Etan Patz’ Death Finally Solved — 33 Years Later

Etan Patz
Etan Patz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It takes a lot to roil New York City…and hardened, jaded, always-in-a-hurry New Yorkers.

But today is one of those days.

Pedro Hernandez, who worked in a bodega, (a small urban convenience store) in 1979, confessed this week to one of the most famous, and heartbreaking, murders in New York’s modern history. He lured a small, blond boy named Etan Patz, who lived down the street in Soho — then a gritty artists’ neighborhood, now a sea of costly stores — with a promise of candy. He strangled him and threw his body in a garbage bag, and left it out with the trash.

Etan was six years old, on his way to school. For the past three decades here, he’s been a symbol of innocence stolen, a mystery unsolved in arguably one of the toughest and most sophisticated cities of the world.

The Patz family, who had only one child, still live in the same apartment on the street where he was taken from them. Their name, and that of Etan, has long been part of Manhattan lore, the mystery no one could solve.

He was the first child whose photo was put on a milk carton, now common in the U.S. with missing children.

I didn’t plan to blog about Etan but this brings back terrible memories for me of a young girl, Alison Parrott,  then 11, whose murder I covered, and whose funeral I attended, when I was a reporter in Toronto at The Globe and Mail. She, too, was lured to her death, by a man pretending to be a photographer who said he wanted to take pictures of her and her team before an upcoming track meet in New Jersey. He raped and strangled her and left her in a ravine.

It was almost unbearable to cover that story.

No one can read such stuff, or write it, without the cold fear that it might have been them or their child or someone they dearly loved.

No one can report such details impassionately without wondering what exactly happened that day and why no one stopped him or saved her.

No one, with a heart, can ever forget such a story, no matter how many more you hear and how much you wish to.

I attended Alison’s funeral and sat in the back of the small church, where every pew was jammed with mourners and press. I was there to take notes and to observe and listen, but cried and tried to keep my notebook pages dry as I scribbled.

“Love is stronger than death” my story began, the words the minister used to begin his address to the crowd. I had to fight hard with my editor to keep them. It was the last story I wrote on staff for the paper, and they did.

I love being a reporter.

I live to find and tell compelling stories.

But sometimes they sear you forever.

25 thoughts on “Etan Patz’ Death Finally Solved — 33 Years Later

  1. *sigh* Long after crimes like this happen, most forget they ever did. Most, but not the parents or friends. I read somewhere once that the angels collect all the tears we cry in a jar and offer them to God as a prayer. Thank you for reminding us of these stories, in a way, remembering keeps these kids alive in our hearts as kids who had dreams, whose lives were cut short, who did not deserve what happened to them. My heart goes out to their families and to people in the media who are touched by their stories…..and those who because of these stories treasure their own children even more.

  2. I suspect this is very true…there is such a grisly parade of media horror stories that we become inured to them and don’t think much of them. But when you are covering them (as I and my colleagues have) you are forever, even briefly, a part of their grief. I’ll never forget Alison and her name came to me within seconds of thinking about Etan — and her death was 25 years ago. That stunned me and made me realize what an effect it had. How could it not have?

  3. I honestly didn’t expect reporters to have such raw emotions. I base this on some of the heartless questions I hear them asking victim’s of crime. I work regularly with families who are victims of such crimes, heartbreaking and soul sucking are adjectives that come to mind. As painful as this story was to read, I’m sure it was worse to write. Beautiful post.

    1. I’m not typical of most hard news reporters, to be honest.

      I love writing and I love to kick ass on a big national competitive story…but I lack much of the heartless behavior I have also seen (and always loathed) in many people working in my industry. I’ve never felt 100% at home in any newsroom I’ve worked in, and this is one of the reasons. I think some people are shockingly callous or become that way. I find it disgusting and it makes me ill that this is very often (and for good reason) what people assume *all* reporters are like. Not the best ones.

      The reason you would not expect such raw emotion is: 1) you’d never see it up close when it does happen; 2) reporters are expected to be rough/tough/get it done types and 3) even if they *are* sensitive, hide it or make light of it.

      I had to interview the father of a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan when I was at the Daily News and I had a Kleenex box beside the phone. I would never let my emotions stop me from doing the best story I know how to do, but it would indeed affect me and how I behaved with the people I interview. I would rather blow a story (which I’ve never done) by being human than be a dick and get it…I have a NYT column written right now that the editor really likes but I am having mixed feelings about it for this reason.

      I am not a huge fan (understatement) of scorched-earth behaviors.

      1. Let me clarify a bit…

        What appears “heartless” to you (and which may be, I wasn’t there) is part of what we do for a living…gather factual data that MUST be accurate, just as a cop or lawyer would. So, yes, if I have to ask, “How many times was your wife stabbed?” I will do it because it is my job to do so and my boss’ expectation that I will do this. It is NOT because I lack compassion or empathy for the horror and grief of the people I speak to.

        I’ve interviewed dozens of people who have witnessed or suffered unimaginable shit: torture, suicide of loved ones, brutal attack, rape…There is a way to speak to someone that is not unkind yet allows them to speak and me to gather necessary detail. People tell me a great deal. I think it’s because I approach them with dignity, respect and compassion. Without that, we’re vultures.

  4. when the etan patz story hit the news all those years ago, i was living about 5 minutes outside of new york city. it was much talked about then, and i had largely forgotten all about it until the story resurfaced about two months ago when a basement was being searched for evidence. i know it’s been said that, for parents, you just want to know what happened, regardless of what happened. i hope i never know, but i can’t help but wonder if – under circumstances as these – i would rather not know. maybe i’d rather be able to just hope the child is still alive somewhere, even if he would never know me again.

  5. I know you have kids….and I do not. I wonder how his parents feel…It is a little shocking to me that they never moved away from that street. I would have thought it too painful to face the place where he disappeared from and now, they know for sure, where he was killed. Horrible horrible stuff.

  6. Wow. I had not heard this story – ever. Nor have I heard the story about Alison. Sobering stuff.

    It must be a struggle as a reporter to gain the confidence of the families of victims. A job I would not want. I empathize with the grief this stuff brings to the lives of the people involved and I suppose the saving grace of exposing these stories publicly (hopefully with dignity) is that the chances of catching the criminals increases exponentially.

    I am sure the story shaped your life in some manner. How could it not?

    1. Talking to families of crime victims, (or anyone affected by violence) is not that difficult — as long as you remember that they’re in shock, most of the time. Some people find it cathartic to discuss, to pay homage to their loved one. I’ve been the victim of crime (con man, not physical attack) so I do have some understanding how shocking it can be.

  7. It’s always instructive to hear about the emotions of journalists, how they feel about covering really difficult situations. I have the utmost respect for your profession.

    Interesting – sad, tragic? – that here in Australia the press is reporting that the man who recently confessed to killing Etan may not actually be the killer, and that every year around the time of the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance there are numerous people who put up their hand to say ‘it was me’. No doubt mental illness is involved, but perhaps there’s something also in this about how we somehow give murderers cult status.

    I believe that murderers should never be named in print.

  8. Thank you for posting this! I didn’t realize they had found the murderer yet! What a relief. How wonderful for the parents that they can finally (hopefully) move on and enjoy a life with an answer.

    Inspiring post. I love that you love your job. I love that you love people.

  9. There’s a certain catharsis in writing … in your case perhaps ‘writing about the writing’ helps? I don’t know but sometimes there are things that have to be shared to grant peace … or a kind of peace because I think some of these things will be with you forever. I distinctly remember when I became a parent that for the first time in life I was truly vulnerable. Stories like that have tugged even harder since then. Thank you for sharing … You write wonderfully.

    1. Thanks for the kind words.

      This blog is the only place I have, really, to reflect publicly on my work and how it affects me. It’s a sad truth that almost every writer I know is too busy writing/editing/hustling/marketing/teaching to sit around and reflect thoughtfully about what we do and why we do it. I almost never talk about it with anyone, which is a shame because there is a lot to say, and the comments I’ve gotten here seem to suggest some interest in hearing more of this. So I have two more blog posts ready to post on this issue…

  10. Such evil sucks the breath out of you. You can’t imagine how inhuman people can be…and then you realize that is unfortunately part of our species. Are we really higher than animals?

    1. It really does stun you to realize that people like that are out there…and we can run into them. I covered a murder trial in the mid 1980s…and remember every detail, even though I wish couldn’t. I was also the victim of a con man in 1998 and it changed my worldview forever. I realized that the world divides (sadly) into those who’ve been touched by crime/evil and those who (yet) have not. Once you’ve seen it firsthand, your soul is forever somewhat bruised; the only people who really “got” what I’d been through were cops.

  11. I think, like nursing/medicine and journalism (or the military) — any field that exposes you routinely to violence and suffering — you find a few ways to cope before (as many do) you burn out and/or get bitter and cynical. Some are lousy (drugs and alcohol) and others better (humor, esp. very dark humor and camarederie with others who know exactly what you face every day.)

  12. Michael Tyler

    I loved this. Touching story. Fantastically written. And yes, it’s so sad that monsters like Hernandez can do such damage. I will spare you my thoughts on what should be done to those who prey on children, and just thank you for this story.

      1. Michael Tyler

        Yes. I have a great deal of history with sick people, but as you say, no excuse. A monster is a monster, no matter the cause of their creation, and I don’t believe they can be rewired. The whole thing is tragic, for sure. This was probably my favorite piece that you have written–my eyes actually teared. At least Etan’s family has some answers. I wanted to say “closure” instead of “answers”, but I’m not sure that kind of wound can ever close. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Rebecca O’Connell is my Alison Parrott. She was a happy, smiling 9-year-old with dark pigtails when she was raped and murdered in 1990 by Donald Eugene Moeller. I covered the story as a state editor with UPI. Every time the media covers one of his appeals, it strikes me what an old man he’s become, his hair and mustache shorter and grayer, his shoulders a bit more stooped, but his eyes just as damn cold as ever. Becky O’Connell never ages in my memory; how could she? I don’t need to see the pictures of her that accompany every story about him because I will never forget what she looks like. Reporters can seem cruel sometimes in their questioning but that doesn’t mean their hearts aren’t in the stories they write. Excellent post.

    1. I’m glad (not the right word, but you know what I mean) that you viscerally understand my point. Reporters *can* look like a flock of vultures and I have seen some very ugly and embarrassing behavior on their part. But the fact of witnessing horror doesn’t lessen it because it’s written in the notebook, professionally. As you and I (and many others know) it’s forever in your heart and head as well.

      If it’s not, I fear for you.

  14. Pingback: 4:02am and Inspired… – Lead.Learn.Live.

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