NEW YORK — For years, Etan Patz' parents were sure they knew who had kidnapped the first-grader on his way to school in 1979, and they devoted themselves to trying to hold him accountable.
Testimony will soon start in the murder trial they so long awaited — with a different man at the defense table, a man never suspected until he gave a 2012 confession he now disavows.
The trial partly reflects Stan and Julie Patz' efforts to keep the investigation going and make missing children a national priority. But it stands to be both searing and complex for the parents, who had pressed authorities to prosecute the earlier suspect — a convicted Pennsylvania child molester — and even brought their own wrongful-death suit against him.
"Sometimes I think the worst thing that could happen," Julie Patz once said, "would be never knowing what happened to Etan."
Jury selection is underway for Pedro Hernandez' trial in one of the first missing-child cases ever featured on milk cartons. Hernandez, a former shop worker in the Patzes' neighborhood, denies the charges. His lawyers say his confessions were fiction spurred by mental illness.
The Patzes declined to comment on the case last week. Julie Patz is expected to testify; it's not clear whether her husband will.
The Patzes — he a photographer, she a day care provider, together parents of three — became the very visible center of an exhaustive investigation after 6-year-old Etan vanished while walking two blocks to a school bus stop on May 25, 1979. Their loft in Manhattan's then-edgy SoHo neighborhood became a makeshift police command post and media center, their phone an ever-ringing hotline. Their faces were suddenly a nation's portrait of parental agony that could strike anyone.
"They were unassuming people who were living their lives, being part of their community, being friends with their neighbors, raising their children. And this happened to them," says Lisa R. Cohen, the author of 2009's "After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive."
As the investigation stretched on, the Patzes grappled with police scrutiny and strangers questioning their parenting choices. A man was charged with trying to extort them by claiming he knew Etan's whereabouts. Leads sparked and fizzled.
Troubled by the gaps in a then highly localized approach to missing children, the Patzes became leaders within a burgeoning movement to make them a national cause. With the parents of abducted Florida boy Adam Walsh and others, they successfully pushed for federal legislation that allowed missing-child reports to be entered into the FBI's national crime database. The date of Etan's disappearance became National Missing Children's Day.
"His brave parents have fought to increase our awareness of this tragedy" and improve enforcement, President Ronald Reagan's 1983 proclamation said.
Meanwhile, police came across a new suspect: Jose Ramos, who had dated a woman who sometimes walked Etan home from school. Ramos would later be accused of sexually assaulting boys in Pennsylvania and serve over 25 years on his convictions. And he told authorities about interacting with a boy he thought could be Etan on the day he disappeared, though Ramos said he hadn't killed the boy. He has since denied having anything to do with Etan's disappearance.
The Patzes took the painful step of having Etan legally declared dead so they could sue Ramos. After he stopped cooperating with questioning, a civil court held him responsible for Etan's death. But prosecutors said there wasn't enough evidence to charge anyone.
Stan Patz got involved in Manhattan district attorney races to make his disappointment known. Current DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. pledged to take a fresh look at the case after he took office in 2010, and publicity about investigative efforts in 2012 helped unleash the tip that led police to Hernandez.
The tipster reported that Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, told relatives in the 1980s he'd harmed a child in New York City. Hernandez ultimately gave police a videotaped confession to luring Etan to a basement with a soda, choking him and dumping his still-living body in a box with some curbside trash.
The Patzes haven't commented on the case against Hernandez. But it's created a dilemma for the lawyer who helped them sue Ramos.
"We spent many years of our lives pursuing one individual and were totally convinced that he committed the crime. It's hard after all of these years to let go of that. ... but on the other hand, you have to let it play out," said the attorney, Brian O'Dwyer.
"This is all very strange for all of us."
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.
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