When her 6-year-old son was late getting home from school, his mother called a classmate’s mom and got the news that would launch one of the nation’s most infamous missing-child cases. Etan Patz had never made it to school that day in May 1979. “Total horror and panic” washed over his mother, Julie Patz, who recalled the moment Friday as she testified against a man charged with killing her first-grader. “My legs started giving out. I had difficulty breathing.”
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It is a day she she has explained over and over, during the fevered search for Etan and as an advocate who pressed for changes in how American law enforcement handles missing-children cases. It’s a day she recounted last year during suspect Pedro Hernandez’s first trial, which she could not endure watching after she testified. It ultimately ended in a jury deadlock.
So on Friday, Julie Patz relived her son’s disappearance one more time, telling jurors about the fateful morning she let him walk alone to his downtown Manhattan school bus stop for the first time.
“In that day, in that place, children had a lot more freedom and responsibility,” she said. And on a hectic morning, she made a spot decision to give in to a boy who always wanted “to do everything that adults did.”
Her hands were full: Etan’s 2-year-old brother and a friend were running around the family’s apartment in the then-artsy-industrial SoHo neighborhood, his 8-year-old sister was dragging her feet about getting ready for school and children were due shortly for in-home day care at the Patzes’ apartment. The bus stop was just a block and a half away, and Julie Patz could see from her window that there were adults nearby.
So she walked Etan downstairs and watched him walk a block and look both ways before crossing the street. Then she turned and went back up.
She never saw or heard from him again.
Nearly 35 years later, Hernandez, who had worked at a corner store by the bus stop, told authorities he lured Etan into the store basement by promising him a soda, then choked him. Hernandez’s defense says the 55-year-old Maple Shade, New Jersey, man confessed falsely because he’s mentally ill.
Etan’s disappearance influenced both parenting and policy in America. He was one of the first missing children pictured on a milk carton, and his case was among several that spurred an era of more parental protectiveness.
The May 25 anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day. His mother served on a 1980s federal advisory board on missing children, and she testified in Congress to back legislation that ultimately produced the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nationwide clearinghouse for information.
For the Patzes, those years were also a time of grappling with an exhausting series of tips, theories, dashed hopes and suspicions and judgments of their own family.
When Julie Patz realized her other children had been basically housebound and decided to take them out to play, some women approached and asked “how I could possible be celebrating … when it was my fault my son was probably dead,” she recalled Friday. Even some friends couldn’t seem to figure out “how to deal with my family.”
She revisited it all Friday with a steady, worn straightforwardness, her voice occasionally cracking briefly. At one point, describing how daily routines of caring for her children held her together after Etan’s disappearance, she bit her lip, and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi asked whether she wanted a break.
“I’m fine,” Patz said, strengthening her voice.
“Not ‘fine,’ ” she corrected, but ready to go on.