After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive
By Lisa R. Cohen
Grand Central Publishing; $25.99, cloth
Any discussion of crime in America must include a chapter on crimes against children. The cases are numerous and horrific, but a few stand out as emblematic of the way society and the law have responded to these most heinous acts.
Steven Stayner: kidnapped in 1972 by a man who convinced him that his parents did not want him anymore; kept prisoner for seven years before escaping with another kidnap victim and being reunited with his parents.
Poly Klaas: kidnapped by Richard Allen Davis in 1993; Davis later hid her in bushes when he encountered a California Highway Patrol officer while his vehicle was stuck in the mud; Klaas’ body was found under some debris.
Amber Hagerman: kidnapped and murdered in 1996; her killing remains unsolved, although it is for her that we now have Amber Alerts for missing kids.
Megan Kanka: kidnapped and murdered by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street; she gave her name to Megan’s Law, allowing law enforcement to post registered sex offenders’ names and addresses on the Internet.
What kind of monster victimizes a child? And of all the children who go missing each year, what of those that are never found? What private hell do the parents, loved ones, and law enforcement officials go through, wondering about the fate of a beloved son or daughter?
Lisa R. Cohen, an Emmy winning television news producer, examines one such case in her first book, After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive. She presents the story of Etan Patz, a six year old New Yorker kidnapped and murdered on his way to the bus stop for school. He most likely was snatched within sight of the fire escape of his apartment in the SoHo district of Manhattan. Although Cohen takes us painstakingly through the story, including a thorough vetting of the only suspect, Jose Ramos, the case remains unsolved. Etan’s parents did successfully sue Ramos years later for the wrongful death of their son, but he was never found criminally responsible.
Etan’s kidnapping changed New Yorkers. Parents no longer allowed their children to walk to the parks or playground. Many felt the year of the case—1979—marked the end of innocence.
Ramos admitted to dating Etan’s babysitter, and probably knew the child well enough to approach him by name on the street. Cohen explains that Ramos had a history of molesting children, and even sexually assaulted the babysitter’s own child. He was a serial predator of children, and is currently serving his time in a prison in Pennsylvania. He is due to be released in September of 2014.
Investigators close to the case, including former United States Attorney Stuart GraBois, believe Ramos approached the boy on his way to school, the first time Etan had ever walked to the bus stop alone, and took the child to his apartment several blocks away. Once there, he molested the child and eventually killed him, probably disposing of his body in the basement furnace. In any case, no trace of Etan’s body was ever found, and Ramos was later convicted of molesting other children, which led to his prison sentence. GraBois, over several face-to-face meetings, did manage to get Ramos to make a “90 percent” confession. The suspect said he had spoken to Etan on the street the morning he was kidnapped, thereby putting himself in contact with the victim at the time of the crime.
Cohen’s research is thorough and meticulous. She worked the story for both CBS and ABC, and has followed the case from the start. She takes the reader through the events, constructing the book like a novel. Ramos makes an appearance at the start when the babysitter tells him of the kidnapping. He goes out supposedly to look for the child. He comes back into the story later when he becomes a “person of interest.” Meanwhile, we see the cops on the beat in search of the boy, we see the district attorneys and their investigators, and of course, the anguished, tortured parents.
The reader also gets the full psychological profile of a child molester. We learn that people who commit such crimes fall into two categories. “Situational or regressed molesters can successfully carry on adult sexual relationships, but simply put, they will take whatever they can get,” Cohen writes. They often are emotionally immature and have low self-esteem. “Fixated or preference child molesters are sexually attracted exclusively to…children.”
The difficult part of this subject is the description and discussion of the act itself. Cohen does not pull punches; she describes in detail what Ramos and others like him do to children. It is difficult, painful, and often horrific.
So why read this book? If one is interested in the human animal and his psychology, this is a story of great interest. The writer takes us through one of the most notorious criminal desecrations of a child in the last thirty years, a case that continues to haunt the investigators, the lawyers, and New Yorkers today. Structured like a true crime nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book has a lot to say about American society in the late twentieth century. Further, Ramos is set to be released in just a few short years, and has come up for parole several times. Animals like this belong behind bars forever, but it is not even accurate to portray this man as an animal. Animals kill for food, for protection. How often do animals kill for sport, to indulge a desire for pleasure, to express such a deviant and abhorrent interest in victimizing and exploiting the most vulnerable of their own? The book makes clear the danger in Ramos’ release.
In the end, there are no heroes in capes, no guardians of right, no safety in what is just and true. Evil is as much a part of this life as good. Are the two in balance or at war? Etan Patz was caught in the middle, between his innocence and something so dark and sinister that one can only hope his death saved him from the full knowledge of the creature that murdered him. And even though the brave and determined cops, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and his own parents tried to save him, the evil in Jose Ramos won. Such is the dark world in which we wander.