Etan Patz is dead. He might have died 22 years ago, shortly after he disappeared from the streets of New York, or he might have died last year. There is even a chance -- though razor-thin -- that he is still alive somewhere, perhaps unaware that he has been the subject of the most exhaustive kidnapping investigation since that for Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932.
But as of Tuesday, Etan Patz is dead in the eyes of the law.
Do you remember Etan Patz? On May 25, 1979, this 6-year-old walked to a bus stop from his home in New York City's Soho neighborhood. It was the first time he was making the trip to school by himself. It was the last time he would be seen alive.
For a while, little Etan's picture became ubiquitous -- a smiling, blue-eyed boy who seemingly had vanished from the face of the earth. Because of his parents' efforts, Etan's case greatly raised awareness of missing children.
Etan was the first missing child to appear on a milk carton. President Reagan declared May 25, the day Etan disappeared, National Missing Children's Day. In the years since, the FBI and local law-enforcement agencies have made great strides in sharing information about children who have disappeared.
We felt sorrow for the Patzes and shared their hope that Etan would return to his Prince Street apartment unharmed. But that was many years ago. We have long since moved on, the currents of our own lives and the daily rush of events carrying us along, consigning the case of this missing child to memory. At most, we might have wondered, now and then, whatever became of it.
Not so for Stanley and Julia Patz. Their pain, along with their hope, has persisted through the years. Their lives have hung suspended, caught forever in that moment when they first learned their child was missing. They have not moved since Etan disappeared, nor changed their phone number, in case Etan should try to find them.
It could not have been easy for Stanley Patz to petition a New York court to have Etan legally declared dead. His lawyer, Brian O'Dwyer, called it "a horrible and painful day" for both parents. Julia Patz could not even bring herself to sign the petition, refusing to extinguish whatever embers of hope still burn within her.
Etan's father initiated the court action so that he could move ahead with a wrongful-death case against Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester presently serving a 20-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison. Ramos lived close to the Patz home in 1979, and, according to court papers, he has admitted to spending time with Etan on the day he disappeared. He is alleged to have told a former cellmate that "Etan is dead, there is no body, and there will never be a body."
Some might opine that, with the declaration of death, or if a judgment is made against Ramos, the Patzes might achieve "closure." It's a word we in the press like to use when we see a sad story run its narrative course.
But real life does not work that way. Few people appreciate this better than James Ellroy, the author of "L.A. Confidential" and other crime novels, whose mother was murdered when he was 10 years old. About closure, he has said: "It is fatuous nonsense ... nothing could bring closure."
Closure is just a word. And for Stanley and Julia Patz, it might be the saddest word there is.
Dan Rather works for CBS News.
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