MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Investigators in New York City are ripping up the basement of an apartment building in hopes of solving a decades-old mystery. What happened to 6-year-old Etan Patz?
On May 25, 1979, the first-grader was walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time ever - two, short blocks - when he disappeared. His body was never found. No one was ever criminally charged. The disappearance of Etan Patz transfixed the city - and well beyond. He was one of the first missing child cases to attract national attention.
Journalist Lisa Cohen spent years looking into the case for her book "After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive." And she joins me now from New York.
Lisa, welcome to the program.
LISA COHEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Let's talk just a bit about that day in 1979 when Etan disappeared. We mentioned he was walking alone to the school bus stop and, as you write in your book, this was something he had been begging his parents to allow him to do.
COHEN: Yeah. There were a lot of children who walked on their own to the bus stop. It was not considered anything out of the ordinary, and he was in first grade. And it was coming to the end of the school year, and he'd been asking for this kind of independence, and they had been considering it. And this was just a morning when circumstances came together and they said he could do it.
BLOCK: How would you describe the impact of Etan Patz's disappearance not only in New York City, but well beyond?
COHEN: Well, certainly, in New York City, there were posters printed up with his picture on them - and he had this angelic face - and they were plastered everywhere. They started in Soho. And they spread uptown, and they went downtown. And at a certain point, a travel agency actually distributed them abroad. They went to several different countries; they were printed in different languages.
So I often say that there was sort of a before Etan, and an after Etan. Before Etan, certainly in that neighborhood, they went from being very comfortable in their neighborhood to really being afraid for their children. And it changed the way, I think, everyone treats children and safety issues.
BLOCK: Yeah. And of course, this was many, many years before anything like the Amber Alerts that we know now and this focus on missing children.
COHEN: I think that's - yeah. I mean, I certainly think that it was, in part, what led to all those things, things put in place to track children. There were - you know, Etan left his house in the morning. And they didn't know until 4:30, when he didn't get off the bus, that he was gone. So things changed in that regard. There are - now, there are alert systems that, you know, often, you are called if your child doesn't arrive at school and you don't call in to say that they're sick.
BLOCK: Thirty-three years now after Etan Patz disappeared, why this new search in New York?
COHEN: I think there were a couple of things. One, there's a new district attorney and they've started over, and, right from the beginning, looked at everything; talked to everyone. And they're excavating this basement, which was occupied at one point by a man named Othniel Miller, who was a carpenter-slash-handyman who was a fixture in the neighborhood. And Etan used to spend time with him, sort of helping him with his carpentry. And at one point in the investigation, he said to authorities that he had just laid this new concrete floor in his basement; and he said, you know, you can dig it up if you want, as long as somebody pays me for it.
BLOCK: You know, there was a primary suspect in this case, a man named Jose Ramos, who's a convicted...
BLOCK: ...child molester. Never criminally charged in this case...
BLOCK: ...but the Patz family did win a civil judgment against him, right?
COHEN: That's right. In 2004, he was declared responsible for the death of Etan.
BLOCK: And this may stand that on its head, you think?
COHEN: It may stand that on its head, or it may also lead to an investigation that uncovers some kind of link between the two men, or between Jose Ramos and the basement. I think there are a lot of unknowns at this point.
BLOCK: Lisa, I know you interviewed Etan's parents for your book. I believe you also spoke with his father, Stan, after this latest news about this new search.
BLOCK: What has he told you?
COHEN: Well, he's very contained and very reserved. And he's - over the last 33 years, has had so many ups and downs where they thought they had the big break, and then there was the disappointment that followed. So he's very careful about not letting himself react until there is something, really, to react to. But he's also, clearly, very grateful that there's something happening. And as he always says to me, something is better than nothing.
BLOCK: I've been talking with Lisa Cohen. Her book is titled "After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive." Lisa, thank you very much.
COHEN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.