The Etan Patz case is one of the best examples I have ever seen of “Justice Interrupted,” the name used by some of the women on this blog to describe their cause, of going after the toughest abuses against the most vulnerable of victims.
Etan was six ½ in 1979 when he disappeared off the streets of Manhattan sometime between 8:00 and 8:30 on a misty morning, somewhere between his home and the school bus stop two short blocks away. He had finally convinced his mother Julie to let him make the short trip alone. She walked him down the stairs, unlocked the door – he was too short to reach the lock himself – and kissed him goodbye on the street before watching him head off.
He never came home. He was missing more than 8 hours by the time Julie realized that he hadn’t ever made it to school that day. She immediately called her husband, then the police, and by nightfall some 300 NYPD were combing the streets.
Etan’s father Stan is a professional photographer. He took hundreds of lovingly shot photos of his son, and Etan’s beautiful face smiled down from missing posters around New York City, and then throughout the country. They were translated into several languages and ultimately sent around the world. Etan became, quite literally, the poster child for missing children. The day he disappeared is now marked every May 25th as National Missing Children’s Day.
Thirty years ago, missing children certainly weren’t unheard of, but Etan Patz was the one case that triggered a sea change. Thirty years ago, children walked to school by themselves (I know I did, in kindergarten). They played outside until it was time to come home for dinner. And when a child went missing, there was no centralized place to cry out for help, no national data banks, no National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Everything changed, after Etan.
Today, the man responsible for Etan's death has never been charged, but he sits in jail after one determined prosecutor got him convicted for something else, in Etan's name. How that happened, and how the prosecutor traveled the world to build his case, is detailed for the first time in AFTER ETAN: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive (Grand Central Publishing, May 09).
After twenty five years, the serial pedophile, Jose Antonio Ramos, will walk free in 2012, unless he can be stopped. But there's new movement to do that, spearheaded by that same (former) prosecutor and Etan's father Stan Patz.
I’ve reported on this story for almost twenty years, as a producer at the network news magazines “PrimeTime Live” and “60 Minutes.” Then I spent five years writing AFTER ETAN, the first book ever on this case in all those thirty years.
It’s the story I could never walk away from, and its twists and turns both confounded and astonished me. Recently, “20/20” spent a full hour reprising some of the reporting from my first piece in 1990, and adding several other significant developments recounted in the book. It’s a tough story, but it’s also filled with real life heroes who faced incredible odds with courage and dedication.
Etan’s legacy can’t make up for the tragedy he and his family have suffered, but it’s an impressive one. Through my book, my ongoing writings here and elsewhere, I want to paint the picture of the before and after, tell some of the incredible tale that spans thirty years of this case, and track both the case and the issue of missing and exploited children onward into the future. In doing so, I hope I’ll be able to pass on some of the valuable lessons I myself have learned.
Thanks for this opportunity.