A man who was the prime suspect in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz is about to go free after more than two decades in prison for molesting other children.
Jose Ramos was declared responsible for Etan’s death in a civil court, but the Manhattan district attorney’s office said there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him criminally.
After serving 25 years for child molestation convictions in Pennsylvania, he’s set to be freed Nov. 7 — about a week before prosecutors are due to indicate whether there’s evidence enough to keep going after new suspect Pedro Hernandez.
Hernandez was charged with Etan’s murder after police said he emerged as a suspect and confessed this spring. But there’s no public indication that authorities have found anything beyond his admission to implicate him, and his lawyer has said Hernandez is mentally ill.
These two threads in the tangled story are set to cross next month, a twist that evokes decades of uncertainties and loose ends in the search for what happened to the sandy-haired 6-year-old last seen walking to his Manhattan school bus stop.
It stands to be a coincidence fraught with anguish for Etan’s parents, who brought a successful wrongful death lawsuit against Ramos, and for the former federal prosecutor who went to lengths to pursue him.
At the same time, it offers a glimmer of vindication for Ramos, who has denied involvement in the boy’s disappearance, though authorities have said he made incriminating remarks about it.
Etan’s disappearance made national news and raised awareness about children’s safety, turning him into a symbol for the issue in a now-familiar response: He was among the first vanished youngsters ever pictured on a milk carton. The day of his disappearance, May 25, is now National Missing Children’s Day.
After years of investigation as far afield as Israel, an arrest was finally made on the eve of this year’s anniversary. Hernandez, who worked at a convenience store near Etan’s home when the boy disappeared, wasn’t a suspect until a tipster contacted police this spring after the case, long quiet, returned to the headlines when officials dug up a neighborhood basement looking for clues.
After his arrest, the New York Police Department announced that Hernandez had admitted strangling the boy and leaving his body in a trash bag.
There has been no signal that an extensive probe in the months since has turned up further evidence against him. Hernandez’s attorney, Harvey Fishbein, raised further doubts about the case, saying Hernandez is schizophrenic and bipolar and has heard voices.
During the decades when Hernandez wasn’t on investigators’ radar, they explored many other leads and possible suspects, including Ramos.
The 69-year-old came under suspicion early on because he had a relationship with Etan’s former babysitter, but investigators didn’t find anything solid. In the early 1980s, Ramos was arrested, though not convicted, on charges that he tried to lure children to a drainage pipe where he was living. Photos of young, blond boys were found in his backpack.