Friday, May 25, 1979 was the first day of the Memorial Day weekend. In New York City. Schools were open borough-wide for a full day’s work. Parents Stan and Julie Patz were finally letting seven-year-old Etan Patz walk to school himself. Their Manhattan neighborhood was a very safe place.
“I moved to Soho in 1966 from the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” recalls 73-year-old Judy Reichler of New Paltz. “A friend of John and Yoko’s owned three buildings, and a group of us got together our life savings to buy them.”
In the mid 1960s, Soho was for the most part a collection of dilapidated warehouses and small manufacturing facilities. Printing businesses had once flourished in the area. As taxes went up and businesses moved out, the buildings stayed: elegantly designed, turn-of-the century brick facades left to rot like so much else of old New York. Upper West Siders like Reichler moved there in the 1960s to take advantage of the low prices and the possibilities of preserving the past. People started calling the neighborhood the South Village.
“A group of parents got together with a set of child-care arrangements. It was a day-care, and we all just cared for each others’ kids,” Reichler continues. “Art collectors [initially] gave us space for our play group. It was the center of our life, our synagogue, church, community center where everyone got together. The hub of the neighborhood. The Patzes were in the playgroup. Stan and Julie had three children. Etan was three or four years younger than his brother.”
Reichler’s play group moved around a lot, to wherever it could get donated space. But time was running out on it. In the mid-1970s, a group of younger people had moved in. The neighborhood began a long gentrification. Real-estate values skyrocketed.. AIR (Artist in Residence) signs appeared on one building after another, and loft living became a status symbol. New businesses and tenants moved in. The play group had to move out of a storefront to another place, near the bodega.
“We loved the bodega,” says Reichler.
The neighborhood kids thought the bodega was a good and safe place. Otherwise their parents wouldn’t have let them hang out there.
That day, Etan Patz never got to school. He disappeared. Police were called. No one knew what happened, for 33 years, that is until Pedro Hernandez, 51-years-old, recently confessed to the crime. Hernandez, who has been indicted in Manhattan for Patz’s murder on second-degree murder charges, claims that he worked in the bodega as a 19-year-old stock boy at the time.
Hernandez said that with the promise of a cold soda, he lured Patz from the street, inside the bodega. Once inside, Hernandez spirited him to the basement. There, he continues to claim in his confession, he strangled the boy. At the time, no one knew, or even suspected anything like this could be happening. Then, and now, the murder of a child is a very rare crime.
“We met with Stan and Julie to see what we could do and began looking for him,” Reichler recalls.
Maybe the boy had wandered off someplace and gotten lost. To a seven-year-old never on his own, New York City can be a pretty scary place. But everyone figured Etan would come home okay. On the Memorial Day weekend the city is an especially busy place, with people crowding the tunnels and bridges to get out of town for the three-day holiday. Anyone could get confused.
The city’s sanitation department was on a holiday schedule.
“The garbage just piled up on the street,” says Reicher. “They [the police] didn’t look in any of the garbage bags. I don’t blame them for that. I’m glad, in retrospect that wasn’t printed. He [the suspect Hernandez] couldn’t have read that anyplace.”
Hernandez has claimed that he disposed of his body in a trash bag that he threw someplace outside the bodega. That is the kind of specific detail that only the killer would know. Reichler is thinking like the lawyer she is and the judge she was.
Judith Reichler moves upstate
In the 1970s Reichler, an artist, went back to school and got her law degree at New York University. She was admitted to the bar in 1978. Seeing the graffiti on Soho’s walls prior to the Patz homicide, she had already decided to move to upstate New York.
“I couldn’t afford Soho any more,” she says. “I had planned the move since the winter [of ’78-’79]. I couldn’t bear having to wait for the lights to change to cross the street. I was divorced and left my kids [temporarily] with my ex. It never occurred to me to worry. Kids walked to school.”