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After NYC boy vanished, an era of anxiety

Etan Patz, who went missing May 25, 1979,

Etan Patz, who went missing May 25, 1979, near his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood, appears in this undated file photo. Credit: AP

A generation of sheltered American children grew up in the shadow of anxiety that fell over this country one day in 1979, when a little boy with a charming grin vanished from a Manhattan street corner.

They never knew his name or saw that angelic-looking face. But their parents would never forget it.

For some, their caution was simply a result of what they read in news reports. Others, including Jim Stratton, had an immediate and very personal reason to be afraid.

"It sent a chill through everybody," said Stratton, 73, whose son was in the same neighborhood play group as Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who never boarded his school bus on May 25, 1979.

"You could not leave your child for a minute. Anywhere. It was like a dark cloud had come over the neighborhood."

Before Patz disappeared, the notion that a child could be abducted right off the street, in broad daylight, was not familiar. Children roamed their hometowns freely, unencumbered by fear. That all changed after Patz. A new age of paranoia had grabbed hold of the national psyche. And so many years later, that paralyzing sense of fear has yet to fully release its grip.

"In many ways, it was the end of an era of innocence," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Exploited and Missing Children. "And parents suddenly became much more protective and much more hovering over their children."

Patz was one of the first missing children whose face would appear on a milk carton. In the coming years more faces would follow, mutely appealing for help from a public that began, for the first time, to mobilize on a grand scale in its efforts to find them. Even now, after more than 30 years, we still haven't given up hope for a resolution.

Last week, authorities began ripping up an old basement near Patz's SoHo loft with the aim of finding his remains.

The ones who never made it home are painfully seared in the nation's collective memory.

There was 6-year-old Adam Walsh, kidnapped and killed in 1981 when he wandered away from his mother at a department store in Hollywood, Fla.

There was 12-year-old paperboy Johnny Gosch, never again seen after vanishing on his newspaper route in 1982 in West Des Moines, Iowa.

There was Jacob Wetterling, abducted by a masked gunman in 1989 while riding his bicycle home from a convenience store in St. Joseph, Minn. That case remains unsolved.

"I would never let my child take the bus alone at age 8 or 10, but we all did when we were kids," said Yukie Ohta, who was 10 when Patz disappeared from SoHo, where she grew up. "I think it was just a different time and place."

Ohta's mother brought her up with the rose-colored idea that Patz was still out there somewhere, alive. She has clung to this story, all the while knowing it was probably not true.

"That idea sort of has been shattered," she said last week. "And it's a little hard to take. You try to cope with something the best you can. And if you don't know, you can make up stories."