BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | “I was scared of him,” she remembered.
She recalled the man’s big German shepherd, and that the man had a bushy beard and mustache, and that he was “very dirty.”
“He had long fingernails that were black — kids remember that,” she said. He also wore a multicolored Mexican blanket like a poncho.
As a carefree youngster growing up in Soho, she’d play hopscotch and tag in the streets. But whenever she saw him coming, she’d run and hide.
He’d try to kiss her but she was repulsed by his facial hair.
He’d always try to give her some sort of present, usually children’s books he’d found, but she’d decline.
“I didn’t want his dirty books from the garbage anyway,” she said.
As for why the man was so interested in her, she said, “I looked like a boy when I was 3. I had a short haircut.”
According to the woman, the man would get close to young local children through their parents.
“He was very charming with adults,” she said. “He was very personable. They would talk with him for hours.”
And there’s one more thing she’ll never forget about him — his strange dark eyes.
“Something with his eyes — he had these gleaming eyes. It was something shiny — it was like he was always laughing at you.”
Now in her mid-30s and still living in New York, the woman requested that her name not be printed out of concern for her safety. The man, Jose Ramos, may get out of jail in November in Pennsylvania, where he’s been serving time on child-molestation charges.
Ramos, now 68, has long been the number one suspect in the disappearance of Etan Patz, 6, from Soho 33 years ago.
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During the meticulous search of the 127B Prince St. basement two weeks ago for the remains of Etan Patz, an F.B.I. agent dumped rubble and dirt from the excavation into a dumpster on Prince St. The debris is being segregated at a Staten Island landfill in case it needs to be re-examined later on.
In a story that made international headlines, hoping to solve the mystery of the little blond boy’s disappearance, two weeks ago the F.B.I. and the New York Police Department dismantled an 800-square-foot basement at Prince and Wooster Sts.
According to F.B.I. spokesperson Mike Flannelly, speaking at the time, there was “probable cause” for re-examining the space. Also, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., two years ago, had vowed to put renewed effort into the investigation.
The basement had been checked in 1979 shortly after Etan vanished, but police had balked at tearing up its concrete floor then — newly poured after the young boy went missing — because the handyman who used the space said they’d have to pay him to replace it.
Since then, forensic and police technology have greatly improved. For example, according to Paul Browne, the N.Y.P.D.’s chief spokesperson, while bloodhounds existed back then, cadaver dogs did not.
After a cadaver dog got a “hit” in the 127B Prince St. basement several weeks ago, authorities obtained a warrant to search the site for human remains, clothing and personal effects. The erstwhile handyman, Othniel Miller, now 76, became a “person of interest” in the case.
Yet the meticulous basement search ended after four days, having turned up “no obvious human remains.”
The location was just a block from Etan’s home — where his parents still live — and a block from West Broadway, where he was going to catch the school bus on the first day he was allowed to walk to the bus stop alone.
According to reports, Etan sometimes helped Miller with his work, and Miller had “paid” him a dollar for this the night before he vanished.
Still the main suspect
Yet Jose Ramos, not Othniel Miller — depending on which tabloid newspaper you were reading two weeks ago, and on which day — remains the primary suspect in Etan’s disappearance. Ramos, who dated the young boy’s babysitter, was a street character who hung around Soho in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Back then, Ira Blutreich, The Villager’s editorial cartoonist, and his wife, Iris, had a storefront studio on Sullivan St. between Prince and Houston Sts. across from St. Anthony’s Church. Iris made and sold marionettes there and Ira was doing graphic-design work for guides to the city that he was putting out. Ramos would sometimes drop by to chat with them while they worked.
Iris also frequently threw dinner parties, either in the studio or out front on the sidewalk, where she’d set up a table. She’d invite a lot of people, Ramos sometimes among them.
It was kind of “a hippie vibe,” Ira recalled of the scene. It was apparently a place where a person like Ramos could fit in.
“I knew him as Mike Ramos,” Ira said. “He said he had been an art director in the past and he had a knowledge of printing process. I remember talking to him about art a lot.”
Blutreich said he’d be working on a Mylar cutout for a print and Ramos would give him advice on how to improve it — “whether I should have it cut off or bleed off.”
“He was smart, very smart. He was very charming,” the cartoonist said. “I just remember someone who came in and was interesting.”
Ira said, another time, he bumped into Ramos selling books at a table outside the Jefferson Market Library on Sixth Ave.
At night, Ramos “would roam around and collect things,” the cartoonist said.
“He had a gray hat with pins, and would pull it off and try to give a pin to the kids,” he remembered. “It was like a beret with a visor.”
Upset at pedophile story
Ira recalled once when Ramos came to their studio in March 1982, upset after the New York Post ran a small news brief about his being exonerated of charges that he tried to lure some kids in the Bronx into a drainpipe he was living in. The previous Post article about the alleged incident had been a full two-page spread in the front of the newspaper, but the follow-up item on the charges being dropped was buried in the back of the paper.
“He thought it was unfair,” Ira said.
Another curious thing about Ramos that stuck in Ira’s mind is that he said he had built an A-frame house on a small parcel of property not claimed by anyone down in Tribeca by F. Illi Ponte restaurant. Ramos claimed to have checked city records for the plot and said no one owned it.
“He was actually living with someone,” Ira recalled. “He was very proud of the house and the way it looked. He kept saying there was a restaurant there that served longshoremen. He said they dumped their garbage on his property.”
Ira tried to tell the police about Ramos’s A-frame house, but they weren’t interested. He was only interviewed for the case once by the police, who specifically questioned him about a man who sold balloons in Washington Square Park.
“At the time, he was engaged to be married,” Ira said. “He was an artist and he did the balloons on the side.”
The cartoonist was friendly with the balloon man because Blutreich would take his two young children to the park and talk to him.
‘He was well-spoken’
Ira’s wife, Iris, said Ramos used to come into her studio at night when she was working and converse with her. He told her about living in “an abandoned pipe” in Van Cortlandt Park, as well as about living by the Ponte restaurant.
“He said he had the pipe lit up with car batteries,” she said. “He said he had kids in there, but didn’t say anything about doing anything with them.
“He used to have an attaché case — the first time. He said he used to be in advertising. He said his family didn’t talk to him. He was well-spoken, he carried himself well.”
The Blutreichs’ Italian neighbors kept an eye on the store — and on Ramos.
“The people on Sullivan St. used to watch him,” she recalled. “They didn’t like him.”
“All sorts of people walked into my studio,” she said. “I just assumed he had fallen off the wagon. He didn’t smell bad, like a subway person. His hands were really dirty. He smelled like a dog smell — like he must have slept with his dog.”
Despite Ramos’s saying he had squatted “unclaimed land,” Iris believes the Department of Sanitation knocked down his A-frame house.
She also remembers Ramos’s girlfriend at the time, who was about 20, while he was 30 to 35.
“She was a young girl and there was something she was very angry about with him,” Iris said, recalling one sighting. “She was young with fair skin.”
Ira said he never knew the handyman, Othniel Miller, and that his wife just recalled seeming him on the street.
A major media event
Stanley and Julie Patz, Etan’s parents, declined to speak to the press two weeks ago during the basement excavation. On the operation’s first day, someone from their building taped a skateboard deck over the intercom to stop reporters from buzzing.
The next day, the Patzes taped a notice by the intercom, addressed to “the hardworking and patient media people,” saying they had “No comment.”
This Monday, when a reporter called, Stanley Patz replied, “We’re not doing media interviews.”
The basement investigation was a major media event. Longtime Soho denizens and tourists alike came to gawk. By the second day, with the help of a Con Ed jackhammer crew, the joint F.B.I./N.Y.P.D. team was systematically tearing up the floor and removing the rubble and dirt bucket-brigade style.
Joe McNamara, a designer who moved into the neighborhood in 1982, said, “I still remember the picture of that kid with the blond hair and the gap tooth.” Recalling Soho circa 1979, he said, “It was much less commercial. It would have been the type of place where people could be lurking around.”
Not all in the crowd of onlookers, though, recalled Etan’s “Missing” photo on the sides of milk cartons. On the excavation’s first day, Debbie Leiker, 34, in town from Atlanta, asked what was going on. Queried if she knew the story of Etan Patz’s disappearance, she said, “No — but we’re going to go Google it. I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is like what we see on TV, like ‘CSI.’ ”
Patzes kept pressure on
Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said the fact the investigation is still ongoing is a credit to Stan Patz’s tenacity. Sweeney said Patz, a few years ago, joined Sweeney’s political club, Downtown Independent Democrats, to urge Vance and the other D.A. hopefuls to pledge to keep up the search.
“He put a lot of pressure on the candidates to investigate this case,” Sweeney said.
The Soho activist noted that Etan Patz’s disappearance and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby were “the two most famous kidnappings of the 20th century.”
At the time of Etan’s disappearance, Ramos was living in an apartment at 234 E. Fourth St. He subsequently admitted taking a boy there the day that Etan vanished. In 2000, police checked the building’s boiler for evidence of human remains, but found nothing.
In 2001, the Patzes had Etan legally declared dead. In 2004, they won a civil case against Ramos in which he was declared responsible for Etan’s death.
‘I hope he didn’t do it’
Ira said he and Iris never saw anything in Ramos that would have led them to believe he was a pedophile or a killer. Asked this week if he thought Ramos was behind Etan’s disappearance, Ira said, “I hope he didn’t do it. I personally liked him. My daughter — because he was arrested in Pennsylvania — she always thought he was guilty. She was scared of him when she was a kid.”