true crime

Etan Patz was the first missing child on a milk carton. Now, finally, the case is solved.

The disappearance of six-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 changed a nation. It led to new laws, and new methods of finding missing children. It made a whole generation of Americans think twice about letting their kids go out alone. Now, finally, 38 years later, someone has been convicted of Etan’s murder.

Etan disappeared from the SoHo neighbourhood of New York on the morning of May 25, 1979. His mother Julie was busy with Etan’s younger brother and another child who had stayed the night, and Etan’s older sister didn’t want to get out of bed. The independent young Etan begged to be allowed to walk the two blocks to the school bus stop on his own for the first time.

“It’s fine, Mum,” Julie remembers him saying. “I can do it.”

Julie reluctantly agreed.

Etan packed his toy cars into a bag with elephants on it. He took a dollar with him to buy a drink. Julie walked him outside. That was the last time she saw him.

When Etan didn’t return at the end of the school day, Julie rang around, and found out that her son had never made it onto the school bus that morning.

“My legs started giving out,” she remembers.

A huge search was launched for Etan. Posters with his face on them were plastered around the city. Police went door-to-door. The TV news featured nightly updates. He was the first missing child to appear on a milk carton.


Children became more fearful, and parents became more cautious.

“In some ways, it is the most important case, culturally,” says historian Paula Fass, author of the book Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. “This case served as a wellspring of the idea that when little boys and little girls – but especially boys – were taken, that it was almost certainly by a paedophile.”

Police had a suspect they pursued for years: a convicted child molester called Jose Ramos. Ramos had a relationship with a woman who used to walk Etan home from school. But even though police dug up Ramos’s basement, they never had the evidence to convict him.

In 2012, a man from New Jersey, Jose Lopez, told police he thought his brother-in-law, Pedro Hernandez, could be responsible for Etan’s disappearance. At the time of the disappearance, Hernandez was 18 and working in a store near Etan’s bus stop. Soon afterwards, he returned to New Jersey and began telling people he had killed a child in New York.

Police questioned Hernandez, and eventually he confessed that he had lured Etan into the store’s basement by promising him a drink.

“I grabbed him by the neck,” Hernandez told police, “and I started to choke him.”


The case went to trial in 2015. But was no physical evidence against Hernandez, just his confession. His lawyers argued that he had limited intelligence and a personality disorder that made it hard for him to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

The jury was deadlocked, with one person believing Hernandez was not guilty, and the judge declared a mistrial.

A retrial was held. Finally, earlier this week, Hernandez was found guilty this week of murder and kidnapping.

Etan’s father Stanley welcomed the news.

“The Patz family has waited a long time, but we’ve finally have found some measure of justice for our wonderful little boy Etan.”

The news was also welcomed by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

“Etan’s legacy will endure through his family’s long history of advocacy on behalf of missing children,” he said. “This case will no longer be remembered as one of the city’s oldest and most painful unsolved crimes.”

On July 15 2015, Loren O’Keeffe’s 24-year-old brother went missing from their family home. Here, she speaks to Mia Freedman on No Filter about her family’s ordeal.