NEW YORK – For decades, the prominent case of a missing 6-year-old had a prime suspect: an admitted child molester in a Pennsylvania prison. Although the inmate was never criminally charged in Etan Patz’s 1979 disappearance, he was found responsible in a wrongful-death lawsuit.
But investigators on Friday continued tearing up a Manhattan basement linked to someone else, a handyman who was recently re-interviewed by authorities. Through a lawyer, he denied having anything to do with Etan’s vanishing, which helped turn missing children into a nationwide cause.
Authorities said they had yet to find any new evidence as of Friday, and the police commissioner and the FBI said they wouldn’t discuss any possible suspects. It’s unclear what the renewed probe may turn up, if anything.
But if it leads definitively away from Pennsylvania prisoner Jose A. Ramos and to someone else, it could create a legal conundrum: one person held accountable for the boy’s death in civil court while another becomes the focus of a criminal case.
On Friday, investigators were using jackhammers and saws to carefully break through the basement’s concrete floor, pulling rubble out and carrying it out of the building with gloved hands, as an anthropologist stood by in case any human remains were found. The work was expected to continue over several days.
Police were using a chemical that can spotlight traces of blood and expected that X-ray equipment could help them peer behind walls, though some walls were being removed, Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
“We’re hopeful that we can bring some level of comfort to the parents, perhaps find some – obviously, the body of this poor child – but evidence that may lead to a successful investigation in this case,” Kelly said. Etan (pronounced AY’-tahn) vanished on the first day he was allowed to walk to his school bus stop alone. He was officially declared dead in 2001.
The basement is in a building that was on Etan’s way to the bus stop from the SoHo building where his parents still live. At the time, handyman Othniel Miller, who was friendly with the Patz family, was using the underground space as a workshop.
Miller, now 75, is cooperating with investigators and had “no involvement in this tragic event,” his lawyer, Michael C. Farkas, told journalists gathered outside Miller’s Brooklyn home on Friday.
Among the first vanished children to appear on a milk carton, Etan became a symbol of a movement to draw attention to child safety. The day of his disappearance, May 25, became National Missing Children’s Day.