Sources close to the investigation into the disappearance of Etan Patz indicate that new evidence may have been uncovered 33 years after the 6-year-old vanished. NBC's Michelle Franzen reports.
Updated at 11:04 p.m. ET: Dozens of items, including strands of hair, a piece of paper and other possible bits of forensic evidence have been found in a SoHo basement in the four days that investigators have been searching for clues in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz, NBC New York has learned.
Law enforcement sources tell NBC New York that investigators from the FBI, NYPD and Manhattan district attorney's office have told the Patz family that no human remains have been found. The family was briefed Sunday on the investigation and what has been found at the site.
Investigators discovered a "stain of interest" on a drywall Saturday while taking apart the basement in their search for the remains of Etan, according to law enforcement sources. But by Sunday, a law enforcement source told Reuters that "nothing conclusive had been found."
The stain was discovered Saturday in the ongoing search for clues in the case of the 6-year-old boy who went missing 33 years ago on his short walk to the school bus stop.
NBC New York was first to report the break in the cold case on Thursday.
By Saturday, investigators had finished ripping up the basement's concrete floor with jackhammers and saws, and were digging through the dirt in hopes of finding the boy's remains, or any other evidence.
It was while investigators were taking apart the basement floor and walls that they found a "stain of interest" on a drywall, according to law enforcement sources. Officers from the NYPD Emergency Services Unit used a chainsaw to cut out a piece of the wall, which is being preserved for analysis at the FBI Laboratory in Virginia. It's not clear how significant it is.
Other debris was also being tested, a process that could last into next week, chief police spokesman Paul Browne said.
At the time of Patz's disappearance, the 13-by-62 basement at 127B Prince Street was being used as a workshop by Othniel Miller, a handyman who was friendly with the Patz family.
Miller, now 75, has been interviewed by investigators several times over the years, but he recently made statements that raised their suspicions, according to law enforcement sources.
Stanley K. Patz / AP
Etan Patz, who vanished on May 25, 1979, and has never been found, after leaving his family's SoHo home for a short walk to his school bus stop in New York.
In a recent interview with investigators, he blurted out “What if the body was moved?” according to an official.
Sources also say they have evidence to suggest Patz had been in the basement before.
Miller hasn't been named a suspect, and his lawyer says he has nothing to do with the case.
Investigators Saturday were mostly concentrating their search towards the rear of the basement, where a cadaver-sniffing dog recently picked up a scent.
It's unclear what the renewed probe may turn up, if anything.
"We're hopeful that we can bring some level of comfort to the parents, perhaps find some — obviously, the body of this poor child — but evidence that may lead to a successful investigation in this case," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. He was a lieutenant working on organized crime cases when Etan Patz vanished.
As for whether authorities were optimistic, he said, "I really can't say."
Through a lawyer, Miller denied having anything to do with Etan's vanishing, which helped turn missing children into a nationwide cause. Miller's grandson, Tony Miller, said Friday outside his home that his grandfather is a "good guy" who "wouldn't do this."
Investigators have also questioned a second person, Jesse Snell, in connection with the re-examination of evidence. NBC New York has learned that on the morning Patz disappeared in 1979, Snell was observed at the building where police are searching now, and also worked with Miller. Investigators would not elaborate on why they met with Snell.
The investigation into the disappearance of Patz has stretched through decades and countries, from basements to rooftops and seemingly everywhere in between.
No one has ever been charged criminally — and Etan Patz, the little boy with sandy brown hair and a toothy grin, was declared dead in 2001.
This week, after more than a decade of relative quiet, the case suddenly ran hot again, after the cadaver-sniffing dog picked up the scent.
The investigation has reached similar highs before — only for the trail to go cold for years at a time.
Vanished in 1979
Patz vanished on May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood.
There was an exhaustive search by the police and a crush of media attention. The boy's photo was one of the first of a missing child on a milk carton. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed. SoHo was not a neighborhood of swank boutiques and galleries as now, but of working-class New Yorkers rattled by the news.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the boy's whereabouts, and sightings were frequently reported, to no avail. In 1986, a child resembling Etan was spotted in Israel, which prompted detectives to circulate his photo there. Nothing came of it.
A name gradually emerged as a possible suspect: Jose Ramos, a drifter and onetime boyfriend of Etan's baby sitter. In the early 1980s, he was arrested on theft charges, and had photos of other young, blond boys in his backpack. But there was no hard evidence linking Ramos to the crime.
Missing persons cases, like homicides, are generally considered cold after six months, but they're never closed. And with seemingly no new leads, the case would go quiet for years. In three decades, 10 detectives have been assigned to head up the case. The FBI and police are working jointly.
"Those cases are still maintained by someone, but the attention they get diminishes over time," said Joseph Pollini, a retired NYPD lieutenant in the cold case squad, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "There's often nothing you can do, when you have no new leads."
Reviving the case
A fresh lead came in 2000, after Ramos, now in prison in Pennsylvania for sexually molesting two boys in unrelated cases, admitted he was with Etan the day he disappeared. He was said to have told a cellmate: "Etan is dead. There is no body, and there will never be a body."
That prompted police to scour for clues in the building where Ramos lived at the time. They dismantled the furnace and searched it for DNA. But they found only animal traces.
By the next year, father Stan Patz, who never moved or even changed their phone number in the hope their son would reach out, had Etan declared dead in order to sue Ramos in civil court. He was tired of waiting for justice, he said at the time.
A civil judge in 2004 found him to be responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of the boy, after he disobeyed her orders to answer deposition questions under oath for a lawyer representing Etan's parents. Ramos says he didn't do it.
The ruling provided a tiny measure of comfort to the family, though Stan Patz never collected the $2 million the judge ordered Ramos to pay. But the criminal case continues, and prosecutors lacked enough evidence to charge Ramos criminally.
The case was quiet until 2010 when new district attorney Cyrus R. Vance said he was going to revisit it.
Ramos is scheduled to be released from prison in Pennsylvania in November. His pending freedom is one of the factors that has given new urgency to the case.
The basement space being searched sits beneath several clothing boutiques. Investigators began by removing drywall partitions so they could get to brick walls that were exposed in 1979. The work will continue through the weekend.
About 50 law enforcement agents including forensics experts and an anthropologist are on scene. While cadaver-sniffing dogs are capable of detecting scents much older than 33 years, it's also possible the dog picked up an animal scent or was plain wrong.
The swank cobblestone street remained closed off and was a veritable media circus, with trucks and crews parked along the curb and gawking tourists stopping to snap photos.
The Patz family hasn't commented or turned up near the site, though it's visible from their home — they've seen the circus before.
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