By Lisa R. Cohen
In recognition of the holiday season, the following was adapted from AFTER ETAN: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette May 09). This section takes place three and a half years after six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared from the streets of New York City's SoHo area, as he walked two blocks to the school bus stop on his own for the very first time.
In this section, the case, which had slowed to a dead halt after several years, suddenly lurched forward when the holiday season brought fresh, if confusing, clues to the forefront. Clues which led investigators in circles before inadvertently moving the case further along:
On the last day of school before Christmas vacation of 1982, Etan Patz's mother Julie did the usual volunteer stint at her younger son Ari's school in the morning, then hurried home to prepare for the holidays before picking up Ari at his bus stop in the afternoon. After a weekend of packing, gathering presents and doling out plant watering duties to the neighbors, the Patzes would make their annual holiday trek to Massachusetts, for a long-awaited week with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Twice a year, as the New York City skyline receded and they were finally on their way "home" – which is what Julie still called it – she could always feel the tension leave her body. The house Julie had grown up in, then escaped from, was now a refuge; there the Patzes would be surrounded by family. But by mid-afternoon Saturday, in a perverse twist of fate, news from Massachusetts would delay the family from traveling there. A Missing Persons detective was once again sitting in their front room with yet another photo to show them.
The cops typically didn’t tell them where these photos came from. If Stan and Julie made a positive ID, there’d be plenty of time to fill in the details; if not, why bother. But the detectives had received a report that two weeks earlier Massachusetts police had raided a summer cottage in the beach town of Wareham. Three missing area teenagers, one from the Bronx and two from New Jersey, had been found there amidst a cache of pornographic photographs, some depicting children in sex acts with adult men.
Among the photos was a headshot of a handsome blond boy, his arm stretched to the side, elbow bent, his hand propping up his head. He was wearing clothes and alone in the picture. He stared straight into the camera and wore a look that might be interpreted as sophisticated coy, with an ambiguous Mona Lisa curve to his lips. He had straight bangs that matched the ones in several pictures Stan had taken of Etan, and he bore a striking resemblance to the missing child.
Julie looked at the photo closely, and thought how hard it would be to recognize their son from a two-dimensional piece of paper with no life and no animation and to make a judgment without all the things you use to really know people. Etan was full of life and animation. This couldn’t be Etan, they said, this boy had a cleft chin and Etan didn’t. Julie and Stan looked at each other. Or did he? Julie was suddenly panic-stricken. What if they said no to a picture of their own son?
As the detectives walked them through the boy’s face, feature by feature, Stan and Julie became convinced this wasn’t Etan. Yes, agreed the Patzes, some features were similar but some were not. Besides, Stan had his own extra assurances. The style of the photography dated it at least back to the ‘70’s. And then there was the paper. They were looking at an original 8”x10” photo and the paper stock and borders just weren’t contemporary. The detectives were less sure. The photo would be sent to an FBI lab in D.C. where analysts would compare it to Stan’s pictures of Etan, examining facial shape and bone structure. Sorry to bother you folks, the detectives said, as they always did. We’ll let you know if anything further comes of it. The Patzes knew it wouldn’t.
But the next day, a reporter from the Boston Herald American called to ask about the picture, which she explained had been found in a Wareham, Massachusetts, police bust of a group who advocated for “consensual love” between adult males and boys and called themselves the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA.The acronym would soon enter the lexicon, but this incident was the first most people - certainly Stan and Julie - had ever heard of it.
They were astounded an association existed that actually sought to legitimize child molestation. Stan considered himself as tolerant as the next New York liberal, but the idea made his skin crawl. Thank God the boy in the picture wasn’t Etan, so the thought of their son being in NAMBLA’s clutches wasn’t something they dwelled on.
The phone started to ring sometime after dawn on Monday, just after the Boston Herald American ran the photo beside a headline nearly filling its front page, “Did Sex Club Trap this Boy?” At 6:45 a.m. New York Post reporters were ringing the Patzes’ front buzzer, but the family had rules – no advance request, no interview.
Ten pages of press calls were recorded in the Patz logbook that day, as the family pushed back their vacation plans, waiting to hear from the cops if anything had come of the photo. Camera crews and reporters milled around in the street below, in front of the door that still bore the Etan’s missing poster, one of the few left hanging in the neighborhood. It was a full-on siege, for a story that until the NAMBLA connection hadn’t warranted more than a passing mention in months.
Late in the day, Stan finally ducked out the stairwell entrance to the building, eluding the crowd. As he reached the end of the block and slipped around the corner onto Greene Street, he heard the sound of high heels pounding the cement sidewalk behind him and realized he’d been spotted. He registered the strange sensation of being chased – by a woman no less.
He turned around finally and recognized her as an on-air personality at one of the local TV stations. As she drew nearer, he realized she was older than she looked on television, where the strong lights and heavy powder erased the fine lines he could see now starkly etched around her eyes and forehead.
He was embarrassed – to be sneaking out of his own home, and to be evading her, someone he’d almost certainly invited into his living room on an earlier occasion, eager then to get exposure for Etan. He was embarrassed for her, too. She was the one driven to loitering on street corners in the winter chill, chasing people up the street. He dispatched her quickly with a few succinct quotes – no there’s really nothing new here today – and went on his way. The next day, having heard nothing further from the cops, he and Julie set their answering machine, and fled for safe haven in Massachusetts.
As the Patz family were driving their rental car up the northern coastal route to the Boston area the next day, a 69-year-old retired cabbie named Chester Jones walked into the newsroom of the Daily News and told a reporter that the old photo of Etan they’d run in their paper next to the NAMBLA story had prompted him to come forward. He may have been, he said, one of the last people to see Etan Patz.
“I believe that I’m the cabdriver who picked up that boy in SoHo the morning he disappeared,” said Jones, pulling on a cigarette. "I have very little doubt in my mind that he was the boy I picked up.”
Daily News police reporter Jerry Schmetterer had covered the Patz case since the beginning, and he was skeptical to hear this lead coming in three years late, but he checked out the story through his sources. He was surprised to learn that there had been a very early report of a sighting that day, one of the hundreds that could never be substantiated, of a little boy and man getting into a cab. Why had Jones waited so long? He'd doubted his own memory, he said, and worried about getting involved. And he had didn’t think anyone would take him seriously anyway.
“Who’s going to believe an old black man like me?” he asked Schmetterer.
According to Jones, the two got into his cab and he overheard the man say something like, “I see you every morning from across the street. It’s a shame your mother lets you stand here on the street corner all alone.” The boy said, “My mother told me not to talk to strangers.”
They rode a few blocks north on West Broadway, and at Houston Street, Jones said, when the boy suddenly exclaimed, “This isn’t the way to go to school.” The man and the boy then got out of the car without paying and walked away.
Police questioned the cabbie for several hours. At the time they judged him a “credible witness,” although the conversation Jones had related between the man and boy didn’t match up with Etan's taking his first trip alone to the bus. This news, combined with the NAMBLA bombshell, brought Missing Person Case #8367 roaring back to life. The Missing Persons Unit recast the Patz task force, bringing in homicide detectives to start fresh, and adding back old hands. NYPD Detective Bill Butler was two days into a 16-day Christmas break when he got a call.
“Would you mind putting off your vacation to return to Missing Persons as part of the rejuvenated MPU task force?” the head of the force asked him.
“Of course not,” he said. Suddenly the new group was eight strong, up from one detective just a month before.
The Patzes passed a relatively oblivious holiday week in Massachusetts, hanging close to the house and watching the two kids reconnect with their cousins. Uncle George, the former Marine and now a Sudbury fireman, took Shira and Ari for a tour of the station, and they were delighted to sit up in the open cab of the lemon yellow firetruck and ring the bell. Julie might have converted to Judaism, but the Massachusetts family celebrated Christmas with all the trimmings. Her kids woke expectantly on Christmas morning to tear through stockings and gift-wrapped presents, welcoming neighboring cousins throughout the day, as each arrived with a new round of presents.
The family saw the newspaper accounts of Chester Jones’ story while still in Sudbury, and talked briefly to the police about it over the phone, but otherwise they worked hard to maintain a wait-and-see attitude so as not to spoil the holiday. But the Patzes arrived back in New York to a filled answering machine of media calls. Finally, an awkward press conference at One Police Plaza was convened, where Stan informed a room full of reporters that there was nothing to report.
There really was nothing to report. Ultimately, police concluded Chester Jones was one more dead end. After repeated sessions, they had begun to feel his story was changing -- including his description of the man -- enough to undermine his credibility. Jones couldn’t even give enough details about the man’s features to create a police sketch, and in one subsequent interview he told police the boy had actually given his name as Etan. Authorities considered hypnotizing Jones but anything he said under hypnosis might jeopardize his testimony in court.
The NAMBLA picture was discounted by police as well, but not before two outraged NAMBLA representatives held a press conference at a midtown Holiday Inn to indignantly assert that the police were on a witch hunt. They held up a 1968 "Boyhood Calendar" issued four years before Etan's birth, with the same photo of the boy who looked like Etan -- posing as January's model.
But both leads, fruitless as they were, served a critical purpose. As the New Year began, two homicide detectives on loan to the newly energized task force to provide fresh eyes sat in the Patz apartment one afternoon for a whole new round of debriefs. At their behest, Julie had compiled a fresh list of friends or colleagues for them to re-interview, although she was surprised to learn later some had never been questioned to begin with.
She particularly stressed the connection between Sandy Harmon* and Jose Ramos that had emerged the previous spring after an episode in a Bronx drainpipe. Ramos, an itinerant junk salesman, had been arrested living in the drainpipe after two young boys accused him of trying to entice them inside. Police had questioned the man after photos of blond boys were found among his belongings, and Ramos himself had volunteered that he'd dated a woman who'd taken care of Etan.
Yes, Julie said now, this woman had never been his babysitter, per se, but Julie explained the bus strike and Sandy’s temporary part-time hours walking Etan and his two friends home from school. That was the time frame directly preceding Etan’s disappearance, Julie pointed out, and if this woman was connected to Ramos as well as to Etan, then she was a direct link.
The cops were now eager to learn Ramos’s whereabouts and question him again. They looked for him in Brooklyn, at the address he’d given authorities back in March. They talked to acquaintances of Ramos in lower Manhattan who reported last seeing him at a New Year’s Eve party a few days earlier, looking fit, well-dressed and clean-shaven.
On January 12, 1983, Missing Persons detectives brought Sandy Harmon to police headquarters to ask about her relationship with both the Patzes and Jose Ramos. She later gave an angry account of this interrogation to authorities and described how police put her and her then-eight-year-old son Brendan into separate rooms and grilled them both for hours.
At one point, Sandy said, they led Brendan in and informed Sandy her son had just revealed years of sodomy at the hands of Jose Ramos. Sandy told the cops she was shocked to hear this, but they didn’t believe her. According to Sandy’s later account they then threatened to have her son taken from her. Seven hours after they’d brought her in, they told her they needed her back the next day, and she and Brendan were driven home to her East Village apartment at 2:30 a.m.
After less than five hours of sleep, Sandy was back at One Police Plaza, where she was questioned again. Still dissatisfied with her answers, police polygraphed her. Although she'd agreed to the test, she showed “signs of deception” as she denied any knowledge of Etan’s disappearance.
Polygraphs are not lie detectors, and Stan Patz hadn’t done so well on his either, but based on Sandy’s results, police certainly wanted to pursue her role in the case, as well as that of her ex-boyfriend Jose Ramos. She claimed to no longer see or know where Ramos was, although she did disclose they’d been together for a last sexual encounter less than two months earlier, over Thanksgiving. Again, police ended this round of questions by telling Sandy they had more to ask, but by this point, she’d had enough.
“I have a lawyer now,” she said when they came to get her the following day. “Any more questions – you go through him.” Sandy Harmon had little more to say about the case after that, but investigators couldn’t help seeing her as a nexus point leading to tantalizing clues beyond their reach. At the very least, authorities thought, she knew more than she was saying.
*Sandy Harmon's name has been changed, because her son turned out to be one of Ramos's victims.