The Disappearance of Etan Patz
"I Was Ready to Explode"
Jose Antonio Ramos was a drifter who sold cheap jewelry and small toys on the street to get by. His graying hair was long and unkempt, and his beard hung down to his chest. He weighed 180 pounds and stood five feet nine inches, his posture was hunched. Despite his off-putting appearance, his voice was unusually soothing and gentle. NYPD officers arrested him in 1982 for allegedly attempting to lure two young boys into the drainage tunnel where he'd been living. In searching the tunnel, the police found several photographs of young boys, most of them with light-colored hair similar to Etan's. Detectives questioned Ramos about his interest in young boys and asked if he knew anything about Etan Patz. He denied knowing anything about the missing child, but he did say that he knew the woman who had walked Etan to the bus stop every morning during the school bus strike.
The detectives proceeded cautiously. Could it be possible that after all this time, they had stumbled upon the first solid lead in the coldest missing person's case the city had ever seen? They urged Ramos to explain his relationship with the woman who had worked for the Patz family, but the suspect was cautious himself. He refused to say any more about the woman. He did, however, reveal that in 1979 when Etan had disappeared, he had suffered a nervous breakdown and that he had been hearing a voice in his head. It "would try to force me to get violent," he said.
"I had to hold it back," he said during the videotaped interrogation. "I had to do a lot of really forceful holding back, you know. 'Cause I was... I was ready to explode."
Ramos said nothing more about Etan Patz.
Detectives tracked down the woman who had been hired to walk Etan to the bus stop during the strike. The woman admitted that she had been seeing Ramos in 1979. At the time Ramos had been renting an apartment on the Lower East Side. She broke down into tears when she revealed that Ramos' interest in her was just a ploy to get to her young son whom he had molested on several occasions. She never attempted to bring charges against Ramos.
Ramos was clearly a dangerous individual, but the police didn't have enough evidence to charge him with a crime. They had no choice but to release him.
Three years later, in 1985, federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois was assigned to the Patz case. His boss at the time, then U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, instructed him to do whatever it took to get a conviction, and Giuliani promised to give GraBois whatever he needed to make that happen. GraBois started poring over the old files. When he read the police reports on Ramos, he decided the man deserved further investigation. By this time Ramos was incarcerated at Rockview State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, serving a sentence on an unrelated child molestation conviction. GraBois arranged to have Ramos brought to New York for questioning, and U.S. marshals escorted the suspect to GraBois' office in lower Manhattan.
Oddly, when Ramos was brought to New York, he thought the authorities there were after him for tax evasion. Two detectives from the NYPD Missing Persons Squad, Robert Shaw and Daniel Cavallo, sat in on the interview. Ramos was read his Miranda rights and offered a lawyer if he wanted one. He declined, saying that he didn't need a lawyer. He had read up on criminal law while in prison and become a "jailhouse lawyer," offering legal advice to other inmates at Rockview. Ramos was in good spirits as the interview began. Apparently he was looking forward to matching wits with a real attorney.
GraBois was patient. For an hour and a half, he questioned Ramos about his background, his childhood, and his prison experiences. Ramos remained cool and seemed to enjoy the attention. Then GraBois finally dropped the bomb: "How many times did you have sex with Etan Patz?" he asked.
Ramos' face sagged. He was visibly rattled. As reported by Edward Klein in Vanity Fair, Ramos started to sob. "I'll tell you about it," he said. "I'll tell you everything. I never told anyone any of this before. I want to get it off my chest."
Ramos said that he saw a boy who fit Etan Patz's description in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village "that morning." The boy was alone, "bouncing a ball." The park is roughly four city blocks north of the Patzes' home in Soho.
GraBois asked him what the boy looked like. Blond and blue-eyed, Ramos said. He then described Etan's distinctive blue sneakers with the "bright strips." Ramos said he invited the boy to his apartment to watch television.
GraBois asked Ramos why he wanted the boy to go with him.
"For sex," Ramos said.
Ramos described his attempts to molest the boy, but the boy "wasn't interested," so Ramos gave up. He said he then took the boy for a walk through the Village and finally put him on a subway "to visit his aunt in Washington Heights." The Patzes have no relatives in Washington Heights.
GraBois and the detectives expressed their disbelief, but Ramos clung to his story. He said that the next night he saw television news reports on the search for Etan Patz, and he was "90 percent sure" that this was the boy he had taken to his apartment. Ramos claimed that he left his apartment and tried to help in the search for Etan himself. In his gut, GraBois felt that Ramos had not parted company with Etan Patz at the subway stop as he claimed and that Ramos was responsible for what happened to the boy. If Ramos hadn't murdered the boy to eliminate a witness to his pedophilia, he might have sold Etan to another child molester or an illegal adoption broker. GraBois pressed Ramos to come clean, but the man wouldn't say anything more about Etan Patz. He finally said that he wanted to tell GraBois everything, but "maybe I better have a lawyer here." By law, GraBois had to terminate the interrogation until Ramos was provided legal representation. Later, as the suspect was escorted out of GraBois' office, Ramos told Detective Shaw that when he finally told them everything, Shaw would get a "promotion" and become "famous."