Etan Patz News Resurrects Parents' Nightmares

Guest

Linda Fairstein, former head, NYPD sex crimes unit

New York Police have reported a possible break in the case of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who vanished 33 years ago on his way to school. No one was ever charged in his case, and the episode was a deep personal tragedy for the Patz family.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Thirty-three years ago tomorrow, Etan Patz, a six-year-old, left his parents' apartment in Manhattan to walk two blocks to a school bus stop and was never seen again. For weeks, his smiling face dominated the evening news and the front pages of the newspapers. His pictures became some of the first to appear on milk cartons, and that image remains indelible all these years later. Although Etan's case was not hers, former New York police sex crimes unit leader Linda Fairstein says Etan Patz was everybody's case.

Today, New York police say a man has implicated himself in the crime and is now in custody. If you followed this case, what changed after the abduction of Etan Patz? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Linda Fairstein is now a popular crime novelist, and she joins us on the phone from her vacation home on Martha's Vineyard. Thanks very much for taking the time out to be with us today.

LINDA FAIRSTEIN: Very happy to be with you, Neal. Thank you.

CONAN: Do you remember the feeling in the city on that day that Etan Patz was adducted?

FAIRSTEIN: Well, certainly, the next day, yes, it had the attention of everybody in the city, for a variety of reasons, and it stayed in the headline for days, of course, all of us hoping that it was a kidnapping, and the kid would - the child would be returned quickly. And sadly, that, as we know, did not happen.

CONAN: And it's been described as a parent's worst nightmare - the first day that a six-year-old finally begged his parents for permission to walk to the school bus stop by himself.

FAIRSTEIN: I think that was perhaps the greatest irony of it, that that day has to come in every family, and here it was the first day, and it was just, as you said, a two-block distance, and that the child never made it to the bus stop. I think it took everyone's breath away. It was just a terrifying thought for every parent.

CONAN: You were head of the sex crimes unit at the time. Did you guys have any role in this?

FAIRSTEIN: A very small one. Our D.A.'s office had the country's pioneering sex crimes unit set up in 1974, and I took it over as a very young prosecutor in '76. So in those three intervening years, we'd already built a pretty big filing system of all of our cases. And so my colleagues who were working the major case angle of it, worked with sex crimes police and me to go through our files hoping that we might be able to identify somebody with a pattern of similar actions. So we were looking, with the police, through all of our old cases to see if there was someone who - those kind of files are actually very age specific.

So we were looking at people who had a history with five- and six-year-old children. We were looking at people who might have a geographic connection to that very, actually, now popular part of New York - SoHo - but really a very underpopulated area at that time. It was just changing from sort of a commercial area to residential. So that was my connection, just working with the police through files and, again, sadly, never making an identification to, and maybe until, this day.

CONAN: And it seems that there have been a few suspects over the years. There's one man in jail for crimes against another child, and he was sued by the family of Etan Patz' father, and convicted on civil charges.

FAIRSTEIN: That's right. This case, I mean, one of the things that we in law enforcement always believed from the beginning was that it was not a stranger driving along the street who pulled the child into the car. The streets - that's often a form of kidnapping. But the streets were very busy at that time. It was rush hour. It was kids of every age going to school. So the intelligent experience surmised was that someone whom Etan knew, even just in passing, someone he knew or recognized from the street might have lured him off the street into a building.

So that's why it's interesting, both the man you're talking about, (unintelligible) who had a relationship with someone who had babysat for Etan, was a viable suspect because it makes sense that Etan knew him. He is a child molester in jail, as you said, in Pennsylvania for other charges. There was recently a man - as recently as two months ago, a man who had a basement workshop just buildings away from Etan's own home who had been a suspect at that time and was re-interviewed in the floor of his old shop dug up.

And now, we have this man, Pedro Hernandez, who apparently is in custody as we speak, claiming to have committed this crime. Not uncommon, may I say, around the anniversary of prominent cases. So we'll know shortly whether we think this is the real thing, the police thinks this is the real thing, or somebody who is just freakishly catching on to the publicity.

CONAN: The anniversary of Etan Patz' disappearance has been set aside as a - the day we mark the disappeared children.

FAIRSTEIN: Yes, yes. And I understand that - well, I still think it's a story - anybody who was of a certain age, you know, over childhood at that point just remembers that story and that face. And, of course, over the years, there have been - this investigation really has never been closed, much to the credit to the NYPD and my former colleagues in the D.A.'s office. And every lead that has come up has taken police and prosecutors to Israel, to California, to Pennsylvania and all over the country and, in fact, places abroad to try to solve this case.

CONAN: And it's never left the public mind either. The parents of Etan Patz never left that apartment because they always thought he might come home. They've never changed their phone number because they knew he had memorized it.

FAIRSTEIN: That's right. That's right. Yes. I mean, two chilling facts to just - to think about.

CONAN: We're talking with Linda Fairstein, the former head of the New York Police Department Sex Crimes Unit. She worked in the District Attorney's Office at the time of the disappearance of Etan Patz. If you were around in those days, how did that case changed things? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's talk with Stephen(ph). Stephen with us from Windham in Connecticut.

STEPHEN: Hey, thanks for taking my call, TALK OF THE NATION. I was about 9 years old when Etan Patz went on. And my wife's from Europe. So we were discussing this case this morning and how it was - my memory was like a footloose and fancy-free to, like, lock-down helicopter parents while this whole thing was going down. And it took a long time before normal came back. I mean, it was such a big event at the time, especially in this tri-state area. Can the FBI reopen this? Don't they have new stuff?

FAIRSTEIN: Yes. Actually, you're right, I mean, especially in the tri-state area, but it was - it did make a shift from parents just assuming a child could go a few blocks in a neighborhood where they were known, to really lock down. This case has never been closed because after a number of years when someone is presumed to be dead, to be very blunt about, it's not only a kidnapping, which might have a statute of limitations, but abduction and murder would never. So - and not only do the FBI keep it open because of the kidnapping aspect, the NYPD has an open case and its three agencies, third being the Manhattan D.A.'s office. And Cyrus Vance, the current D.A., met with Etan's parents early on and promised them that he would keep it open.

And I believe what's got it - what got it moving again and why there was so much news two months ago is that the FBI agent who had been most currently assigned to the case retired. And as good cops do, the new agent came on and wanted, with his own eyes, to review everything. And sometimes, it's that fresh look at an old set of facts that sparks something different to happen. And sometimes, of course, as odd as this is, it's - you couldn't write it in fiction but - and have people believe it. But sometimes, it's the conscience or a lifestyle change of the killer that - who would be, obviously, 33 years older than now, so an aging adult, to want to get something off his chest and - or maybe he told someone over time who tipped the police. So that combination of things, I think, brings us to the point where it is a very active investigation.

CONAN: Stephen, thanks very much for the call.

STEPHEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Linda Fairstein, there are, sadly, too many of these.

FAIRSTEIN: Yes.

CONAN: Why do some, like Etan Patz - well, you can understand the Lindbergh baby, but why do some, like Etan Patz, take on this greater role in our minds and in our society?

FAIRSTEIN: You know, it's so hard for me to answer, and I've been asked this many times before today. There are some of those cases that people just attach to, and I think it's interesting. Kidnappings are - when you think about it as we in law enforcement do - much more common out of a densely populated urban area. You can more easily abduct someone kicking a can down a country road than walking two crowded blocks in New York. And so you don't really have that many kidnappings in Manhattan, in New York City. And also most kidnappings of children, the overwhelming percentage, well over 90 percent, involve familial relationships. It's often an estranged parent.

CONAN: A custody case.

FAIRSTEIN: Yeah, in a custody case and where the child has been abducted. And so here was the unthinkable, first day of school, first time - and first time you'd let the child go alone to school. You're watching him go to the bus stop. You stopped watching when he's out of sight. He disappears. There is no ransom note, so it's not the high profile kind of case where it's give me - and we have a good number of those. Give us X amount of dollars and we'll return the child. People kept waiting. And then it was the start - I think we - it kept everyone's collective imagination alive because the movement started and Etan was the face on the milk carton. And he became the image for most people of this issue nationally.

CONAN: We're talking with Linda Fairstein, who was the part of the New York City Sex Crimes Unit back in 1979 when Etan Patz disappeared. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk with Chris(ph), and Chris with us from North Liberty in Iowa.

CHRIS: So hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

CHRIS: I'm the same age as Etan. And here in the - it wasn't directly as a result of Etan's disappearance, but a year or two after that in Iowa we had a paperboy that was kidnapped, and he's not been recovered yet either. But my parents, it was just - it was - what changed for us is that it was just such a way of life change. It was no longer, you know, the innocence of a, you know, doing what you want. You really had to pay attention and especially as a kid to know that someone your age was abducted and has not been found. My - I lived out in the country, and a neighbor of mine and I, same age - we were about 10 or 11 years old - went to a 4H meet that we do every month.

And our parents actually tested us and we - they sent a friend of theirs, but we didn't know who she was, to stop by and pick us up after this meeting. And she did the whole, you know, pulled up to the side of the building, opened the door. She knew our names and said, hop in. Your mom and - your moms have asked me to come pick you up, and it's just terrified me. And both of us grilled this woman for 10 or 15 minutes, and we're 10 or 11 years old, on, you know, where is - where are our parents? Why are they there? How do you know them? And reluctantly, you know, we got in the backseat of this car, but we were just, you know, arms clinched and - because this was just such a change of our life. And I think it's something, you know, as a parent now and having two young kids, I think of, you know, these are things that - this is not something that our parents would have thought off in the mid or early '70s.

CONAN: I suspect you're probably right, Chris, but that's not because it didn't happen. It's because it didn't happen nearby or didn't get a lot of publicity. You know, it's a - it's very odd. Linda Fairstein, I wonder, you're a crime novelist now. Did you ever write about the case?

FAIRSTEIN: I've never written about this case. I rarely - except for the book that's about to come out, "Night Watch," in which I do a one-off on D.S.K. I - first of all, I don't like writing about children. I don't like putting children in - it's jeopardy. It's - I can deal with almost anything else in the crime novel world where adults do things to each other, but I have a special weakness having - in our unit, one big portion of it was child abuse cases, and I just don't enjoy fictionalizing them, so I don't usually use real cases. This time coming up, I couldn't resist, but I don't think I'd ever write that way about a child.

CONAN: Do you still follow the case? You seemed...

FAIRSTEIN: Oh, very closely. Very, very closely. And Cy Vance, the D.A., for whom I have enormous respect - he's doing a great job in Manhattan following Bob Morgenthau's 30-plus-year term, and he's a good friend, and he is on this case with the NYPD and the FBI. And I know they'll follow every lead possible. And perhaps, if this man in custody today - if they can confirm the things that he's been saying and that he actually lived in that neighborhood and that he lured Etan in, there might be an arrest and a trial or a plea in this.

CONAN: One would think - I'm not an investigator, but one would think the first question would be, where's the body?

FAIRSTEIN: Yes. He tells a story - I just know this from going online in preparation for talking to you. The man custody now claims that he put the body in a large sort of garbage bag and then in a box and secreted it in whatever place he's claiming I guess - they're not releasing the details yet - where the place to which he abducted the child. And that he - when he went back for the box two days later, it wasn't there. So again, whether this is just all nonsense or something that the police keeping the details close and trying to confirm or not that any of this was possible and whether there are specific locations, I think we'll probably know in the next 48 hours.

CONAN: Etan Patz disappeared 33 years ago tomorrow. And, Linda Fairstein, thank you very much for your time today.

FAIRSTEIN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Linda Fairstein, the former head of the New York City Police Department's Sex Crimes Unit. She worked in the public - the prosecutor's office at the time of the disappearance in 1979. She is the author of over a dozen crime novels. As she mentioned, "Night Watch" will be published in July of this year.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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