SOHO, NY (PIX11)—Over three decades after six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his two-block walk to his school bus stop, dozens of investigators from the FBI and NYPD are in a basement less than a block from Patz's childhood home, searching for his remains.
They say they'll be there through the weekend and into next week, and are "cautiously optimistic" that they will find evidence that will help them solve the three decades-long puzzle as to what happened to the elementary school student who was officially declared dead in 2001, even though no trace of him has ever been found.
"Obviously the probable cause does exist for us to be here and look for evidence in the case," FBI spokesperson Tim Flannely said. Other law enforcement sources have told PIX11 News that investigators had gotten information about a handyman who, in 1979, when Etan Patz had gone missing, had a workshop in the basement where forensics experts are now working diligently.
Their primary objective, NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne told PIX11 News, is to excavate the cement floor of the 13- by 62-foot underground space, and to further excavate the dirt floor underneath.
Investigators had, in recent weeks, taken a cadaver dog into the basement. The canine made a positive reading, which led to a search warrant being requested. When the warrant was approved by a judge Thursday, FBI agents and NYPD technicians swooped in just after 8 AM.
The case captured the attention and fears of New Yorkers and people nationwide in the late spring and summer of 1979. On May 25th of that year, Etan disappeared somewhere between his home at 113 Prince Street and his bus stop at Prince and West Broadway, less than two blocks west. The new search scene is just 8 doors west from the entrance to Etan Patz's building.
His missing person case was one of the first prominently featured on milk cartons nationwide, and the anniversary of his disappearance was proclaimed "National Missing Children's Day" by President Ronald Reagan, and has been acknowledged as such by every presidential administration ever since.
Etan Patz's parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, still live in the duplex loft apartment in which they raised their son. "No, I can't say anything," Stan Patz told PIX11 News via the intercom of his building. He insisted that he could not make any comment about any new developments. When asked if the new search is a milestone in solving his son's case, Patz hung up.
The Patzes won a civil lawsuit eight years ago against Jose Ramos, a friend of a former babysitter for Etan. From early on in the missing person case, detectives considered Ramos a prime suspect, but they could never prove that he was behind the disappearance of the six year old.
The civil suit ended up concluding that Ramos was responsible for the disappearance, but there was insufficient evidence to criminally prosecute him. Ramos is currently serving a prison sentence in an unrelated case, and is due to be released in November of this year.
However, the new search may ultimately exonerate Ramos, if hard evidence is found that points to a different suspect in the vanishing of Stan and Julie Patz's son.
"For what they know now, he's missing," Jesse Durham told PIX11 News, "but having remains is even more horrifying." Durham says that he's seen Etan's mother nearly every day for years. The shop where Durham works is directly across the street from the Patzes' loft, whose fire escape they regularly walk out on. The couple, who have two other, now-adult children, are well-known, moderately social neighbors in the SoHo neighborhood.
Ironically, on the sidewalk just steps around the corner from the door of the Patzes' apartment building, someone has painted a graffito about a case that's eerily similar, but more recent than Etan's disappearance. "Leiby Kletzky Is A Human Being," the message says about the nearly nine year-old who had also walked alone from school in Brooklyn and disappeared last July. His dismembered body was found days after he vanished.
For the many neighbors who know the Patz Family, Etan's case is a reminder that other situations like his and Leiby Kletzky's can happen anytime. Susan Sholson moved into the neighborhood with her then-young children about a month after Etan went missing 33 years ago. When asked if she thought that a discovery in the new investigation might bring a sense of closure to the Patz Family or to her, she didn't hesitate with an answer. "Hell, no!" she exclaimed.
"Any time I see [the Patzes], I feel pain. I feel pain personally, for them," Sholson said. "I feel pain because their pain will never end."