Thirty-Three Years of Anguish

Gabe Pressman recalls his experiences with the Patz Family

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, May 25, 2012  |  Updated 3:54 PM EDT
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NYPD Announces Arrest in 1979 Cold Case

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Archive Interview: Etan Patz Detective

Watch an archive interview of William Butler, an NYPD detective who spent years searching for Etan Patz, the boy who went missing in 1979.

NYPD Announces Arrest in 1979 Cold Case

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced the arrest of Pedro Hernandez, 51, who police say confessed to killing Etan Patz 33 years ago.
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Thirty-three years of anguish, not knowing whether your child is dead or alive. A nightmare no parent should ever have to face.

I covered the disappearance of Etan Patz from the first day. I remember the conversations I had with Etan’s father, Stanley. We used to talk in the front room overlooking the street Etan had walked down on the morning of his disappearance. I spoke to Stanley day after day. He was optimistic in the beginning, always hopeful that somehow the youngster would be found alive. But, as the days turned into weeks and months, hope faded.
    
On the morning of May 25, 1979, Etan’s mother, Julie, had watched her six-year-old son leave home for the last time and walk toward the school bus stop down Prince Street. Etan had campaigned strongly with his parents to be allowed to make the two-block trip alone. They resisted but, finally, on this day, they yielded. Etan was allowed to walk alone, unaccompanied by an adult, to the familiar destination. They would never see him again.
   
The parents endured a nightmare that never ended. There were false leads. False sightings. The case aroused national interest in missing children cases. It inspired the observance of Missing Children’s Day, on May 25, the day on which Etan vanished. A former mental patient, Jose Ramos, was believed responsible. Stanley Patz won a wrongful death civil suit against him in 2004 -- but law enforcement authorities did not file criminal charges. And , now, police say, 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez has confessed to strangling the youngster 33 years ago.
   
There’s been much written about the criminal intricacies of the case. The long, dogged investigations by the police over three decades have attracted great interest. Again and again, it appeared the case was nearing solution. Again and again, promising leads turned to dust. There were long periods when the case seemed to have vanished from public attention.
    
Yet one constant remained: the agony of the parents who were never able to be sure of what happened to Etan. I know from the long conversations I had with Stanley Patz just after the boy disappeared how much he we was loved. The father is a professional photographer and the sensitivity of his portraits of the son shows how deep that love was.
    
Back 33 years ago, I could feel for Stanley Patz. No parent should have to endure this kind of pain. Any parent can relate to the immense burden that falls on one who has suffered such a loss. And the anguish of not knowing what happened is a horrible thing.
    
I can relate to the anguish this family has suffered. So can many New Yorkers. Two generations have experienced this tragedy vicariously. With the parents, we hoped for the best and then feared the worst. Is the anguish over for Julie and Stanley Patz? Most definitely not.
     
Some people say the Fernandez alleged confession will provide “closure” for the Patzes.     
     
That’s nonsense. There is no such thing as closure for one who loses a child.

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