May 25 has been National Missing Children's Day since 1983, when Ronald Reagan chose the date in memory of the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz. He was 6 years old, lived in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan (pre-gentrification), and vanished without a trace while walking just a couple blocks from his apartment building to the school bus stop. It was the first time he walked out alone, and he had insisted on it to his parents.
In today's world where children are locked indoors all day long, it must sound strange for a 6 year-old to demand that much independence, let alone get it. But that was not uncommon back then, and neither was his parents' acquiescence. On my first day of kindergarten in 1986, I put my foot down about walking to school by myself, maybe 10 minutes away. After offering many times to accompany me, my dad finally gave in and encouraged me with, "Agnostic, you're being braaaave" -- you know, how grown-ups draw a word out when they're trying to teach you for the first time (the word, not the idea).
I got more than I'd bargained for, having to steel my nerves every time I passed the final corner where a mere chain-link fence kept back one of those dogs that was too wild to be used in Cujo. But I kept at it, and eventually could walk right by without speeding up, even looking it in the eyes for a bit, despite my heart trying to punch its way out of my ribcage.
I share that anecdote to try to put you in the mind of Etan and his parents in that time period. Back then, as the violent crime rate had been soaring for decades, somehow even us children could sense the rising danger level, perhaps from our observation of how grown-ups spoke, acted, and expressed emotion in their faces. And we wanted to prepare ourselves for the dangerous real world before it was too late. Our parents must have sensed this predicament as well -- we can't hover over them all the time, and the way the world's going, they'll have to learn to stick up for themselves sooner or later. So they grudgingly went along with our demand for greater independence.
It's only during the falling-crime era of the past 20 years that parents have begun to say, Hey, it's not like there's any pressing need for them to be independent, so let them grow up after they get their first steady job. You can't project today's world back onto the world of 1979, though, and ask why his parents could have been so careless. In a world of rising violence, it makes sense to send your kid to boxing or martial arts classes, even if there's a 1 in a million chance that he could get seriously injured from those very classes.
Etan's high-profile case would inspire the movement to put the faces of missing children on the sides of milk cartons. Numerous sources claim his was the first face on the milk carton, although I'm not sure how well documented that is. The movement began locally sometime in the early-mid-'80s and went national in 1985. Here is a clip of a news show host interviewing two men who contributed to the movement to showcase missing children's faces on milk cartons and in the phone book.
Note the mellow tone in everyone's voices, and the almost thousand-yard stare on their faces. In most real-life clips from the '80s, people sound and look almost spaced-out compared to today's hyper-alert standards. It was some combination of thick skin, humility, and concern for looking out for others that kept their self-consciousness and egotism in check. Our falling-crime environment has, in contrast, led to thin-skinned, arrogant, and avoidant types, which shows up in all the huffing, teeth-sucking outbursts about what sucks or blows, and the creaky-voiced whining about "really guys, i mean seriously?"
When did they stop showing kids' faces on milk cartons, anyway? This 1996 article from the LA Times says that those programs had ended "several years ago." Probably 1993, then, the first year of the current falling-crime period. The article says that the pictures were simply moved from milk cartons to internet sites and airport kiosks, but of course hardly anyone would have seen those back in 1993. They also began putting faces on junk mail, which could only have annoyed the person getting them.
Starting around '93, they did not just become less visible than before, as though reflecting the falling risk of children running away or being abducted or killed. Rather, they became out of sight and out of mind. In times of greater concern for others, and willingness to lend whatever help we could, we found nothing objectionable about looking at some poor missing child's face every time we went to pour a bowl of Cookie Crisp. That would seem unbearably morbid in today's culture of social-emotional distancing.
Finally, 33 years to the day after Etan's disappearance, a man was charged with second-degree murder after confessing to the police. Pedro Hernandez was an 19 year-old stock boy at a nearby bodega who lured Etan into the basement with the promise of a cold soda, strangled him, stuffed him into a bag, and dropped the body off among some garbage a couple blocks away. His body, therefore, will probably never be found.
The motive is unclear so far, but Hernandez was probably one of any number of pedophile faggots infesting downtown Manhattan. He has so far not admitted to sexual abuse. Close-up photos show that he has both ears pierced, and if he got them done anytime before the hipster doofus crew began making that popular in the 2000s, he's almost certainly gay / on the down-low. (He does have a wife and daughter.) He's been on disability since '93, apparently chain-smoking all day while his wife brings in a paycheck, so I'd guess he got his ears pierced before then. Some Puerto Rican dude (or Dominican or whatever) who lived in the New York metro area with both ears pierced in the '80s, definitely sounds gay.
[Update: The NY Post today reports that both cops and family say Hernandez has HIV. Definitely a faggot pedophile.]
Hernandez of course did not just wake up this week and feel like spilling the beans to the cops. They were led to him by a witness, his brother-in-law, who told the police that during the 1980s Hernandez had told several people that he'd "done a bad thing" and killed a child in New York. Since he was working at a nearby bodega when Etan went missing, that proved to be a good lead. So, just like that, the police received a fairly detailed confession to a murder over 30 years ago, all thanks to someone who knew something coming forward.
In fact, about a month ago the New York police ripped apart the basement of another suspect who still lives nearby, a handyman who police thought could have done it, perhaps burying the body within or under the concrete additions he'd made to his basement. Jackhammers broke open the way, samples were collected and analyzed, and absolutely nothing new was learned at the end of it all. The only good that came of it was that the press coverage of the spectacle rang a bell in the mind of a witness, prompting him to speak up.
Falling-crime eras inevitably breed a complacency and blind faith in the ability of engineering and technocracy to solve most of our problems, especially the big ones. Just put the right people in charge of those who have mastered the right technology, and presto -- problem solved.
Shows like CSI would have flopped big time back in the '80s because most people knew the score about how crimes got solved, no matter how removed they may have been from actual detective work. All the forensic evidence in the world won't point the detectives to a particular individual, unless they left their Social Security card, or a gun with a unique identifier, at the crime scene. Witness information is needed to point detectives to a suspect, whose fingerprints, shoe material, DNA, etc., can be checked against the evidence found at the crime scene. Not to mention provide details of what happened that were not recorded in the remaining physical evidence, or give reasons why the killer wanted the victim dead.
Quantitative criminologists have studied the factors that lead to higher "clearance rates" (e.g., making an arrest) for crimes like homicide. Here is one studying the mid-'90s, although from the other stuff I've read, their conclusions are typical. Table 9 lists the main reason why a homicide case got closed, and by far the leading cause is that a witness identified the offender, whether at the scene (closing 48% of all cases) or after investigators found witnesses (closing another 12% of cases). In only 2% of cases was the primary cause for closure the collection of physical evidence at the crime scene.
Table 19 shows which crime scene variables were linked to higher or lower clearance rates. Virtually nothing having to do with the CSI approach was linked to a higher clearance rate -- not the presence of evidence technicians, their number, the time they spent at the scene, nor the search for or even discovery of fingerprints and physical evidence. The feature of the crime scene that helped the most was being the type of place jam-packed with witnesses, e.g. a bar, club, or residence, rather than a public park.
Table 20 shows which witness variables were linked to higher/lower clearance rates. Most of them are helpful, especially the ones relating to information provided by a witness. Table 34 sums up all of the variables that were related to higher clearance rates, and nothing from the CSI world shows up at all, whereas the second-most powerful predictor of closing a case is having a witness who provides useful information. The strongest predictor is a tech variable, but a very low-tech one -- running a simple computer check on a suspect. Even that assumes an awful lot has already happened, such as witness information leading investigators to a list of suspects who can then be checked out in their databases.
How can our increasingly autistic society appreciate that it is the social side of police work that matters more than the technological? I think even a techno-utopian sperg would concede that the human sensory systems of witnesses, not to mention their higher-order processing of social relations (like, was the killer known to the victim), are vastly superior at recording the physical and social facts of what went down, compared to the impoverished picture recorded by a fingerprint here and a drop of blood there.
The best role for technology seems to be in creating better ways for people to communicate with other people, for example by building better databases and making it easier for all investigators involved to compare notes. In the Etan Patz case, the confessed killer was originally listed as someone worth interviewing, but no one got around to it, probably because all relevant facts and angles weren't known to everyone working on the case.
An even more infamous case of kidnapping and child murder is the Adam Walsh case, which was finally solved when someone went through all the tons of data, especially related to the killer's multiple confessions (not so much the physical evidence), and connected the dots. Listen here to an interview with detective Joe Matthews and his popularizing writer Les Standiford about how the case was solved without CSI wizardry, relying on the results of investigator interviews of witnesses and suspects.
It's disturbing to think of what would happen if you got attacked in today's cocooning society. When neighbors don't even trust each other enough to send their kids to each other's houses for trick-or-treating, and when everyone has floor-to-ceiling blinds closed all day long, you can bet they aren't keeping one eye open for what's going on around their community.
People worry about becoming the next Kitty Genovese, who gets stabbed while those in the vicinity hear something wrong but don't act, a case of "the diffusion of responsibility" or "the bystander effect". But shit, at least if you're a victim of the bystander effect, there will be bystanders who can provide leads to the police! Hopefully they'll catch the son of a bitch and fry him to avenge your death. If, however, those around you are really buried deep in their cocoons, your murder might not even get solved.
When a cold case like Etan Patz's does get solved, it brings the world closer back into balance. Not just in the egocentric sense of, "Phew, now I finally know whodunnit, and a weight's been lifted off my shoulders." But more in the sense of finally being on the same wavelength as the dead. If there's anything there on the other side, he's probably been calling out who killed him for a long time now, and we never heard it. Now we know, not because of finally hearing him but because of run-of-the-mill police work, yet still we understand what he'd been trying to get across to us all along. That ends his frustration about not being able to get through to us, and it lifts us up to share in a communion of awareness about the mystery of his death.