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Probe stirs memories of Etan Patz case; Search is on again for boy lost in '79

The investigation into the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz has stretched through decades and countries, from basements to rooftops.

No one has ever been charged criminally, and the little boy with sandy brown hair and a toothy grin was declared dead in 2001.

Last week, the case suddenly ran hot again, after a cadaver-sniffing dog picked up a scent in an old basement down the street from the boy's home.

By Saturday, investigators had finished ripping up the basement's concrete floor with jackhammers and saws, and were digging through the dirt in hope of finding the boy's remains, or any other evidence.

So far, authorities haven't given any outward sign that they've found anything.

Etan vanished May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in Manhattan's SoHo.

There was an exhaustive search by the police and a crush of media attention. The boy's photo was one of the first of a missing child on a milk carton. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed.

Etan's parents, Stan and Julie, offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the boy's whereabouts, and sightings were frequently reported, to no avail.

A name gradually emerged as a possible suspect: Jose Ramos, a drifter and former boyfriend of Etan's baby sitter. In the early 1980s, he was arrested on theft charges, with photos of other young, blond boys in his backpack. But there was no hard evidence linking him to the crime.

A former federal prosecutor who had worked on the case declared in 1998 that he believed Ramos was behind Etan's disappearance and death. Ramos, now serving a prison sentence in Pennsylvania for abusing an 8-year-old boy there, has denied killing Etan. Police investigated leads to Ramos at various points, including a 2000 search of the basement of the building where he lived in 1979. They dismantled the furnace and searched it for DNA. But they found only animal traces.

By the next year, father Stan Patz, who never moved or even changed their phone number in the hope their son would reach out, had Etan declared dead in order to sue Ramos in civil court. He was tired of waiting for justice, he said at the time.

A civil judge in 2004 found Ramos to be responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of the boy, after he disobeyed her orders to answer deposition questions under oath for a lawyer representing Etan's parents.

The case was quiet until 2010 when new District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said he was going to revisit it.

But the focus has shifted to the basement that had been used at the time as a workspace for a handyman named Othniel Miller. He was interviewed after the boy went missing, and his space was searched then but never dug up. Law enforcement officials have spoken to him as recently as Wednesday, and one interview prompted them to take a closer look at the space, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.