By Murray Weiss, Chelsia Rose Marcius, Tuan Nguyen, Ben Fractenberg, Patrick Hedlund and Julie Shapiro
SOHO — Investigators began digging in the basement of a Prince Street building Friday in search of the body of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who went missing more than three decades ago.
More than 40 FBI and NYPD investigators started digging in the basement of 127 Prince St. — less than a block from the home Patz left on his way to school on May 25, 1979, and never returned — in an attempt to possibly unearth the boy's remains after new evidence emerged in the high-profile case.
On Friday, investigators used saws, drills and jackhammers to remove the large slabs of concrete, which will be examined off-site, police said.
"The evidence response team search began in earnest around 8 [a.m.]," said Peter Donald, adding that drywall and bookshelves inside in the 62-foot-by-13-foot basement were already removed.
Investigators received a search warrant to excavate the site within the past few weeks. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office decided to reopen the case in 2010.
Patz, who disappeared while heading to a school bus stop, was declared dead in 2001 and no one has been convicted in the case. However, his parents won a civil suit against convicted child molester Jose Ramos, who admitted to being with the boy the day he disappeared.
The search for Patz resumed after investigators began interviewing people involved in the case, sources said.
Several weeks ago, the FBI interviewed Othniel Miller, 75, who once ran a woodworking shop at the Prince Street building. Miller made incriminating statements during that conversation, telling investigators "what if the body had been moved," sources said.
Miller's name initially surfaced while the FBI was investigating the Patz case over the last several years and found that the basement had been redone around the same time the boy disappeared.
Agents examined the address a few times, taking samples of chemicals and smells at the site, before bringing in a dog from Washington, D.C., that smelled a cadaver, sources said.
They then approached Miller, who made the statement about the body to investigators.
Miller, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, did not speak to reporters Thursday, but a man claiming to be his grandson said Friday it’s the first he’s ever heard of Miller’s involvement.
“I don’t think he could have ever done this,” said Tony Miller, 33, after leaving the man’s home Friday morning.
Othniel Miller was one of the last people to see Patz alive, sources said. He used to give the boy $1 bills when he visited the woodworking shop Miller ran in the Prince Street building, sources added.
Michael C. Farkas, Miller's lawyer, said Friday afternoon that Miller has been cooperating with the investigation into Patz's death for more than 30 years.
"Mr. Miller denied any role, anything that happened to this beautiful young boy," Farkas told reporters after meeting with Miller for more than an hour Friday. "He’s very disturbed by what’s happening. He’s very moved by what happened to the boy."
The superintendent of 127 Prince St. also cast doubt on the idea that Miller, who once worked for him, could be involved in the boy's disappearance.
"He seemed like a nice guy; he built my whole place," said Stephen Kuzma, 100, adding he didn't think Miller was capable of the attack. "No, I just don't think he was that kind."
He said there used to be a playroom inside the building but did not specify if the basement served as the playroom.
Thursday was the first time investigators were allowed to collect evidence, and they spent most of the day documenting and photographing the basement space before removing part of the concrete floor on Friday.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensics expert and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the FBI likely started removing concrete in the spot where the cadaver dog indicated the presence of remains.
"If there is a body, it would likely be buried below the concrete in the soil," Kobilinsky said.
After so many years, all that would likely remain of the body would be bones and hair, but the bones should be well preserved, Kobilinsky said.
If investigators find bones, the FBI will be able to test them for a DNA match to Patz and may also be able to determine a cause of death, Kobilinsky said. A fractured skull would point to a trauma injury, and if a delicate neck bone is broken, that could indicate strangulation.
Since DNA decays in soil, it would be hard to find a DNA match to any other person in the dirt near the body — unless a weapon or some other item is uncovered, Kobilinsky said.
Drywall was installed inside the basement shortly after Patz went missing, as was a new cement floor.
"At the time of the boy's disappearance, these would have been exposed brick walls," NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said Thursday of the space. He added that investigators will remove dirt and debris and take it off-site for examination.
The stretch of Prince Street between Wooster Street and West Broadway could be closed for another four days while the investigation continues, he said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday at an unrelated event that the FBI placed special pads in the basement for four days that were then brought to the cadaver-sniffing dog, which "indicated some positive reaction." The dog was then brought to the basement itself and had a similar reaction, he said. Canines like that were not available back in 1979, Kelly noted.
The commissioner outlined other innovations in the forensics field being employed at the site, including use of the chemical luminol, which enables investigators to find traces of blood.
However, Kelly did not comment on any suspects in the case.
"We're not talking about any people who we're talking to or any possible suspects," he said.
Patz's parents still live on Prince Street, down the block from where they resided at the time of the boy's disappearance.
"We met with the family to let them know this process is going forward," Browne, the NYPD spokesman, said Friday.
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.