Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Disappearance of Etan Patz

"He's a Predator"

Federal Prosecutor Stuart GraBois had Ramos transported from prison in Pennsylvania to his office in New York for interviews on several occasions.  Sometimes Ramos would be a wiseass, once showing up wearing a yarmulke and speaking in a Yiddish accent.  Other times he behaved himself, but he always clung to his original story.  Yes, he admitted, he had been with a boy who could have been Etan Patz the day Etan disappeared, but he did not harm the boy.  Ramos insisted time and again that he had put the boy on a subway headed for his "aunt in Washington Heights."  But when GraBois found out about the charges that were dropped in Warren County, Pennsylvania, on a technicality, he took a new tack.  At one of the interviews, he made Ramos a solemn promise.  If Ramos didn't start cooperating, GraBois would get himself deputized in the state of Pennsylvania and try that case himself.  He wasn't bluffing.  If he couldn't persuade Ramos to confess to what he had done with Etan Patz, GraBois would make sure that Ramos would stay imprisoned for as long as the law allowed.  Ramos was taken back to Rockview, and GraBois set the wheels in motion for his legal debut in Pennsylvania.

While investigating the Warren County case, GraBois received a surprise assist from the members of the Shanti Sena who had been alerted to Ramos' suspicious behavior at Rainbow Family gatherings.  Overcoming their counter-culture distrust of law enforcement, the Shanti Sena gave GraBois the Polaroid they had taken of the teenager who had been traveling with Ramos.  As soon as he saw it, GraBois was afraid to even think that after all these years this could possibly be Etan Patz.  The photo was sent to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., where it was compared with photos of Etan's parents when they were in their early teens as well as photos of Etan's siblings.  Existing photos of 6-year-old Etan were fed into a computer that aged the image and predicted what Etan would look like at age 14.  The photo the computer produced was nearly identical to the Polaroid of the teenager who had been traveling with Ramos.

Still, GraBois was reluctant to jump to conclusions.  He had learned from the Shanti Sena that the teenager's parents ran an orphanage in Columbus, Ohio.  GraBois and his investigators flew to Ohio and searched for this teenager.  They learned that the boy had been adopted, which would have been a logical cover story if Ramos had sold Etan to the owners of the orphanage.  GraBois wanted to believe that this was indeed Etan Patz, but he knew that he needed proof, and he was determined to get it.  Before attempting an approach, GraBois wanted as much information as he could find.  Further investigation revealed that the teenager had been arrested, which meant his fingerprints had to be on file in Ohio.  Thrumming with anticipation, the investigators had the fingerprints analyzed and compared to Etan's fingerprints.  When the results came back, the news was disappointing.  The fingerprints didn't match.  Police finally approached the teenager and obtained samples for DNA analysis.  Once again, no match.  The teenager wasn't Etan Patz.

Nevertheless, GraBois pressed on with the Warren County case against Ramos.  His investigators located the little boy who had been in the bus with Ramos at Hearts Content and discovered that he had indeed been molested by Ramos.   GraBois figured that, even if he couldn't solve the Etan Patz case, another conviction would keep Ramos off the streets that much longer, sparing more children from the man's abuse. 

The trial began in October 1990.  Ramos, now clean shaven and with short hair, spoke to reporters as if he were insane, inviting them to a "shrimp dinner" at the jail that night.  Ramos, the jailhouse lawyer, had already filed numerous motions with the court, and in a letter to the judge he admitted his crime and asked that the child he had molested not be put through the anguish of having to relive the incident in court.  The request was unnecessary.  His attorney had already worked out a plea bargain with prosecutors in which Ramos would plead guilty to oral intercourse if the charges of anal intercourse were dropped.   GraBois agreed to the deal because he, like Ramos, did not want to put the boy through the turmoil of testimony in open court.  The judge sentenced Ramos to 10 to 20 years on top of his existing sentence.  It was the strictest sentence the law would allow.

Some felt that GraBois had missed a golden opportunity to get Ramos on the stand and grill him about Etan Patz, but GraBois didn't think that Ramos could be intimidated.  GraBois' strategy was to pile so many years on top of Ramos that he might finally see the logic of coming clean.  GraBois was willing to have him transferred to a more desirable federal penitentiary in exchange for the truth about Etan Patz.  GraBois even sweetened the deal by offering to reunite Ramos with family members he hadn't seen in more than 18 years.  But Ramos didn't budge from his original story, and so he was sent back to Rockview to serve hard time.

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Ramos was subsequently transferred to the Smithfield Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.  Two inmates who had served time with Ramos over the years each swore that Ramos had separately told them details about Etan Patz, but when confronted with these statements, Ramos insisted that he knew nothing more than he'd already admitted. 

In October 1985 the focus of the investigation shifted to Israel where a previously unpublished photo of Etan appeared in an Israeli magazine with the caption "Etan Ben-Haim."  The photo had been taken by Stanley Patz, who had given prints to friends and relatives.   It was not one of the photos that had been released to the press, which made the investigators suspicious.  Stuart GraBois traveled to Israel and enlisted the help of the Israeli police, but attempts to track down the source of that photograph yielded nothing of substance.  The focus of the investigation remained on Jose Antonio Ramos.

In the summer of 2000, police in New York did a thorough search of the building on East 4th Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side where Ramos had lived in 1979.  They scoured the apartment and the basement, looking for bone fragments that could be used for DNA analysis.  Their efforts were exhaustive but ultimately fruitless.

"He's a predator," Stanley Patz said of Ramos in an interview broadcast on 60 Minutes II, "and he should never be allowed to be near children again.  He should be kept behind bars until he's too old to walk."

Every year on October 9, which is Etan's birthday, and May 25, the day he disappeared, Stanley Patz sends Ramos a copy of Etan's missing-persons leaflet.  On the back he always types the same message: "What have you done with my little boy?"

On November 15, 2000, Stanley and Julie Patz signed a petition asking the court to declare Etan legally dead so that they could file a wrongful-death suit against Ramos.  They are convinced that Ramos is responsible for the disappearance of their son.

Ramos' sentence will be up on March 13, 2014, unless he is granted parole.  He was denied parole in June 2000, but he will become eligible for reconsideration in 2003. 

Etan Patz, if he's still alive, will be 36 years old this year.

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