Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1979

6-Year-old Etan Patz—boy on milk carton—goes missing

On the morning of May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz walked the two blocks from his home to his bus stop in Manhattan. It was his first time walking there alone before school, and the last day his parents would ever see him. That’s because someone abducted Etan during that walk. In his parents’ effort to find him, Etan became among the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.

Julie and Stanley Patz didn’t realize her son was missing until later that day, when he didn’t come home from the Independence Plaza School. They soon learned he hadn’t been in his first grade class that day or even made the bus that morning, and called the police. Etan’s disappearance led to nationwide search that wasn’t resolved until 2017, when Pedro Hernandez was convicted of abducting and killing him.

Etan was among the first non-celebrity missing children to gain national attention, the way JonBenét Ramsey would in 1996. In the early 1980s, Etan’s face appeared on milk cartons all over the country encouraging people to contact the authorities if they’d seen him. Etan’s case also led President Ronald Reagan to declare May 25 National Missing Children’s Day in 1983, and played a role in the founding of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In the decades after Etan went missing, there were fake confessions, false leads and even young men who showed up at the Patz’s doorstep claiming to be Etan. For a long time, investigators suspected Jose Ramos of abducting him. Ramos was a friend of Etan’s former babysitter who was convicted of child molestation in the 1980s. But investigators were never able to confirm that Ramos was guilty. In 2000, authorities declared Etan legally dead, and the case went cold.

Investigators reopened the case in 2010, and two years later they excavated the foundation of a home near Etan’s to look for clues. The excavation didn’t turn anything up, but the media coverage of it did lead people to report some new tips, one of which lead investigators to the person they were looking for. That person was Pedro Hernandez, who had been 18 and worked at the bodega near Etan’s bus stop the day he disappeared.

Investigators discovered that in 1982, Hernandez had admitted in an open church confessional that he had killed a young boy. His family knew about this and had begun discussing it again when the saw news of the excavation. Police interrogated Hernandez, and he confessed that he had lured Etan into the bodega and strangled him. He then put his body in a box and left it outside in a trash pile a couple of blocks away.

Hernandez’s 2015 case ended in a mistrial because one juror was not convinced he was guilty. Like the defense had argued, that juror was concerned Ramos was mentally ill and that police may have coerced him into a false confession. At his next trial in 2017, Ramos was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years to life in federal prison.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Worst air crash in U.S. history

On Friday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend, American Airlines Flight 191, a Los Angeles-bound DC-10, takes off at 3:03 p.m. from Chicago-O’Hare International airport with 271 aboard. As Flight 191 raised its nose during the initial stage of the takeoff, an engine under the left ...read more

The English Restoration

Under invitation by leaders of the English Commonwealth, Charles II, the exiled king of England, lands at Dover, England, to assume the throne and end 11 years of military rule. Prince of Wales at the time of the English Civil War, Charles fled to France after Oliver Cromwell’s ...read more

Constitutional Convention begins

Four years after the United States won its independence from England, 55 state delegates, including George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, convene in Philadelphia to compose a new U.S. constitution. The Articles of Confederation, ratified several months before ...read more

Catholic priest ordained in America

In Baltimore, Maryland, Father Stephen Theodore Badin becomes the first Catholic priest to be ordained in the United States. Badin was ordained by Bishop John Carroll, an early advocate of American Catholicism, and appointed to the Catholic mission in Kentucky. In colonial ...read more

Star Wars opens

On this day in 1977, Memorial Day weekend opens with an intergalactic bang as the first of George Lucas’ blockbuster Star Wars movies hits American theaters. The incredible success of Star Wars–it received seven Oscars, and earned $461 million in U.S. ticket sales and a gross of ...read more

Operation Knight’s Move is launched

On this day in 1944, Germany launches Operation Knight’s Move, in an attempt to seize Yugoslav communist partisan leader Tito. Using parachute drops and glider troops, German forces landed in the Yugoslavian village of Drvar, where Josep Broz Tito, leader of the anti-Axis ...read more

National Democratic Front formed in Saigon

South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu assumes personal leadership of the National Social Democratic Front at its inaugural meeting in Saigon. Thieu said the establishment of this coalition party was “the first concrete step in unifying the political factions in South ...read more

Communist launch new offensive

The communists launch their third major assault of the year on Saigon. The heaviest fighting occurred during the first three days of June, and again centered on Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon, where U.S. and South Vietnamese forces used helicopters, fighter-bombers, and ...read more

Babe Ruth hits last home run

On May 25, 1935, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Babe Ruth hits his 714th home run, a record for career home runs that would stand for almost 40 years. This was one of Ruth’s last games, and the last home run of his career. Ruth went four for four on the day, hitting ...read more

Star Wars released

Science-fiction fans and movie buffs in general have cause to celebrate on this day in 1977, when 20th Century Fox releases George Lucas’ space odyssey Star Wars. After Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti (1973), became a hit, Fox agreed to put up $9.5 million for the ...read more

DC-10 crashes, killing all aboard

Almost 300 people are killed on this day in 1979 when an American Airlines flight crashes and explodes after losing one engine just after takeoff. It was the beginning of Memorial Day weekend in 1979 when 277 passengers filled Flight 191 from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport bound for ...read more