After 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared in 1979, his father got a wrongful-death judgment against a prime suspect and sent the man a message each year: "What did you do to my little boy?"
But Etan's parents asked a court on Wednesday to throw out that judgment against Jose Ramos, a convicted Pennsylvania child molester. They said they've become convinced their son's killer is more recent suspect Pedro Hernandez, who was tried on a murder charge last year, when jurors deadlocked.
"After sitting through the trial and hearing all of the evidence, my wife and I — the parents of Etan Patz — now believe that Pedro Hernandez, and not Jose Ramos, was the perpetrator of this heartless crime," Etan's father, Stanley Patz, said in a sworn statement.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, and Ramos deny killing Etan, who vanished while walking to his school bus stop and became one of the first missing children pictured on milk cartons. Etan was declared dead in 2001.
Ramos was extensively investigated but never charged. Hernandez, who wasn't a suspect until 2012, confessed but later said his admission was false and was prompted by mental illness; he faces retrial this year.
Stanley Patz has said before he found Hernandez's trial persuasive, but the family's move to clear Ramos is a rare step that adds another twist to the case's tortuous history.
Hernandez's lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, called the Patzes' filing "a blatant assault on Mr. Hernandez's ability to receive a fair and impartial trial." Although it's unclear whether jurors would hear anything about the civil judgment, Fishbein noted Etan's mother, Julie Patz, is likely to testify for the prosecution, as she did at the first trial.
The Manhattan district attorney's office declined to comment on the filing, first reported by the Daily News.
Ramos is in prison and couldn't be reached for comment. A lawyer who has represented him said he hadn't been in contact with him recently.
Ramos knew a woman who sometimes walked Etan home from school, and Ramos told federal authorities about interacting with a child he was all but sure was Etan on the day he vanished. Ramos has since denied having anything to do with Etan's disappearance.
Manhattan prosecutors concluded the evidence against Ramos wasn't strong enough to charge him criminally, but the Patzes sued to make their own case against him. After Ramos stopped cooperating with questioning, a civil court in 2005 held him responsible, by default, for Etan's death. The court awarded his parents a never-collected $2.7 million.
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Legally, the civil judgment is separate from the criminal case. But the Patzes "think it's unjust for that judgment to stand, holding him responsible for something they believe he did not do, and they want the record correct," said their lawyer, Brian O'Dwyer.
But he said the Patzes didn't feel bad about having blamed Ramos, noting Ramos didn't cooperate in civil court to assert his innocence.