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'After Etan' author: Patz case changed life as we knew it

Metro asks Lisa Cohen, author of "After Etan: The Boy Who Held America Captive," why America cared for four decades.
Julie Patz in 1979. Reuters

Lisa R. Cohen is an Emmy award winning TV news producer and reporter who followed the Etan Patz case since 1990. Her book “After Etan” chronicled the journey of Stanley and Julie Patz through the enigma of their son’s disappearance.

How, after nearly 38 years, was the Etan Patz mystery finally solved?

In 2009, on the 30th anniversary, it was really in limbo. The Manhattan District Attorney had just retired, and he hadn’t really looked at the case in a long time. The new DA came in, and during the election there was a lot of talk about this case. Stan Patz, Etan’sfather, said please look at this, and the DA decided to take a new look at this. That led to a return to one of the men who had been talked to originally, and they dug up his basement with a lot of media attention, and that’s when Pedro Hernandez’ brother-in-law came forward. It was a whole new chapter.

Why did the Etan Patz story grip the nation for four decades?

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It never had an answer. It had a very beautiful child in the middle, a child that any parent would identify with. The father in this case was a professional photographer and he had hundreds of beautiful photographs of his son, and they were very compelling. His parents are very articulate, we heard them, and we feel like we have grown old with them. It felt like before he went missing we were all innocent and felt safe, and then this hit us, and it raised the specter of a threat and of the sense it could happen to me and my child.

What was your reaction when you heard the verdict?

I was relieved. Because I know what all of this has put the family through. I have been reporting this story for 27 years. I became close with Stan Patz, and was there when he came to conclusion that Pedro Herandez was indeed the person who killed his son. This really was a vindication for him —finally there is an answer. But I don’t want to say it's over, because there’s probably going to be an appeal. But it gives everybody a sense that the law has come down on the side of guilty. I don’t use the word closure, because I don’t think that’s possible.

Was Jose Ramos, initially charged with the killing, a viable suspect?

Yes. He had a long string of child molestations in his history, he talked to people about knowing Etan, he told people that his girlfriend was his babysitter, and he made a lot of statements to other people that he was involved, and this wasn’t some lightly considered matter. He outright said had taken that child, he told a former assistant U.S. attorney, a federal prosecutor, that he took a boy on that day.

What changes came about in policy and society because of Etan Patz?

Lots of different laws were enacted. The day he went missing was made National Missing Children’s Day.At the time he went missing there was nothing in place that would help people communicate with people about missing kids in another part of the country. Not just because of Etan, but in part he influenced the creation of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Also new resources for tracking across states, and databases — the FBI coordinated better resources to tracking down kids. It just created a new culture where people were more aware of the threats —sometimes too aware, or too afraid of harm coming to their children. It was the boogie man and it fostered hysteria.Mrs. Patz worked in school for many years and she would counsel the parents to be more trusting of leaving their children on their own.

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