Etan Patz left his Manhattan home one day in 1979 and never returned. Four decades later, his family has finally found justice.
In an era of plastic jugs, almond milk, and an ever-growing population of vegan hipsters, the ubiquity of cardboard milk cartons feels like a thing of the distant past.
And the idea that the easiest way to communicate with people was with messages on those milk cartons? Well, that just seems ancient.
It wasn’t too long ago, though, that thousands of children’s smiling faces appeared just there — sitting on breakfast tables across the country under the bold black word “MISSING.” The milk carton kids campaign was actually so recent that many of the children’s fates remain unknown to this day — and many of their kidnappers remain uncaught.
In fact, one of the very first cases to ever be shared in the dairy aisle went unsolved for nearly four decades. Until this February, that is, when a jury finally put the case that started an iconic movement to rest.
Etan Patz was six years old when he left his SoHo, Manhattan home on Friday May 25, 1979.
That day, the shaggy-haired, blue-eyed boy wore a black Eastern Airlines cap and striped sneakers. He packed an elephant-covered tote bag with his favorite toy cars, took a dollar to buy a soda, and stepped outside onto familiar streets.
It was the first time that he had successfully convinced his mother, Julie Patz, to let him walk the two blocks to the bus stop by himself.
It was the last time Julie would ever see her son.
When Julie learned of Etan’s absence at school that day, her legs gave out from under her.
The New York Police Department dispatched 100 officers around the island. They used bloodhounds and helicopters. They went neighborhood to neighborhood and door to door conducting room-by-room searches through all hours of the day and night.
Photos of Etan were splashed across newscasts, plastered on telephone polls, beamed from the screens of Times Square and, eventually, printed on milk cartons in every state.
He wasn’t the first child to be searched for in this way. The milk carton tactic had started a couple years earlier in the Midwest, when two boys had gone missing in Iowa.
But Etan’s disappearance in particular — so quick, so senseless, so seemingly permanent — had captured the attention of parents and children far beyond New York.
President Reagan deemed the day of Etan’s kidnapping “National Missing Children’s Day” and, in 1984, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was created. The organization quickly adopted the Iowa strategy, making Etan’s the first face to be featured in a national campaign.
At the time, a full five years had passed since his disappearance. And even as his by-then famous face was first placed into shopping carts, most of the leads had already gone cold.
A fresh wave of concern and suspicion swept the country as the faces of vanished children began appearing on pizza boxes, utility bills, grocery bags, telephone directories, and more.
Occasionally the alerts worked — like in the case of seven-year-old Bonnie Lohman, who came across a picture of herself as a toddler when she was grocery shopping with her kidnapper five years after her kidnapping.
But those instances were rare, and the photos more successfully spread awareness that the world was not the wholesome place that many Americans had long believed it to be. “Stranger danger” became a common topic in homes and schools — milk cartons serving as poignant and terrifying props.
But even as Etan Patz’s name became inextricable from warnings about pedophiles and murderers, his real fate remained a mystery.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the detectives’ search for clues about Etan took them as far as the Middle East, Germany, and Switzerland.
In 2000, investigators searched the old, New York basement of Jose Ramos — a convicted child molester who had had a relationship with one of Etan’s old babysitters. After eight hours of scavenging, they discovered bone fragments, which turned out to be animal remains.
In 2001, 22 years after his disappearance, Etan Patz was declared legally dead.
Etan’s father had sought the declaration in order to file a wrongful death suit against Ramos, who was convicted in a civil case in 2004, but never admitted to — and was never officially tried in regard to — the boy’s murder.
The case remained open.
In 2012, police realized that Othniel Miller — a handyman who had known Etan — had poured a concrete floor shortly after the boy’s disappearance. They did some digging and again turned up nothing.
The excavation did, however, reignite media coverage of the case. And a few weeks later, authorities received a call. The informant told them that Miller’s brother-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, was responsible for Etan Patz’s death.
Back on that May morning in 1979, Hernandez had been an 18-year-old stock clerk in a grocery store on Prince Street, near Etan Patz’s home.
A few days after Etan went missing, Hernandez had moved back to his hometown in New Jersey. Soon after, he started telling people he had killed a child in New York.
Crying, he confessed to his church group, to childhood friends, and even to his fiancee. But it wasn’t until after Hernandez’ brother-in-law made the call that he confessed to police.
Upon his detainment, he told detectives that he had lured Etan into the store’s basement, choked him, put him in a plastic bag and dumped his body a block away.
Thirty-three years after the appearance, and police made their first arrest in the case.
With only Hernandez’s statements as evidence, the trial was a long one.
The defense team argued that Hernandez, now 56, suffers from a mental illness that makes it difficult for him to distinguish between fiction and reality. His lawyer reminded jurors that Hernandez has an IQ of 70 and suggested that police had used questionable tactics when questioning a mentally ill man for seven straight hours.
They also pointed back to the Ramos case — arguing that that suspect had a clearer motive.
These arguments convinced one juror, and the case was deemed a mistrial in 2014.
A retrial took place in 2016 and, four months later, a jury found Hernandez guilty.
“The disappearance of Etan Patz haunted families in New York and across the country for nearly four decades,” Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said on February 14, 2017. “Today, a jury affirmed beyond all lasting doubt that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed the missing child.”
The faces of missing children no longer confront Americans trying to enjoy a bowl of Cheerios.
Today, AMBER Alerts sent directly to phones and Facebook feeds are much more successful for tracking kidnappings.
But however targeted, those messages can’t have the same culture-rocking effect of a shaggy-haired boy’s face looking out from countless grocery baskets.
After 38 years, Etan Patz’s story never entirely faded from public memory. On the day the case closed, people left flowers in front of the now-abandoned store where he is thought to have been killed.
They’re addressed to the “Prince of Prince Street.”