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Police question handyman in Etan Patz case

As investigators dig up a New York basement in search of the long-missing boy, others again approach a man who had a workshop there.

April 20, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Debris is removed from a basement in New York where police are looking for the remains of Etan Patz, who went missing in 1979 at age 6.
Debris is removed from a basement in New York where police are looking for… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )

NEW YORK — Police and FBI agents began hauling chunks of concrete from a Manhattan basement on Friday and planned to sift through dirt from the subterranean room's torn-up floor in search of the remains of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished 33 years ago.

The search, underway at a building on Prince Street in Manhattan's tourist-choked SoHo district, began Thursday and is expected to last several days.

Officials have refused to say what precisely led them to the site, down the block from where Etan Patz lived, but they have questioned at least one person who knew the boy and who has spoken to law enforcement authorities in the past. He is Othniel Miller, a 75-year-old handyman who lives in Brooklyn and who had a workshop in the basement of the Prince Street building in 1979.

On Friday, a lawyer representing Miller, Michael Farkas, appeared outside Miller's Brooklyn home and said his client had nothing to do with Etan's disappearance. "Mr. Miller did not do this. That is why he is fully cooperating with this investigation," Farkas said a day after FBI agents came to the home to speak with Miller.

Neither FBI nor New York police officials have described Miller as a suspect. However, they have said that one reason interest was renewed in the basement is because a cadaver-sniffing dog detected a scent in the room recently. "The cadaver dog is one piece of several different factors," Tim Flannelly, a special agent in the FBI's New York office, said Friday.

"You have to balance that with new evidence and new information," he said, describing himself as "cautiously optimistic" that this latest search would end the mystery of what happened to Etan.

The boy disappeared on May 25, 1979, after his parents, Stan and Julie Patz, decided to let him walk alone to his school bus stop two blocks away. He never made it to school.

Etan was declared legally dead in 2001, though a body never was found and no one was charged. It remains one of the country's most haunting missing-child cases.

The Patzes live in the same apartment, up Prince Street from where the search was underway, but have not commented on the new developments. A sign on their door Friday read in part, "The answer to all your questions at this time is 'no comment.'"

In the past, suspicion had fallen on a convicted sex offender named Jose Antonio Ramos, who is serving time in Pennsylvania on an unrelated child molestation charge and who knew Etan through his girlfriend.

Ramos, who is due to be released from prison this year, denied involvement in Etan's disappearance. Stan Patz, however, was so convinced he was responsible that each year he would send Ramos a copy of Etan's "Missing" poster along with a note demanding that Ramos explain what happened to Etan.

tina.susman@latimes.com

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