A father photographer’s loving eye: Why Etan Patz’s case haunts

There’s something haunting about the images of Etan Patz -- all, of course, taken before he vanished in 1979 while walking to school. That’s because the images were no mere family snapshots.

Etan’s father, Stanley, was a professional photographer. So each shot of Etan was a perfect composition combining an artist’s keen awareness of lighting and framing -- and a father’s loving eye. There is no better example than this image of Etan chomping on a piece of fruit, smiling widely for the camera, a ribbon of juice down the front of his shirt. His impish eyes dance.

After Etan disappeared in New York -- the very first time that he ventured out on his own -- images of him blanketed the nation. His face was the first to appear on the sides of milk cartons, part of the nationwide effort to find him and to publicize other unsolved cases of child abductions and disappearances.


“I really believe that’s one of the elements that captured the public -- those images,” said Ernie Allen, president and chief executive of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “It touched the hearts of millions of moms and dads in this country who looked at their story and thought, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ or my child. It marked the end of an era of innocence in America.

“It was one of those things where parents began to think, ‘Maybe the world isn’t as safe a place for my children as I thought it was.’ ”

Allen, like so many others who deal with the plight of missing children, said he is simply waiting and watching as the most recent developments in the Patz case unfold. Prosecutors on Friday filed second-degree murder charges against Pedro Hernandez, who stepped forward after years of silence to say he’d killed the boy and thrown his body into the trash. Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, were proceeding cautiously, trying to determine whether the man is telling the truth.

Hernandez’s court appearance Friday took place on the 33rd anniversary of Etan’s May 25, 1979, disappearance -- which is also National Missing Children’s Day. That designation, ushered in by President Reagan, sought to remind Americans of the plight of missing children.

In discussing the effects of Etan’s disappearance with the Los Angeles Times, Allen spoke haltingly and chose his words carefully -- seeming to not want to be misunderstood or say something that would be disrespectful of the three decades of grief carried by the Patzes.

He said that American parents and law enforcement agencies owe a debt of gratitude to the Patzes. Etan’s disappearance helped usher in new rules and regulations regarding missing children, heightening the public’s awareness and vigilance.

“You cannot say, ‘The bright side to all of this’ because that is not true, there is no bright side,” Allen said. “But this case helped illustrate for the public how inadequate our systems were for tracking down missing children.”

For example, he said, many police departments followed a mandatory waiting period of up to 72 hours before accepting a missing person report -- the assumption being that the child ran away and would soon return home safely, or was with a caring relative. If that was the case, they figured, why bother to get law enforcement all riled up?

Another example: The FBI’s nationwide database had no way of storing and tabulating information about missing children. “FBI agents literally could not enter the info into the database. They could enter data about stolen cars, stolen guns, but not stolen children,” Allen said.

That all changed with Etan -- and with a public outraged that more wasn’t being done to protect children.

Much of that change can be traced back to Stanley Patz’s images of his son.

“The photos of Etan were more than photos. They were almost art. They were art. And they have become iconic,” Allen said.

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