Jurors in the Etan Patz murder trial on Friday got their first look at the convicted pedophile who Pedro Hernandez's defense team says is the real culprit, watching a grainy 1982 video of Bronx prosecutors questioning a wild-haired vagrant named Jose Ramos.
Ramos, who made a living scavenging and reselling trash, had been picked up for allegedly trying to lure some kids into a drainpipe where he lived in the Bronx. Asked about photos police found of little boys, he identifies one as the son of a SoHo woman he dated named Susan Harrigan.
Then prosecutor Frank Carroll asks about Etan, the 6-year-old whose notorious 1979 disappearance on the way to his school bus stop in SoHo had riveted the city, and who resembled some of the pictures found in Ramos' hovel and wallet. "That was in the papers in '79," answers Ramos, thinking for a moment before adding the tidbit that would eventually make him a prime suspect for years to come. "Susan used to take care of him."
Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, told police in a now-disputed 2012 confession that as a teen working in a SoHo bodega in 1979 he lured Etan into the basement and strangled him -- a story he is alleged to have told associates privately years before. Etan's body was never found.
The defense in the Supreme Court trial in Manhattan contends the confession was a fantasy caused by a mental disorder. After a week of mental health testimony, the Bronx video began phase two of the defense -- an effort to sow doubt by casting suspicion on Ramos, now 71, who has twice been convicted of child molestation in Pennsylvania since 1982. Testimony on the tape resumes Monday.
In the video Ramos looks the part of a 1980s street hustler, with shoulder-length hair, a full black beard and a scruffy hippie-style cap covered with pins and jewelry, and answers questions in a confident, deep voice.
He describes his garbage can digging as a profitable "business" that had allowed him to travel to Europe. He claims three of the pictures he kept were of runaways he rescued in New Orleans. He says the kids in the drainpipe incident had tried to steal his booty.
Although Ramos said he never met Etan, he later told a prosecutor -- in another interview jurors will see -- that he believed he had an encounter with Etan on the day the boy disappeared, and Etan's parents eventually filed a civil suit against him.
But Ramos has never admitted abducting Etan. Being held in New York as a possible witness, he has told the judge in the Hernandez trial he will invoke his Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to testify if called.