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Etan Patz and innocence lost

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Solution of a New York city murder normally wouldn’t peak much interest elsewhere, but the arrest of a suspect in the Etan Patz disappearance makes folks across the country stop, and ponder innocence lost.

Thirty-three years ago today, six-year-old Etan disappeared, walking to a school bus stop in Manhattan. It was the first day his parents had allowed him to walk to the bus on his own.

From today’s vantage point, allowing a first-grader to walk anywhere on his own in a major city seems mind-boggling. A couple of days before the arrest, I was talking with the father of an 11-year-old who still walks his son to and from school, in a relatively safe neighborhood in Chicago.

He’s expecting his 6th-grader to object to the escort at some point, or for his son’s classmates to begin to tease him. Still, he said, “If anything ever happened, I’d be like— I could have walked him.”

Etan Patz’ abduction wasn’t the first “stranger danger” case, but the disappearance of an angelic-looking tyke in the country’s biggest media market triggered a new and prolonged focus on such cases.

Four years later, on the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, President Reagan declared the date National Missing Children’s Day. Etan’s face became the first to be featured on a milk carton, and it was his abduction that— along with the disappearance of 6-year-old Adam Walsh from a Florida shopping mall, in 1981— led to the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Adam Walsh’s father John became a high-profile victim’s rights advocate, and eventually, the host of the TV show “America’s Most Wanted”. Stranger danger abductions rose even higher in the American consciousness.

It is, in some respects, a fear that’s out of line with reality. 82% of kids who disappear in this country are victims of non-custodial parental abductions, not strangers.

Still, the notion of a child being snatched by a malevolent stranger haunts anyone with any empathy or parental instinct, and raising public awareness often becomes the reason for living for parents who undergo that sort of hell.

Years of covering the Jimmy Ryce case brought that home for me, in a big way. Nine-year-old Jimmy was snatched after getting off a school bus in a rural area south of Miami. He was molested and then killed. His abductor was eventually caught and convicted, and has been on Death Row for 14 years now.

I met Don and Claudine Ryce right after their only son disappeared, before they knew he was dead. They were desperate to publicize the case, and reached out often through the media, organizing searches of the area and trying to find other ways to keep their son’s face and case in front of the public.

Without fail, the Ryces were cordial and polite. Without fail, I left interviews with them with an aching heart and a lump in my throat.

After Jimmy’s body was found, buried on a nearby farm, and through years of court cases, it was the same. Don Ryce all but gave up his practice in labor law, and he and Claudine became tireless advocates of what became Florida’s Jimmy Ryce Act, which allows child sex predators to be detained in mental-health facilities, even after their prison sentences expire.

That law became the model for others around the country, and eventually the law-enforcement training center at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was named for Jimmy.

Their public campaigns were what kept Don and Claudine Ryce going, their motive for getting up in the morning, their way of giving their son’s short life greater meaning.

It never filled the void that tragedy had left in their lives. Sadness and fatigue stayed on their faces.

Surely, the arrest in New York won’t bring much comfort to the parents of Etan Patz. Indeed, it may well re-open a wound that never heals.

Stan Patz’s reaction, as described by one police official, is “a little surprised”.

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