It happens far too often now. A child — sometimes a baby, often an adolescent — suddenly disappears. It hits the local news. Then goes national. Then Nancy Grace is spouting theories and pointing fingers. Overnight, everyone knows the child’s name. They see the same family-selected photo printed in their newspapers and flashed on their TV screens. Time passes — be it days, weeks or months — and the child is found. Sometimes the news is happy. Usually, it isn’t. And then the names, the photographs, the incident itself fade from memory.
Some of these missing children, though, stay lodged in our collective memories, for one reason or another. We remember their names, if not their pictures. Adam Walsh, for spurring his father’s continuing crusade for justice. Caylee Anthony, for the questions that still surround her death. Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard, for being two rare happy endings.
A select few end up making history. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby — Charles Jr., although he hasn’t been called that since 1932 — riveted the nation and set the gold standard for media circuses. The case fascinates still today. I should know. I live a mere eight miles from where Charles Jr. was abducted. Until recently, the courthouse where the trial was held did annual reenactments.
And then there’s Etan Patz.
On May 25, 1979, he walked the two blocks from his family’s Manhattan apartment to his school bus stop. It was the first time his parents allowed him to walk the route alone. He was six years old. He was never seen again.
The 30th anniversary of Etan’s disappearance happened at the same time I was doing research for what would become my second mystery, BAD MOON. My book is also about a missing child, one who, like Etan, vanished not far from home and was never seen again.
Because of this, I devoured information about Etan’s disappearance. I read about how the case — both heartbreaking and terrifying — stayed in the public consciousness for years. I saw a picture of Etan’s parents on their fire escape, calling his name. I stumbled upon rumors that, several years later after he vanished, Etan, then a teenager, was spotted with Jose Antonio Ramos, the man eventually suspected of snatching him. I read AFTER ETAN, Lisa Cohen’s book about the case, in which a former downstairs neighbor of Ramos recalled the man dangling toy soldiers and a Barbie doll outside his window, trying to lure him upstairs the same way a fisherman baits a hook. That particular detail actually gave me nightmares.
There was a reason I studied the Patz case, and it’s not because BAD MOON is a fictionalized version of his story. Yes, the missing boy from my book and Etan were both blonde and both disappeared close to home, but that’s where the similarities end.
Instead, I was fascinated by Etan’s story because of how it changed the country. The nation lost a little of its innocence that long-ago Friday in May. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the American mindset can be divided into two parts: Before Etan Patz and After Etan Patz.
Before Etan, people trusted their neighbors. They let their children walk to school unattended. When a child didn’t show up for class, parents didn’t get a phone call from the principal. The sides of milk cartons bore logos, not pictures. And on the rare occasion when someone took a child, there was — just like in the Lindbergh case — a motive, a cause, a reason.
After Etan, parents kept a closer watch on their kids. If they walked to school, it was in groups, usually supervised by an adult. Every school in the country now has a policy in place to notify parents immediately about absences. Milk cartons contained images of the missing. (Etan is cited as being the first child to appear on one.) And Americans everywhere suddenly realized that monsters were real. Ones who preyed on children for no good reason.
Despite a world of ever-escalating danger, children are safer because of what happened to Etan Patz. Much credit goes to his parents, Stan and Julie, who fought hard so that other parents don’t have to experience what they went through.
The other fascinating aspect of the Patz story is that, unlike other missing-child cases, no one really knows what happened to him. Etan’s remains were never found. Jose Antonio Ramos is in jail, but for another crime. The Patzes won a civil case against him — a hollow, purely symbolic victory.
As a writer, I was curious about how families continued after such a tragedy, especially as years, even decades, passed. Did they band together or fall apart? What did a mother do with all that love? How did a father cope with knowing he couldn’t keep his child safe? And what about the siblings — those innocent bystanders who are either neglected or smothered by their grieving parents? To the general public, a missing boy is a name and a face mentioned on the news. To family members, he becomes a ghost, forever doomed to haunt them.
In BAD MOON, the family gets answers. For those related to Etan Patz, there is not closure. Twice a year, Stan Patz sends a message to Ramos. “What did you do to my little boy?” He has yet to receive an answer. It’s possible he never will.
Without that answer, Etan’s name will still be remembered. His picture will still be circulated. And he will remain an eternal lost boy, always waiting to be found.