In the renewed interest in finding Etan Patz, there are few details being released by law enforcement officials but a clearer picture is beginning to emerge about why authorities are digging up a basement in Manhattan. For decades, convicted pedophile Jose Ramos was considered the only real suspect in the boys disappearance but media sources in New York are learning why the FBI has become interested in Othniel Miller. It’s not always what law enforcement says…it’s what they are doing and while they are digging, they have Othniel Miller under surveillance. They are keeping a close eye on his home and every movement he makes as they close in on what they think may be telling evidence.
In the world of investigations, police rarely name someone a suspect but a person of interest who is under watch is notable. And there is more. Agents have interviewed Mr. Miller, who is 75 and has had several strokes, some in the last year. They also tracked down his ex-wife, Phyllis, who an official said told agents that her former husband had raped a 10-year old girl. “Given that recent information, he skyrocketed to the top of the list,” a law enforcement official said about how agents came to focus on Mr. Miller.
During one interview, agents watched Mr. Miller as he grew aroused while he looked through a book of images of children, two law enforcement officials said. At another point during questioning, when agents asked Mr. Miller about the possibility of Etan’s being buried in the basement, he asked back, “What if the body was moved?” It is important to keep in mind that while Miller has not been named a suspect and has been cooperating with law enforcement…they are watching him and they noted his arousal when looking at images of children. While that is not evidence if a crime, it is enough that they have him on their radar and in law enforcement work, that, in and of itself, is significant.
Investigators are unsure what the current search of the basement at 127B Prince Street will reveal; they remain hopeful that some forensic evidence will emerge that could lead them to a suspect and an arrest. Since the 1980s, the prime suspect in the case has been Jose A. Ramos, a junk collector who briefly dated a woman who was hired to walk neighborhood children, including Etan, home from school during a bus strike. Mr. Ramos is in prison in Pennsylvania as a child molester but Mr. Ramos is no longer the only person being watched.
We know something about prisons here in Texas. 1 in 22 of our citizens is in jail, prison or under court-ordered supervision. We have more prisons than any state in the country at 112. Some of our county jails are massive, Houston’s Harris County Jail system incarcerates almost 10,000 people. Like a lot of the country, Texas went on a prison building boon back in the early 90′s after politicians preached a tough on crime mantra passing strict sentencing guidelines. We have, under the guise of being safer, created the biggest prison industrial complex in the world. We have, with the stroke of legislative pens, created more felony class convictions than any other state. We have created a monster and it’s a monster we have to feed at an alarming rate. Turns out, our problems are part of a national problem that relies on locking people to solve a myriad of issues.
CBS News reports that at the Gadsden County Jail near Tallahassee, Fla., there are bunks, and mattresses on the floor. The jail has a capacity of about 150 inmates, but there are presently 230 inmates in the facility right now. Walter McNeil, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, sees the same story everywhere he goes in the U.S. In one “pod” of Gadsen jail, in which there are 24 bunks, there are 28 inmates – and by the time the weekend comes, there will be five or six more inmates.
That’s nothing compared to California. Overcrowding was so bad there, the U.S. Supreme Court called it “cruel and unusual punishment,” and last May ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000. Nationwide, the numbers are staggering: Nearly 2.4 million people behind bars, even though over the last 20 years the crime rate has actually dropped by more than 40 percent. “The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners – we incarcerate a greater percentage of our population than any country on Earth,” said Michael Jacobson, director of the non-partisan Vera Institute of Justice. He also ran New York City’s jail and probation systems in the 1990s.
A report by the organization, “The Price of Prisons,” states that the cost of incarcerating one inmate in Fiscal 2010 was $47,421 per year. “In states like Connecticut, Washington state, New York, it’s anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000,” he said. Yes – $60,000 a year. That’s a teacher’s salary, or a firefighter’s. Our epidemic of incarceration costs us taxpayers $63.4 billion a year. The explosion in incarceration began in the early 1970s – the political response to an explosion in urban violence and increased drug use. “So ‘Tough on crime,’ ‘three strikes, you’re out,’ ‘Let ‘em rot, throw away the key’ – all that stuff resulted in more mandatory sentencing, longer and longer sentencing,” said Jacobson.
But nothing came close to the impact of the war on drugs. When it was announced in 1971, fewer than 40,000 people were incarcerated for drug offenses; now, it’s more than half a million. And here’s the elephant in the room: Blacks use drugs at the same rate as whites, but go to prison more – nearly 3 out of 4 people incarcerated for drug possession are African-American. “It’s emblematic of the way in which race is contributing to mass incarceration,” said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the non-profit Equal Justice Initiative, and a professor at New York University Law School. “How do you answer people who say, ‘Well, the people who are in prison are bad people, and if they happen to be African-American, it’s because there’s a higher crime rate in the neighborhoods where these prisoners have come from’?” asked Teichner.
“I’d say for most, for many offenses, it’s simply not true,” replied Stevenson. “Drug use is not a problem unique to the African-American community. This problem is as great a problem in white communities, affluent communities, [where] we prosecute it differently. “In communities of color, you see devastating consequences as a result of our policies. Now, one out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 35 is in jail, in prison, on probation or on parole.” Whatever the crime, if you go to the Equal Justice Initiative website, you’ll see the 70-plus 13- and 14-year-olds sentenced to life in prison without parole in this country. Nearly two-thirds are children of color.
Bryan Stevenson appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court last month to argue that, even in murder cases, sentencing kids that young to die in prison is cruel and unusual punishment. “We can’t hide from these problems much longer, we really can’t,” Stevenson said. U.S. Senator Jim Webb – ex-Marine and Vietnam War hero – couldn’t be called soft on crime. The Democrat from Virginia has tried and failed to get Congress to address the comprehensive reform he is convinced can’t wait. “This is not a political winner, but it’s a leadership necessity in my view,” Webb said. “If you are a violent career criminal, you deserve incarceration. . . . But we can be much more adaptive in areas of non-violent crime, in length of sentences, and particularly in what we do with people when they begin to re-enter society.”
In a bad economy, just the expense of incarceration is beginning to create converts among state legislators faced with disastrous budget problems. In 2011 alone, 15 states passed significant sentencing reform legislation. Democrats and Republicans united in their determination to cut prison populations. Which is why, not far from Tallahassee, the State of Florida is building a so-called re-entry center for 400 non-violent inmates. Here they’ll cost taxpayers HALF what the state would spend on keeping them in prison.”This is the smart way of trying to deal with our prison population,” said Chief McNeil. “We know that the vast majority of the people in prison are going to return to prison unless we do something different.”
Doing something different at the Gadsden County Jail, a few miles away, means teaching prisoners basic skills they’ll need when they get out – like how to dress for success, and how to interview for a job. Wishful thinking? When non-convicts can’t even find jobs? Hardliners scoff at the notion that prison education programs lower recidivism. But criminologists don’t. They see education as one tool among many that can help keep people from going back to prison. At California’s formidable San Quentin Prison, inmates are encouraged to enroll in the Prison University Project. In a class on Greek tragedy, every man here took the plays personally.
Henry, an avid reader, says everything that he reads is “one more tool that I have to keep me – I’m not going to say keep me from coming back here, because I’M going to keep me from coming back here.” But here are the statistics, from the U.S. Department of Justice: More than 50 percent of ex-prisoners will be back behind bars within three years. So, how to keep them from going to prison in the first place, whether by rethinking the old lock-’em-up-throw-away-the-key mentality, or preventing crime with beefed-up policing in high crime areas?
That’s exactly what the State of New York has been doing. Between 2000 and 2010, its prison population DROPPED by more than 13,000 – nearly 20 percent. And guess what: The crime rate also dropped, by 21 percent . . . in New York City, by nearly 30 percent. “No one can really explain exactly why,” said Jacobson. “The changing nature of the economy, change in drug use patterns, more targeted policing . . . But one of the things we know going forward, if we want to both continue and drive down crime even further, is that increasing the size of our prison systems will not get you there.” In 2009, the number of inmates in state prisons declined by just under 5,000. It was the first drop in nearly 40 years, since 1972.
In Texas…slowly…we are getting the message that we cannot incarcerate our way out of society’s ills. We cannot afford it. The Texas prison population, at record growth for years, leveled off in 2007 when legislators decided to expand community based treatment and diversion programs, something they will likely deal with again. State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) who is chairman of the state senate’s Criminal Justice Committee addressed the state’s problem in a 2008 interview with the NEW YORK TIMES. Whitmire said, “our violent offenders, we lock them up for a very long time — rapists, murderers, child molesters, the problem was that we weren’t smart about nonviolent offenders. The legislature finally caught up with the public.” Offering an example, Whitmire said, “we have 5,500 D.W.I offenders in prison,” he said, including people caught driving under the influence who had not been in an accident. “They’re in the general population. As serious as drinking and driving is, we should segregate them and give them treatment.”
No one is suggesting that we empty maximum security prisons or release violent offenders. Obviously, any decisions regarding closing prisons and releasing inmates, must be done with due diligence and public safety must be a stringent priority. But let me suggest that, for decades, Texas has not been tough on crime but stupid on crime as Whitmire addressed. The harsh sentences given to sometimes non-violent offenders, locked up for substance abuse issues, could have and would have been better handled in rehabilitation settings that a massive prison system.
NEW YORK, New York — (DMN) – The search for Etan Patz, a 6-year-old New York boy who disappeared more than three decades ago, is expected to resume on Monday after being suspended for “operational reasons,” an FBI spokesman said. A law enforcement source briefed on the investigation said no evidence of human remains has been found so far in the basement of a building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood where investigators are looking. Around 2 p.m. Sunday, investigators searching the basement abruptly folded up a tent they had erected to shield them from a nasty rainstorm. Moments later, two large New York Police Department vans rolled in, obstructing most of the view of the scene. Through a small break between the vehicles, photographers were able to catch a glimpse of something being loaded into the side of an unmarked blue van.
FBI spokesman Peter Donald declined to discuss the reasons behind the search’s suspension. “We’ll be back in the morning,” he said. Sunday’s developments came a day after investigators discovered a possible blood stain on a concrete wall while tearing apart the basement in their search for clues in the case, a second law enforcement source told CNN. FBI agents, assisted by the NYPD, discovered the stain by spraying the chemical luminol, said the second source, who was also briefed on the investigation. The chemical can indicate the presence of blood, but is not always conclusive, according to that source. At this time, the stain is described only as an area of interest.
Investigators used chainsaws to dig out the portion of the wall with the stain, which will be sent to the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia for analysis to determine whether the substance is blood and, if so, whose it is, the second law enforcement source said. The basement is about a half-block from where the boy’s family still lives. Etan vanished May 25, 1979, as he walked to a bus stop by himself for the first time. A carpenter whose former Manhattan basement is the scene of the search said through his lawyer Friday that he had no involvement in the disappearance. Othniel Miller, 75, who has not been charged with a crime, has long cooperated with authorities and plans to continue to do so, his lawyer said. “Mr. Miller has been cooperating with this investigation for over 30 years,” attorney Michael Farkas said. “He has continued to cooperate on multiple occasions. And I am going to assist him in cooperating to the fullest extent possible.”
Miller’s daughter, Stephanie Miller, told WCBS that her father had cooperated with federal agents, saying he “doesn’t have anything to do with it.” Investigators recently relaunched their probe of the cold case, often described as a milestone effort that helped draw the plight of missing children into the national consciousness. Authorities said both new and old information led them to Miller, a part-time handyman, who met Etan the day before he disappeared and gave him a dollar. Miller faces no charges in connection with the disappearance. It was interest in the carpenter that prompted authorities to bring a cadaver dog about 10 days ago to a SoHo basement, where Etan apparently had encountered the carpenter, then 42, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation. The dog picked up a human scent in the basement, where the man had a workshop.
When agents interviewed the man about his connection to the basement, the source said the carpenter blurted out, “What if the body was moved?” Farkas, the attorney, said he will speak to authorities about that alleged remark. “I don’t know that he asked that,” Farkas told reporters. Late Thursday, authorities set up a grid in the basement and planned to rip up the concrete floor. They also took out part of the back wall of the basement, an unoccupied area beneath what was once a restaurant. The floor was “newly poured” at the time the boy disappeared, according to another law enforcement source. It was not dug up during the original investigation.
Miller was picked up by the FBI again Thursday, but is not in custody. He was questioned and returned to his Brooklyn apartment, the source with knowledge of the investigation said. “We’re looking for human remains, clothing or other personal effects of Etan Patz,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said of the current investigation. “It’s a very painstaking process.” In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said his office decided to take another look at the decades-old mystery. FBI leads were then culled from that case file, sources said. The investigation garnered national headlines as authorities splashed the child’s image on the sides of milk cartons in the hopes of gathering more information, then a novel approach.
Etan was officially declared dead in 2001 as part of a civil lawsuit filed by his family against a drifter, Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester acquainted with his babysitter. A judge found Ramos responsible for the death and ordered him to pay the family $2 million. He never paid the money. Though Ramos has been considered a key focus of the probe for years, he has never been charged in the case. He is serving a 20-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for molesting a different boy and is set to be released later this year. A source said investigators want to expand the pool of possible suspects beyond Ramos.
Stan and Julie Patz, Etan’s parents, still live a block away from the scene and wouldn’t comment on the new developments. A notice on the apartment building said, “To the hardworking and patient media people: The answer to all your questions at this time is ‘no comment.’ Please stop ringing our bell and calling for interviews.” Authorities have reason to think the new search could lead to the discovery of the boy’s remains at that location, though they remain wary after past leads in the case failed to pan out, according to two sources familiar with the probe. “I hope they find something,” said resident Sean Sweeney, who says he’s lived in the neighborhood since 1976. SoHo, a Lower Manhattan neighborhood now known for its boutique shops, art galleries and loft apartments, at the time was considered a grittier locale, where abandoned storefronts dotted the city streets. The boy’s disappearance was thought to raise awareness of child abductions and led to new ways to search for missing children. President Ronald Reagan named May 25, the day Etan went missing, National Missing Children’s Day.
Etan mystery: Playroom eyed as hell cellar
They are looking for evidence of death in a SoHo basement that once bustled with life. Photos emerged yesterday that show beaming kids in the basement of 127 Prince St., where FBI investigators have been searching for evidence in the disappearance 33 years ago of Etan Patz. The cellar that police now believe may hold the answers to the city’s most heart-wrenching mystery was a space transformed by industrious parents from a commercial cellar to a bright playground. “We all got together and put down vinyl tiles on the floor and painted the walls,” said Donald Gangemi. “We wound up with 13 kids.”
The parents, lacking community facilities, chipped in to renovate the space, donated by an adjacent art gallery. The room had no windows but ran the length of the building with a door to the outside, said Judy Reichler, one of the founding parents. The basement would have been familiar territory to the Patz family. Etan’s older sister, Shira, was a play-group member, Reichler recalled. But by 1979, the basement was also the domain of Othniel Miller, the now-75-year-old handyman known for doing odd jobs around the neighborhood who emerged this past week as a prime suspect in the case. “He was a very good craftsman,” said Steve Kuzma, 78, building manager of nearby 133 Wooster St.Just a day before Etan vanished in May 1979, he was in the basement, earning a buck from Miller for helping out in his workshop. After Etan’s disappearance, investigators looking for him noticed freshly poured concrete — although they never dug it up after being told they’d have to pay for repairs. “Every time I went down there, there was a different wall,” Kuzma told The Post. “It was a maze. [Miller] probably put in some of those walls.” By the time Miller inhabited the basement, there were no longer smiling, laughing kids there every day, doing things like making necklaces out of macaroni. “Nobody was living there,” Kuzma said. “It’s a storage basement. There’s a boiler in there and stuff like that.”
The renewed focus by investigators on Miller left Kuzma scratching his head. “It’s pretty awful. It gives you a creepy feeling,” Kuzma said. “He didn’t seem like that type of guy.” Yesterday a team of FBI and NYPD investigators finished ripping up the basement’s concrete floor in hopes of finding fresh clues in the search for Etan. They have now begun meticulously sifting through the rubble underneath. The search — touched off when a cadaver dog “got a hit” to the scent of human remains — is expected to continue through Tuesday. “This is a very slow, very methodical process,” FBI supervisor Timothy Flannelly said. “We’re still cautiously optimistic.” He said about 30 to 40 agents were working in the basement.
According to WNBC-TV news the basement search has turned up a “stain of interest” on a piece of drywall. The significance of the stained area was not known, but it was cut out and sent for analysis. FBI agents, assisted by the NYPD, discovered the stain by spraying the chemical luminol, which can indicate the presence of blood, a law enforcement official told CNN. NBC also reported that investigators questions a man who once worked with Miller named Jesse Snell. He was seen at the SoHo building the day Patz vanished. Authorities obtained a search warrant for the basement after a new claim by Miller’s ex-wife that he raped his 10-year-old niece a few years after Etan disappeared. FBI agents kept eyes on Miller’s Brooklyn apartment yesterday. A woman who answered the door refused to identify herself or say what the feds had wanted. Etan vanished on May 25, 1979. For decades, investigators have believed Etan was abducted and killed by now-imprisoned child molester José Ramos, who was never charged in his disappearance.
Relative of Etan Patz suspect Othniel Miller says he would never hurt a child
The stepson of the new suspect in the Etan Patzdisappearance insisted Sunday that Othniel Miller would never hurt a child and said the ex-wife who claimed otherwise is “sick in the head.” “You can’t swear for anyone, but I don’t think he’s in any way, form, or fashion involved in this,” Miller’s stepson, Jason Webley, told the Daily News. “He’s not like that. He loved children,” he said. “I grew up around the man and I never heard anything like that.”
Miller, 75, was a handyman whose workshop at 127B Prince St. in SoHo was on the two-block route that 6-year-old Etan took when he disappeared in 1979. Cops and FBI agents began digging up the 800-square-foot basement space on Thursday. On the night before Patz’s disappearance, Miller — who had “hired” the small boy as a helper — paid him a $1 salary. The new search was prompted by Miller’s ex-wife, who told the FBI last year that she divorced Miller in 1986 because he had raped his niece, sources told The News. “She made that up,” said Webley, 54. “She’s a liar. She’s sick in her head, she’s crazy. I guess she’s still bitter and angry about their past relationship.”
Webley, the son of Miller’s first wife, said he grew up with the niece, and never heard anything about an assault. “We were pretty close growing up,” he said. “She never said anything about anything like that.” He said of Miller’s ex-wife, Phyllis, “I’m pretty sure she would have filed charges” at the time. Webley said he last saw Miller a month ago, when he had no indication of being in the crosshairs of an investigation. The feds have not been able to locate the niece. The Daily News was equally unsuccessful. The renewed search for the nation’s most famous missing child was suspended Sunday because of the heavy rain.
On Saturday, investigators found a stain on the wall that they were testing for blood. Etan vanished on Friday, May 25, 1979, when he left his home – out by himself for the first time – to catch the school bus two blocks away. He never made it. No one was ever arrested or charged in the case, and the boy’s body has never been recovered. Investigators say the prime suspect in the case remains convicted pedophile Jose Ramos, now 68, who is prison in Pennsylvania for molesting children and who may be released later this year.
CNN, CBS News, New York Post and the New York Daily News contributed to this report.