For decades, the prominent case of a missing 6-year-old had a prime suspect: an admitted child molester in a Pennsylvania prison. Although the inmate was never criminally charged in Etan Patz's 1979 disappearance, he was found responsible in a wrongful-death lawsuit.
But investigators on Friday continued tearing up a Manhattan basement linked to someone else, a handyman who was recently re-interviewed by authorities. Through a lawyer, he denied having anything to do with Etan's vanishing, which helped turn missing children into a nationwide cause.
Authorities said they had yet to find any new evidence as of Friday, and the police commissioner and the FBI said they wouldn't discuss any possible suspects.
But if the probe leads definitively away from Pennsylvania prisoner Jose A. Ramos and to someone else, it could create a legal conundrum: one person held accountable for the boy's death in civil court while another became the focus of a criminal case.
On Friday, investigators were using jackhammers and saws to carefully break through the basement's concrete floor, pulling rubble out and carrying it out of the building with gloved hands, as an anthropologist stood by in case any human remains were found.
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly confirmed that investigators made the decision to jackhammer after an FBI cadaver dog indicated the presence of human remains in the room.
"We're hopeful that we can bring some level of comfort to the parents, perhaps find some -- obviously, the body of this poor child -- but evidence that may lead to a successful investigation in this case," Kelly said. He was a lieutenant working on organized crime cases when Etan vanished on the first day he was allowed to walk to his school bus stop alone.
The basement is in a building that was on Etan's way to the bus stop from the SoHo building where his parents still live. At the time, handyman Othniel Miller, who was friendly with the Patz family, was using the underground space as a workshop.
Miller, now 75, is cooperating with investigators and had "no involvement in this tragic event," his lawyer, Michael C. Farkas, told journalists gathered outside Miller's Brooklyn home on Friday.
Ramos, a drifter whose girlfriend was Etan's sometime baby sitter, has been publicly floated as a possible culprit since the 1980s. Now 68, he is serving a 10-to-20-year sentence in Dallas, Pa., after pleading guilty to abusing an 8-year-old boy at a campground there.
Should the new direction lead to a new suspect, that wouldn't automatically negate the civil court's finding against Ramos.
But he might be able to get a court to reconsider it, legal experts said.
"This would be such a colossal change from what was thought to be the case at the time, I think the courts would probably, to be just, find some kind" of avenue to reopen the case, said Annemarie McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at the Fordham University School of Law.