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BY ART GATTI | I raised and helped raise a lot of kids in my day, mostly here in the West Village. At one point, though, some of those kids lived a few blocks from where Etan Patz disappeared. That tragic case crushed the spirit of a generation of Downtown parents, and we were forever after ultra-watchful.
My parenting skills weren’t great, yet I thought I was a pretty good watchdog. And then there was that one, horrific moment — a moment that has haunted me for decades…until today.
“Oh, God, don’t let it be true!”
That was my reaction around 1985, when Jose Ramos was named a suspect in Etan Patz’s disappearance. At the time, Ramos was imprisoned for statutory rape in Erie, Pennsylvania. But more chilling was that the cops called him a “person of interest” in Etan’s case, because his girlfriend was the child’s babysitter.
The reason I reacted so viscerally was because I had consciously put my own kids in harm’s way when Ramos was a regular at the “Mommy Playground” at Bleecker and Hudson Sts. That was 40 years ago.
Ramos went by the name Michael Sanchez back then — told people to call him “Chief Thundercloud.” And he dressed the part, wearing fringed jackets and Native American jewelry. The “Chief” was a Peter Pan character — a grown man, and supposedly a Vietnam vet — who preferred the company of children. He joked with them, organized games, was a regular neighborhood fixture.
In 1973 my stepdaughter Rainbow was a spookily intuitive 5-year-old. She would quietly categorize and often outright reject people that I encouraged her to befriend, all for her own mysterious reasons. And to Rainbow, Chief Thundercloud was an instant rejection. At the time, I thought her attitude was due to his preferring the company of boys. But then again, maybe she knew something? I asked her about this years later, but she only said he was creepy.
Ramos/Sanchez was arrested in 1982 and charged with molesting some boys up in the Bronx, where he was living in a concrete storm pipe. The story was an odd one. Ramos had been running some minor scams with neighborhood bad boys, fencing stolen books, when he got into a dispute with a couple of them. In the end, he spent some time in jail.
“I know that guy!” I told the city editor at the New York Post, so I got to interview him over the phone, from his jail. My story appeared, yet did little to help arrive at any understanding of this strange character. The Chief’s story was plausible: Bad boys “tried to screw him” in a stolen-book caper and he grabbed them. That was it. It was the grabbing and shaking that got him arrested — or so he claimed.
The story died…but it gave me a creepy feeling. Was Michael Sanchez/Jose Ramos a child molester…or worse? The Etan Patz case traumatized parents all over New York, but especially those of us Downtown. So, the very idea that I had possibly handed over my kids to a guy in the park who might have murdered them haunted me for years.
Ramos remains in jail. He was clearly a “chicken hawk” and deserves to serve time, but — apparently truthfully — denied connection to the case all these years. Pedro Hernandez, a criminally disturbed bodega worker, has confessed to the crime.
My hippie trustfulness probably endangered my kids a few times more than I ever knew, but my judgment wasn’t that far off. A horrible, long wait has finally ended, and Stan and Julie Patz have closure. And as a very minor sidebar, I don’t have to cringe every time the case is mentioned.