Law & the Courts

The Boy on the Milk Carton

An NYPD spokesman holds a missing-person poster of Etan Patz in 2012. (Reuters photo: Keith Bedford)
Almost 40 years later, Etan Patz’s murder still resonates.

We joke about milk cartons now. Mike Flynn’s political future? Put it on a milk carton. When Hillary Rodham Clinton absented herself from the press, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times complained that you’d have to put her face on a milk carton to find her. There are novelty shops that will put your face on a milk carton along with a description of when you went missing. It has been a long time, so we can joke.

But it was not always a joke.

The first boy to appear on a milk carton (or at least the first famous case) was Etan Patz, a New York City kid who went to walk to school by himself for the first time and — stuff of nightmares — never came home. This was in 1979, when crime in the big cities, especially New York, was off-the-charts compared to where it is today. These were the Taxi Driver years, the years between Death Wish and Death Wish 2, and New York had more than 2,000 murders in 1979. One of them has just been resolved: that of Etan Patz.

Pedro Hernandez, who was an 18-year-old worker at a nearby bodega at the time, has been convicted of the crime.

It was far from clear that Hernandez would be convicted. According to members of his family, he had confessed to the crime in public — in his church — a short time after having committed it. But nothing was done. Hernandez is said to suffer from severe mental illness (a form of schizophrenia) and to have an IQ almost low enough to qualify him as mentally disabled.

To complicate matters, a convicted child molester had indicated that he might have raped Etan on the day of his disappearance but denied having killed him. That man, Jose Ramos, was convicted in another case and was found to be liable for the death of Etan in a civil suit brought against him by the boy’s parents. He seems to have known a great deal about the boy, and at one point drew a map of his route to school. He once briefly dated a woman who had baby-sat Etan. New York can be a very small town.

Instead, what seems to have happened is that Etan walked into the bodega where Hernandez worked with $1 in his pocket to buy a soda to go with his lunch, and Hernandez strangled him to death — for no obvious reason — disposing of his corpse in the garbage. Police never considered Hernandez a suspect until more than 30 years later, when interest in the case was briefly revived after they excavated the basement of a nearby home in response to a tip. A member of Hernandez’s family who knew of his church confession suggested to police that he might be the man responsible for Etan’s death.

Hernandez was brought in for questioning, and originally denied knowing anything about the case or even having seen the picture of Etan he was shown. (The picture had been inescapable in the neighborhood; it had, in fact, been displayed in the bodega where he worked.) But Hernandez has many problems, and is sick with complications related to HIV. He eventually confessed.

There were hearings about whether Hernandez had made inadmissible statements before being advised of his rights, about his mental condition, and more. There was a trial and a mistrial, and another trial, and then, on Valentine’s Day, a conviction.

Most Americans living today had not yet been born when Etan disappeared. And, with all due respect to the excellent work of the NYPD and the prosecutors, it was not detective work and shoe leather that finally brought this case to a close and Pedro Hernandez to justice. If he had kept his mouth closed — if he had been a harder sort of criminal — this would remain one of those unsolved cases perennially revisited on the ghoulish television programs dedicated to such things.

New York City is a much safer place than it used to be, and you can’t afford to live in SoHo, the Patz family’s old neighborhood (average rent for a two-bedroom in a doorman building: $8,500). The city is a much safer place than it was in 1979, 1989, 1990 (2,605 murders that year) or 1999. For all the loose talk of “carnage” in Chicago and elsewhere, most of our big cities have seen much the same thing happen to their crime rates, albeit not quite as dramatically as in New York.

One sympathizes with the irrational fear of parents, a terror beyond reason springing from a love beyond reason.

But, if anything, we are more afraid now than we were then, to the extent that Lenore Skenazy’s “free-range kids” initiative — which suggests only that children be allowed to sometimes play or explore their neighborhoods without direct adult oversight — seems to some people radical, even irresponsible. Just as a cow or a bee is, statistically speaking, a great deal more likely to kill you than is a shark or a bear or an Islamist, we tend to focus on some dangers even though they are unlikely.

But the unlikely happens, which is precisely why the case of Etan Patz terrifies us. And it happens without any obvious pattern, explanation, or motive that suggests to us strategies for avoiding it or doing what it is we’d all be tempted to do and breaking necks. For all of our police and security agencies, our concealed-carry permits, and the locks on our doors, there is nothing to be done.

Once when I was a child — not long after the disappearance of Etan Patz, in fact — I was at a friend’s house waiting for a ride after a taekwondo class. He was showing his father what he had learned, and there was a little good healthy father-son roughhousing when he stumbled backward a step, then two, and fell through a glass table, a two-foot-long shard of glass going through his middle like a curved saber. Fortunately, he eventually made a full recovery — but I wonder if his father ever did. I wonder if Etan Patz’s father ever will. There is a lifetime, even an eternity, in a second’s fall, or a morning’s walk to school, or a cough that just doesn’t sound right. One sympathizes with the irrational fear of parents, a terror beyond reason springing from a love beyond reason.

It is nearly impossible to imagine: The milk cartons, the fliers, the Amber alerts, the police cars and paperwork and activity and busyness, the great volume of it all disappearing into the hole that has suddenly opened up in the world. The dead may rest in peace, but never the living.

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