Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Balloon Man

By Lisa R. Cohen

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,

Some of you may be aware that a creepy guy (tall, Caucasian, brown hair, early/mid-thirties) has been hanging around the playground at 110 Street (& CPW) and handing out free balloons to children for the past month or so. He's often accompanied by an older guy who stays
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.

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.

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.”


cheryl said...

There are perverts who will molest children just because they're easier to molest than a grown person. I was the victim at age 10 of this sort of person.
And then there are pedophiles, who prefer children as their "mates".
A lot of people don't understand the difference, but there is a difference.

Carmen D. said...

Great post, Lisa. You exhibit more balanced feelings about this balloon man than I have. Once he responded harshly to the concerned parent, he forfeited all benefit of the doubt IMHO.

You hit the nail on the head when you noted that this balloon man is no longer a much warned about "stranger" to the many kids he comes in contact with. If he should approach them walking alone and promise to "take them to mommy" then the conditions are set for tragedy.

So glad to see you here. Thanks for your vigilance.

Jan Williams said...

There are evil people out there. I know this. My grandsons, ages 7 and 3, and my son, age 27, were murdered 2 years ago. The little boys' mother is awaiting trial. I was as careful about watching my children and grandchildren as anyone. The thing is, more children are hurt by family members than by mysterious strangers. Who would think that little boys weren't safe in their own beds?

However, while I understand parents being hypervigilent, I see the other side of this as well. I sometimes walk my daughter's dog along a trail that leads by a park. The park has the only benches in the area, so sometimes I sit at the edge of the park to rest. I watch the children playing just as I did when I took the boys. But now, I don't have the boys. I'm a stranger. I'm suspect. Some of these people I sat near and talked to when I had the boys with me. Now they look at me like I am suddenly a horrible monster, while I am only a bereaved grandmother who enjoys watching children play once in a while. I understand it. But it hurts all the same.

When there is a murder in your family, especially the murder of a child, friends and strangers alike act as if you have the plague. It's as if they think that murder and sorrow are communicable diseases. You interact with fewer and fewer people. Suddenly becoming a scary stranger in your own neighborhood park becomes a much harder thing to bear when you are already marginalized.

Yvette Kelly said...

I do NOT believe that these guys are just nice guys who want to hand out balloons to children coz they love children.C'mon normal men will have jobs,first of all, and no time to do this and secondly,normal men will have families who have children and thus plenty of opportunities to hand out balloons when these children have birthday parties.IF they were normal they would know that this behavior is suspicious and not indulge in it especially if they know that they are making Moms nervous.As an example,I will never ask young children for directions because after helping me out and knowing that they didn't get attacked they might help out the next stranger who might not be so harmless.

FleaStiff said...

I just don't trust men who want to be around children. Not at any time, not under any circumstances. I know that dna evidence, the most reliable tool that we posess in our forensic toolbag, absolutel excludes that strange Santa Claus from being the killer of JonBenet Ramsey, but I still suspect him and always will suspect him. I recall that when he applied to be a Santa Clause for a major charity the charity's local president nixed him as being strangely too enthusiastic. Males are simply not wired to be oriented towards entertaining children.

Anonymous said...

"Males are simply not wired to be oriented towards entertaining children."

That is a pretty broad statement there.

Jan Williams said...

Wow, FleaStiff. That's an extremely disturbing assumption. And it's wrong. There are plenty of people of both genders who enjoy interacting with children just because they like children, and not for any sinister or sexual reason. I do myself.

There are also plenty of men and women who do not have jobs, and are still perfectly normal, Yvette. I am unemployed myself, having had my job eliminated while I was out on medical leave. I have a lot of company in this economy.

In modern society it's poor judgement to stand around handing out balloons to other peoples' children. I wish that it wasn't. Life can be a very lonely place, especially when you have lost your family. Not everyone has young relatives that they can give balloons to, or join at birthdays. I don't, unless I take balloons to the memorial park. Does this make me suspect?

As I said, parents should be vigilent about keeping their children from reasonable dangers. But most children who are hurt are hurt by family members or close friends, not strangers. If you assume you are keeping them safe ONLY because you shut them away from every different looking stranger, you may well end walking in my shoes.

shthar said...

It's real easy to get your britches in an uproar about a weird guy in the park.

But this does nothing about the 99% of child molesters who go after their relatives.

The fact that their is an older guy with him suggests that this is a retarted person with his keeper.

Who could be a child molester too, I'll admit. But if he's going after strangers at least it takes longer between kids than it does for the ones that go for theri own relations.

Always look for the silver lining.