Confession to 1979 Etan Patz killing reminds parents of the worst

A New York police flier asks for information about Etan Patz, 6, who vanished 33 years ago.
A New York police flier asks for information about Etan Patz, 6, who vanished 33 years ago.
Posted: May 26, 2012

This story has been updated.

Etan Patz. It's a name that few of us who lived in New York in 1979 will ever forget.

So when reports surfaced last month that police were excavating the basement of a building near the spot where the 6-year-old boy vanished, we remembered his story instantly. We recognized his soft face, the new front teeth, the shaggy blond bangs, and the nascent impishness in his eyes. We knew the two blocks he had to cross between his parents' last kiss goodbye and the school bus he would never reach. And we realized that small distance would be measured forever after in a grief so immense, a darkness so profound, that no parent could ever cross it.

On Thursday - the day before the 33d anniversary of Etan's disappearance - a man finally confessed to the murder. He is Pedro Hernandez, who worked in a bodega near the SoHo apartment where Etan's family lived. The Patzes have never left. And they have never recovered.

Hernandez says he strangled the boy and put his body in a box, which he left somewhere in Manhattan and was unable to find the next day.

The questions, as always, smolder. Why would anyone do such a thing? How did this happen? Even if Hernandez offers some answers, they'll never make any sense.

Etan's case drew national attention and marked a pivotal moment in the response to reports of missing children.

His face was the first to appear on a milk carton with a plea to the public to help find him. (Not many other faces followed. The milk-carton campaign lasted about a year. Experts realized that adults, the target audience, weren't the ones reading the cartons. It was mostly children, absentmindedly looking at the pictures as they ate their Cheerios.)

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25 National Missing Children's Day.

But Etan was not the first child to be snatched by a murderous stranger, make heart-wrenching headlines, and change the nation's sense of security.

In 1949, 6-year-old Linda Joyce Glucoft was kidnapped, hacked with an ax, and buried in a pile of leaves in her murderer's yard in Hollywood, Calif. The story, reported on front pages from Los Angeles to Canberra, led to much harsher penalties for crimes against children. (Until 1950, molesting a child in California was a misdemeanor.)

The case also inspired Sam Davis, a small-time movie producer, to borrow $1,000 from actor John Wayne and make a short documentary to teach schoolchildren to beware of strangers.

In the 1960s, boys and girls were treated to nightmares after seeing another cautionary film, based on the true story of two little girls who were murdered after being lured from a playground by a man offering jelly beans.

These films featured sweet-talking predators in ties and sports jackets stopping by the hopscotch grid or in leafy neighborhoods and offering rides in their cars.

The voice-overs warn and comfort.

"Remember that the kids who get into trouble are those who forget what they've been told or think they know better than their parents and teachers."

As if vigilance is all. As if evil can be prevented.

The films encourage parents to find a balance between exercising caution and instilling fear. Having the talk, they're told, won't necessarily shatter the belief that "the world is so friendly and full of fun."

As if the children of the 1950s and '60s who had to practice air-raid drills and visit fallout shelters were ever under that cotton-candy delusion.

After Etan, things did change. Police departments began cooperating in these investigations, bridging the boundaries between cities and suburbs.

Bob Lowery, executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says that in 1984, when his agency was founded, "our recovery rate for missing children was 62 percent. It's now 98 percent."

The year Etan was taken, Lowery says, "the FBI's National Crime Information Center didn't accept cases of missing children into the database. We could report a car or a stolen gun, even a car stereo, but if your child went missing, there was no place to report it except the local police." In a nation with a fragmented police system encompassing 18,000 law enforcement jurisdictions, Lowery says, improved technology and heightened public awareness make all the difference.

Even so, the unthinkable happens.

Megan Kanka. Elizabeth Smart. Leiby Kletzky.

We tend to idealize the past and believe that the world has grown more dangerous. But such horrors are no more frequent now than they were May 25, 1979, or decades before.

Lowery says that of the 800,000 kids reported missing annually, 90 percent are runaways. An estimated 204,000 are victims of "family abduction" - children whisked away by parents or other relatives - but only 56,000 are ever reported to police. Another 58,000 are abducted by "nonfamily members," he says.

And of those, how many fulfill a parent's deepest fears? Of a random psychopath stealing our babies?

In a country of more than 300 million people, he says, "about 100 to 110 times a year."


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.

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