After Etan, SoHo community joined together

George Safee of Brooklyn, near the scene where George Safee of Brooklyn, near the scene where Etan Patz is now thought to have been abducted in 1979, says his wife, Gigi, saved a 1985 milk carton image of Patz. (May 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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The disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979 stunned and frightened longtime SoHo resident Cesar Chelala, himself the father of a 9-year-old girl at the time.

As soon as word spread that little Etan was missing 33 years ago, Chelala kept a closer eye on his daughter and viewed his beloved lower Manhattan neighborhood with a bit more suspicion.

"We couldn't believe something like that was happening in our vibrant, artistic neighborhood," the writer said. "After that, everybody was afraid. We kept our daughter under strict supervision."

Chelala, 72, wasn't the only parent unnerved by the story of Etan walking to school alone and never coming home.

Sunday, longtime SoHo residents recalled the anxiety that gripped them that summer, but also the sense of community that emerged as police, adults and even children combed the neighborhood for signs of Etan.

Police said last week that Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., told them he had disposed of Etan's remains. Hernandez was charged Friday in the case and police said he has implicated himself in the murder.

The unemployed father of three was being treated at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan Sunday and was under suicide watch. His lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, who at Hernandez's arraignment Friday said his client has a history of mental illness, Sunday said he was not receiving hospital visitors.Fishbein declined to give any further comment.

The details of the case -- including that Etan was walking to the bus stop alone for the first time when he was allegedly plucked from the street -- made it more distressing for neighborhood parents, Chelala said Sunday.

The recent police and media presence in SoHo was a sort of deja vu for resident Brendan Sexton, whose daughter, Amber, was also 9 at the time. He said he kept her from walking alone to the bus stop for the first couple days after Etan's disappearance.

"It's very spooky, to be quite honest, to see all the police and vehicles again," the environmental consultant said. "When it happened, the neighborhood was flooded with police . . . I still get the chills when I see [Etan's] photo and name in the paper. The kid was cute, and you couldn't help but feel something."

Anthony Fierro, 57, said young people in SoHo felt so passionately about helping in the search for Etan that they mobilized. The boy's photos had been plastered around the neighborhood.

He said he remembers children riding their banana-seat bicycles, searching in vain for any sign of the 6-year-old. He said he himself took to his bicycle to canvass the neighborhood.

Leo Vento, 60, of midtown, who was 27 at the time and hung around SoHo for its art galleries, said he feels for the boy's parents. "It's very horrible to think they live there still, seeing him alive one day and having to learn the next that he might be gone forevermore."

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