On 40th Anniversary of Etan Patz's Vanishing, a Look at a Photo of the Little Boy Years Before His Abduction

Etan Patz's disappearance became national news and launched a movement that saw the development of new legislation and methods to search for missing children. 

One bright morning in the fall of 1975, Carrie Boretz took to the streets of New York to take pictures. 

As she had done almost every single day since her photojournalism internship with the Village Voice began three months earlier, Boretz set out to photograph the ordinary moments that often go unnoticed in a bustling city. 

“I was very shy as a kid, and as a young adult, and the camera was an amazing protective device for me; I could see anyone, I could talk to anyone if I had this camera in front of me,” Boretz told InsideEdition.com. “Coming across the street … was a mother, you could tell with a few kids, all lined up, holding each other, holding the stroller; it was just really a lovely image.”

Boretz shot only one frame but captured what appeared to be a happy family full of smiling children. Several glanced at her camera in time for the picture, including the little boy being pushed in a stroller by his mother.

“I remember it was easy to shoot. … This was just so easy back then, the ‘70s was easy; there were no barriers,” Boretz said. “So this was just lovely and … I do remember standing there on that corner just going, ‘Oh, wow, I can’t wait till I have kids.’” 

Boretz would go on to get married, have the children she had dreamt of on that corner in October 1975 and capture life on the streets of New York as a photojournalist for decades.  

“Many years later, like five years ago, I decided to do a book of my street photography of New York, [in] the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s,” she said. 

She set out to comb through the negatives of her photographs, of which there were many. 

“I have thousands and thousands,” Boretz said. “And it was a wonderful process; I scanned every single roll I had ever taken. And many pictures I remember taking, including this one. Of course, I didn’t remember who was in it.”

That little boy being pushed in a stroller by his mom, whose content gaze fixed on Boretz’s lens just in time, was Etan Patz

Only four years after he was photographed on Houston Street, Etan disappeared on his way to his school bus stop in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. His vanishing became national news and launched a movement that saw the development of new legislation and methods to search for missing children. 

“Who could not remember that face?” Boretz said of Etan. “It was on every milk carton, I remember ... just hanging out with my friends and airplanes would go by with the banners, ‘Etan Patz, little boy lost.’ It was just everywhere.”

Etan left his family’s apartment on the morning of May 25, 1979, to walk two blocks by himself to his school bus stop at West Broadway and Prince Street. It was the first time the 6-year-old boy set out on the journey alone, as he’d long petitioned his parents for a sliver of freedom. 

“Everyone knew each other, that's what New York is, just a bunch of neighborhoods ... he was walking and he went out of view and that was the last time they saw him,” Boretz said. 

Patz’s family realized something was wrong when Etan didn’t return home. It was then that they learned he never made it to school. An intensive search was launched, as nearly 100 police officers and a team of bloodhounds were dispatched to search for the little boy. 

“I hope he’s with somebody wiser than he, who will take care of him and is still taking care of him, and if he is, I don’t want to hurt you in any way, I don’t want to prosecute you,” Etan’s mother, Julie Patz, said three days after her son had vanished. “I just want, whoever you are, to bring him home.”

The case eventually went cold, but Etan’s story remained a fixture in the memories of many, including Boretz. 

“I had my own two children … very independent girls, the oldest one wanting to be out on the streets alone by 8 [years old],” she said. “I remember thinking of Etan and kids who have been taken and killed.” 

So when she came across his face, which she’d come to know so well, in one of her own photos, Boretz was shocked. 

“I held on to it for around a year,” she said. “Part of me wanted to figure out how to get in touch with [his] parents, but I knew the father had been a professional photographer and they had dozens of photographs of him. And I didn’t want to reopen any wounds – [but] I’m sure you don’t have to reopen their wounds, they’re open – so I held onto it.”

About a year later, Boretz decided the photo of Etan should be shared, and so she contacted an editor at New York Magazine. “Rediscovered, an Unseen Candid Photo of Etan Patz,” the headline read alongside the image. And then the district attorney called. 

“We just saw your photograph, we’d love to have it and blow it up and keep it in the courtroom and use it as a photograph of, you know, showing what was destroyed,” Boretz recalled being told.

In an aligning of events no one could foresee, the publishing of Boretz’s image corresponded with the trial of Pedro Hernandez. 

After being arrested in 2012, Hernandez, who was an 18-year-old stock boy at a bodega near Etan’s bus stop at the time of the little boy’s disappearance, finally went to trial in 2015. It resulted in a mistrial, but a retrial began in October 2016 and ended with his being found guilty in February 2017 of kidnapping and murder.

Boretz’s photo was displayed in the courtroom during proceedings. 

“This just shows a happy kid, with a future and just joyous; he was a 2-year-old [in the picture], what 2-year-old isn’t just happy?” Boretz said. “It just makes me cry.”

Though confident the photo had little to do with the jury’s decision convict Hernandez, Boretz finds comfort in knowing it was a part of the quest for justice in Etan’s killing. 

“I felt like in the year that I kept that secret, I felt like I had this little treasure, of a life that had been destroyed but I had caught in a moment of joy, and I felt very protective of him,” she said. “I felt really close to him in a way … and then I felt guilty that I had held on to it. 

“It wasn't going to sway the jury, but there was a little tiny bit of positive feeling on my part that I had shot this. Something so innocent and ordinary,” she said. “It was just an ordinary photograph, which is really what I shoot. I shoot ordinary moments that become extraordinary sometimes, in a way. This became horribly extraordinary.”

Etan’s body has never been found. He was declared legally dead in 2001. 

On the fourth anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, May 25 was proclaimed by President Ronald Reagan National Missing Children’s Day in the U.S. The tribute spread worldwide in 2001 when May 25 was designated International Missing Children's Day.