Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Disappearance of Etan Patz

The Boy on the Milk Carton

The school bus arrived at the West Broadway stop at 8:10 a.m.  A group of children got on, but Etan Patz wasn't with them.  Later that morning at the Independence Plaza School on Greenwich Street, Etan's first-grade teacher noticed his absence but failed to report it to the principal's office.  Julie Patz was unaware that her son was missing until that afternoon.  The bus returned to the West Broadway stop at 3:15 p.m.  The neighbor who always picked up Etan along with his own daughter was puzzled when Etan didn't get off the bus.  His daughter informed him that Etan hadn't been in school that day.  The man wondered why Julie or Stanley hadn't called to let him know that Etan was staying home that day. 

At the Patzes' loft, Julie was beginning to worry.  Etan should have been home by now.  She called the neighbor who usually escorted Etan and learned for the first time that Etan hadn't been in school that day.  Julie immediately called the police, then called her husband who raced home.

Stan & Julie Patz on balcony looking for Etan
Stan & Julie Patz on balcony
looking for Etan
(A/P World Wide)
NYPD Detective William Butler got the call from his dispatcher at 5:15 p.m., and he and his partner drove directly to the Patzes' loft.  As soon as Detective Butler spoke to Etan's parents, he knew instinctively that this was not a typical lost-child situation.  In most cases it's just a case of crossed signals, kids thinking they have their parents' permission to go to a friend's house when they really don't.  Other kids just wander off and play hooky.  But Butler felt this case was different. 

The search for Etan Patz began that evening.  Nearly 100 officers combed the area, knocking on doors, searching rooftops and basements.  The Patzes' apartment was used as a temporary command post because Etan knew his phone number.  Julie and Stanley hovered by the phone, praying for him to call.  The police stood by in case a kidnapper called in with a ransom demand.

The night wore on.  Just before midnight it started to rain.  Julie fretted because Etan had left that morning with only a light jacket.  Detective Butler quietly worried that the rain would wash away Etan's scent.  Bloodhounds were being brought in from upstate, but they weren't scheduled to arrive until 8 a.m.  He hoped there'd be something left for the hounds to smell.

The next morning when the bloodhounds finally arrived, they were given a pair of Etan's pajamas to identify their subject, then they were sent out into the streets with their handlers.  In the meantime the search area was expanded to encompass the entire lower end of Manhattan from 14th Street to Battery Park.  Police helicopters hovered over the search zone, scanning rooftops.  Police boats scoured the waterways.

The police appealed to the public for any tip that could lead to the boy's whereabouts.  Toll-free telephone numbers were set up, and calls started pouring in, some from as far away as California.  Neighborhood residents helped in the search, papering the city with color posters of Etan's face.  The media jumped on the story and propagated several erroneous leads regarding Etan Patz sightings in Boston and other places. 

Etan Patz missing poster.
Etan Patz missing poster.
On Sunday, May 27, a witness came forward who claimed to have seen a boy who fit Etan's description talking to a "suspicious-looking man" three blocks from the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets where Julie had last seen her son.  Under hypnosis, the witness described the man as white, about 40 years old, with freckles and dyed blond hair.  It was a tenuous lead because the witness wasn't sure if the boy she'd seen was actually Etan Patz, but the police couldn't discount any possibility.

For days it seemed that Etan's smiling face was everywhere—on lamp poles, in store windows, in the newspapers, on television.  The police continued the search, giving it everything they had.  But on June 6, 13 days after he disappeared, the emergency response was terminated.  Etan Patz's disappearance remained an open case, but most of the officers who had taken part in the search were eventually reassigned to other cases.   But for Detective Butler, Etan's case was still very much on the front burner.  Nearly every day he would drive down Prince Street at 8 a.m., imagining what might have happened to Etan on the morning of May 25, hoping that something would occur to him that he hadn't thought of before, that he would see something that would trigger an idea.  He visited the scene every morning for years, and Julie Patz took comfort in looking out her window and seeing his car pass by.  As long as the case was still active, Etan might still be alive.

But weeks turned into months and months turned into years.  Etan became the first missing child to be featured on a milk carton.   The search for the skinny, middle-aged, blond man with freckles was ultimately fruitless.  It wasn't until 1982 that detectives in the Bronx picked up a suspect in an unrelated crime and stumbled upon a solid lead.   The suspect was a known pedophile.

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