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Ex-handyman focus in Etan Patz probe

Chunks of concrete are carried away for analysis

Chunks of concrete are carried away for analysis as NYPD and FBI investigators search the basement of a SoHo apartment building for new evidence in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz. (April 20, 2012) Photo Credit: Jason DeCrow

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

An ex-handyman, now a focus of the investigation into the disappearance 33 years ago of Etan Patz, had worked at that time with the convicted sex offender who was long considered a key suspect in the case, law enforcement and legal sources said.

Othniel Miller, now 75, had used Jose Antonio Ramos as a helper for small jobs in a basement workshop at 127 Prince St., just a block from where the 6-year-old lived with his parents, said the law enforcement sources, who asked not to be identified. Etan vanished on May 25, 1979, while on his way to school.

Police and the FBI continued Friday to methodically dig in the basement of the SoHo building for human remains and other evidence.

Etan's parents, Stan and Julie, were seen watching the scene outside from their balcony on Prince Street. They asked for privacy.

One of the law enforcement sources said Miller gave Patz $1 to help him clean the basement wood shop area the night before the boy disappeared -- and said Miller made a "strange" statement during his most-recent interview with investigators that led them to suspect the boy's body may have been in the basement at some point.

Ramos, 68, who is completing a 27-year prison sentence in Pennsylvania for an unrelated sex crime involving a minor, worked for Miller in the months before Patz disappeared and had been in the workshop area several times, said the law enforcement sources.

Those sources and the legal source, who was familiar with the Patz case, said Ramos for a while dated a woman who had been a baby-sitter for Patz, a fact that was known to police during the initial investigation.

Despite police suspicion about Ramos, he was never charged in the Patz case. In 2004, a Manhattan judge ruled in a civil suit by the boy's parents that Ramos was responsible for his presumed death. Ramos, who refused to defend himself in the suit, is due to be released in November on his Pennsylvania conviction.

Manhattan attorney Michael Farkas said Friday that he was retained by Miller's family. He said his client denied any role in Patz's disappearance.

"He has a wonderful, hardworking family who really don't deserve the siege they are under by the media," Farkas said about Miller, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "The fact he has now, after all this time, retained an attorney shouldn't mean to anybody that he has anything to hide."

Because he just took the case, Farkas declined to comment on any link between Miller and Ramos.

Denise Franklin, a neighbor of Miller, said "Everyone is shocked to hear his name mentioned in this case." She added, "He seems very kind and gentle, just a sweet man."

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters at police headquarters that the concrete basement floor was being dismantled in four sections. He reiterated the "controlled, precise digging" would take up to five days.

If human remains are found, one expert thought there was a good chance that usable DNA material could be extracted, even without any reference sample for comparison taken from Etan when he was alive.

"I would expect if they find a skeleton they could determine if it was the boy or not," said Dr. Charles Brenner, a forensic mathematician who is a visiting scholar in the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Denise Franklin. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and Ancestry.com and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

 

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