concurred that simply associating with children, befriending and giving them gifts, is not illegal, but said that parents should listen to, as well as watch any such interaction. It doesn’t have to be physical contact that crosses the line – even a sexually explicit conversation such an adult has with a minor is grounds for a charge of endangering the welfare of a child. In New York that carries a sentence of up to a year in prison.
Again, I understand the delicacy of the issue, but I’ve always been fond of quoting that line, “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
They clearly want to be in the proximity of small children and want to build up some sort of a trust or friendship with kids - quite possibly to harm them. It's only going to take one situation (a parent or caregiver's head turned for a moment) and something terrible could happen to a child in our community. There is absolutely no good reason this guy should be at our playgrounds.