Thriller traces 30-year-old case of missing New York child

  • Tue Jun 16th, 2009 8:16am
  • Life

The Bookworm

“After Etan” by Lisa R. Cohen, c.2009, Grand Central Publishing, $25.99, 379 pages.

One minute. Maybe less.

You can’t even say you turned your back. You only glanced at something there, admired something here, and in that breath of time when your eyes were elsewhere, your child disappeared.

You couldn’t think but your mind raced. You couldn’t speak, but you screamed his name. When your child is missing – even for 15 seconds – it’s not anywhere near your worst nightmare.

It goes way beyond it.

In the new book “After Etan” by Lisa R. Cohen, you’ll read the true account of a child’s disappearance 30 years ago, how it affects us even now and why you should still be concerned.

It was May 25, 1979, the school year was almost over and, for months, Etan Patz had begged his mother for more independence. Finally relenting, figuring that she could keep a long eye on him in the two-block distance between their apartment and the school bus stop, Julie Patz allowed Etan to walk himself to the corner.

She watched him for a few minutes then returned inside, confident that he’d be fine. But 6-year-old Etan never made it to school.

This being a time before AMBER Alerts, missing child databases or even little faces on milk cartons, the Patz’s friends and neighbors quickly mobilized and began a search. The police were contacted and door-to-door canvassing was done. “Missing” posters were hung on every corner in Manhattan. Everyone even remotely connected to the Patz family was interviewed, but Etan had seemingly vanished without a trace.

But the trace was there.

Three years after Etan went missing, prosecutor Stuart GraBois moved into the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York. GraBois was tenacious and relentless and, with the backing of then-mayor Rudy Guliani, he sunk his teeth into the Patz case. Starting from scratch, GraBois re-interviewed everyone and pored over stacks of boxes of documents. He chased every clue, even ones out-of-country. His persistence made enemies, including the parents of Etan Patz.

But GraBois had a reason for the digging: he knew that 6-year-old boys didn’t just disappear on their own.

He also knew that monsters really do exist.

Officially, the disappearance of Etan Patz hasn’t been solved, but Cohen leads readers to a possible conclusion shared by many, including Etan’s father. Along the way, Cohen spins a tale that’s horrifying in the brutality of the crime, fascinating in the way it changed our national and local treatment of missing child cases, and thrilling in the jailhouse and legal maneuvers meant to catch the man GraBois says made a “90 percent confession.”

As a coup de grace to her tale, Cohen reminds us that this suspect, now behind bars, may be released from prison in the not-too-distant future.

Legal thriller and true crime fans will race through this real story. If you’re looking for a keep-you-up-all-night book, this is one to grab because – although it’s going to make parents cringe, cringe again, and hug their children tight – missing “After Etan” would be a crime.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives in West Salem, Wis., with her two dogs and 9,500 books.