By Murray Weiss, Ben Fractenberg, Trevor Kapp, Chelsia Rose Marcius, Nicholas Rizzi, Patrick Hedlund and Leslie Albrecht
SOHO — Investigators searched a Prince Street basement Thursday for the remains of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who disappeared more than 30 years ago, authorities said.
Patz went missing after leaving his Prince Street home on his way to school on May 25, 1979. The case remains unsolved, and was reopened in 2010 by the Manhattan District Attorney's office.
FBI and NYPD investigators were searching a basement of the building at 127 Prince St. for the boy's remains or pieces of his clothing, sources and authorities said. They received a search warrant from a Manhattan Supreme Court judge to excavate the site, after investigators swept the site with cadaver-sniffing dogs.
The search began after investigators began anew interviewing people involved in the case sources said. Several weeks ago, the FBI interviewed Othneil Miller, 75, who once ran a woodworking shop at the Prince Street building. Miller made incriminating statements during that conversation, indicating Patz's body might have been moved, sources told DNAinfo.
Miller, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, did not speak to reporters at his home Thursday afternoon. Neighbors said law enforcement officials were at his home earlier in the day.
Miller was one of the last people to see Patz alive, sources said. He used to dote on the 6-year-old, who lived nearby, often giving him $1 bills.
The FBI had visited the Prince Street building several times over the past few weeks with the owner's permission, sources said. Thursday was the first time investigators were allowed to collect evidence, and they spent most of Thursday documenting and photographing the basement space. Digging is expected to start Friday. Building manager Stephen Kuzman confirmed that the FBI had visited more than once in the last two weeks.
The NYPD and members of the FBI's Evidence Response Team closed the street to traffic between Wooster Street and West Broadway Thursday morning during the probe. The stretch will remain closed for about the next five days, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said at the scene.
Drywall was installed inside the 15-by-30-foot basement space in 1979, he added.
"At the time of the boy's disappearance, these would have been exposed brick walls," Browne explained of the space, which used to house a business above it, as well as apartments on the upper floors.
Browne added that investigators will screen dirt and debris at the location and take it off site for examination.
"We're going to sift through the evidence on site and off site for as long as it takes, whether it's one day or days," FBI spokesman Peter Donald said at the scene.
Patz's parents still live at the corner of Prince Street and West Broadway, where they resided at the time of the boy's disappearance. A person answering the door at the home Thursday declined to comment.
A call to the boy's father, Stanley Patz, was not immediately returned.
Etan Patz was declared dead in 2001, though no trace of his body was ever found.
Patz disappeared on his way to catch a school bus at a stop a couple blocks from his home — the first time he was allowed to walk there alone.
A woman who lived in the neighborhood at the time remembers seeing Patz's father walk the little boy to the bus stop on many mornings. Etan Patz stood out because he was a striking, beautiful child, said Mary Neill, who lived on the corner of Greene and Houston streets with her painter husband in 1979.
"He was a special little kid," said Neill. "I remember the little hat he used to wear. He was the most adorable little boy."
Neill, now 68, said the neighborhood was a close-knit community of artists whose sense of safety was shattered by the disappearance.
"Before that it was just such an idyllic situation we had there," Neill said. "It changed everybody. you were always in the back of your head worried about your kid."
Neill still remembers the shock she felt when police knocked on the door of her loft the day Patz disappeared and searched the premises. She and other neighbors were in a daze, and spent hours, then days and weeks searching for the lost boy. She never stopped thinking she would one day spot Patz in the neighborhood, Neill said.
"We couldn't believe he wasn't found," Neill said. "As time went on you were always looking for this little boy. You just couldn't help it."
Time passed, but the heartbreak didn't fade, Neill said. She remembers the terrible feeling of seeing Patz's mother in Washington Square Park with the family's other children. "You didn't know what to say to her," Neill said.
Patz's disappearance ignited a frenzy in New York City and brought national attention to cases of missing children. Patz was the first child to be pictured on the side of a milk carton, sparking the popular campaign to raise awareness of missing children.
Heather Parsons, who went to school with Etan, remembers riding the bus with the little boy. "Then one day he wasn't on the bus," recalled Parsons, now a 39-year-old with children of her own. "After that, we had to memorize our address and phone number."