Little lad still lost
Thirty-three years on, the police are still looking
It was the first day he had walked the two blocks to the school-bus stop by himself. Etan Patz had begged his parents to let him go alone. They relented. Wearing his “Future Flight Captain” cap, the six-year-old headed off to school on May 25th 1979. His family never saw him again. Before his disappearance children routinely played outside and walked to school alone. Though Etan was far from the first child to be abducted, his case struck a nerve with America. Laws changed, and parenting changed too.
Etan’s disappearance revealed that the systems in place were inadequate to deal with missing children. Schools did not alert parents if children did not show up. Depending on the jurisdiction, a police response could take as long as 24 to 72 hours after a child’s disappearance. According to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in 76% of missing cases where the child is abducted by a non-family member and killed, the murder occurs within the first three hours of the kidnapping. Furthermore, there was little communication between police departments; if a child was taken over city or state lines, the trail was often lost.
Etan’s abduction was the most highly publicised case since Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped in 1932. His toothy grin and blond mop-top became the face of the missing-child movement. “It was iconic. It was more than a photograph,” says Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC. His poster blanketed the city. There was a billboard in Times Square. He was one of the first missing children whose face was put on a milk carton. Attention to the issue grew: in 1983, Ronald Regan declared May 25th to be Missing Children’s Day.
In the decades since Etan’s disappearance helpful measures have been implemented, such as the Amber Alert, a system for quickly broadcasting news of abductions, and Megan’s Law, a public registry of sex offenders. Walmart’s missing-children boards—found in every store—have recovered 324 children. Since 1984 the NCMEC has helped find more than 169,000. Recovery rates have improved enormously, jumping from 62% in 1990 to 97% in 2011. Children still disappear, but “there’s no question Etan has saved countless children” says Joseph Pollini, a retired detective with NYPD’s cold-case squad who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Etan was declared dead in 2001, but his body has never been found. The police and the FBI have never stopped looking for him. This month they pulled apart a basement near his home looking for new evidence, but did not find any. His family won a wrongful-death suit in 2004 against their babysitter’s boyfriend, a suspect now in jail for sexually assaulting two boys, though never charged with Etan’s disappearance. The boy’s family still live in the same SoHo loft and still have the same telephone number. Etan knew it by heart.
From The Economist April 28th – May 4th 2012