On the morning of May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz walked the two streets of his house to his bus stop in Manhattan. It was the first time he went there alone before school, and the last day his parents would never see him. It’s because someone kidnapped Etan during this walk. In his efforts to find him, Etan became one of the first missing children to appear on cartons of milk.
Julie and Stanley Patz did not realize that her son was missing until later that day, when he did not return from Independence Plaza school. They soon learned that he had not been in his freshman class that day or even taken the bus that morning, and called the police. Etan’s disappearance led to nationwide research that was only resolved in 2017, when Pedro Hernandez was found guilty of the kidnapping and murder.
Etan was among the first non-celebrity missing children to attract national attention, as JonBenét Ramsey would do in 1996. In the early 1980s, Etan’s face appeared on milk cartons across the country, encouraging people to contact the authorities if they had seen it. . The Etan case also led President Ronald Reagan to declare May 25 as National Missing Children Day in 1983 and played a role in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In the decades following Etan’s disappearance, there have been false confessions, false leads and even young men who have come to Patz’s door claiming to be Etan. For a long time, investigators suspected Jose Ramos of kidnapping him. Ramos was a friend of Etan’s former baby-sitter, who was convicted of child sexual abuse in the 1980s. But investigators could never confirm that Ramos was guilty. In 2000, authorities declared Etan legally dead, and the case became cold.
Investigators reopened the case in 2010 and two years later, they dug the foundations of a house near Etan to look for clues. The excavation did not reveal anything, but media coverage led people to report new advice, one of which led investigators to the person they were looking for. This person was Pedro Hernandez, who was 18 years old and worked at the bodega near the Etan bus stop on the day of his disappearance.
Investigators discovered that in 1982, Hernandez admitted to an open church confessional that he had killed a young boy. His family knew about it and started to discuss it again when news of the excavation was seen. The police interviewed Hernandez and he confessed to luring Etan into the bodega and strangling him. He then put his body in a box and left it outside in a trash can a few blocks away.
Hernandez’s case in 2015 ended in trial because a juror was not convinced that he was guilty. As the defense had argued, this juror was concerned that Hernandez was mentally ill and that the police may have forced him to make a false confession. At his next trial in 2017, Hernandez was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison for life at the federal prison.