Altman broke down crying when she was asked to identify a photo of the 6-year-old boy. “Etan was my best friend,” she said, right before looking at the picture of the young SoHo boy who vanished on May 25, 1979, the first day he was allowed to walk himself to the bus stop.
Altman — testifying on the second day in the trial of Pedro Hernandez, the man accused of killing Etan nearly 35 years ago — described her friend and classmate Etan as “very curious and sweet, a little mischievous but not rebellious.”
Altman’s family and the Patz family were close friends and neighbors in SoHo, she said. The Altmans lived across the street from the Patz family’s 113 Prince St. loft for many years.
The families had been planning to go away together, to the Altman’s county home, before Etan went missing.
"We were very excited,’ Altman recalled, speaking about her and Etan. “We couldn’t wait to go.”
Altman, 42, said she had a “very clear memory of saving a seat for Etan on the bus” the morning he went missing, but he never came.
She remembered picking up a worried phone call from Etan’s mother, Julie Patz, when she came back from school that day. Etan never made it to school and she had to tell Julie Patz that she didn’t know where her best friend was.
“She was shocked…she was very upset,” Altman said of that intense phone call.
Pedro Hernandez’s lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, also pushed Altman for details about a woman named Susan Harrington, a young woman who'd been paid to walk her and Etan home from school a few times when there was a bus strike in May 1979.
A longtime suspect in the case, and convicted child molester, Jose Ramos, was allegedly Harrington's boyfriend — and Fishbein said a man would often meet Harrington, along with Etan and Altman during their walks home.
Altman said that a man did meet them, but she recalled little about him.
Fishbein said Etan had been planning a trip with a man named Johnny — something Altman said was true, but she considered Johnny an imaginary friend, not the man they had met with Harrington.
Fishbein, however, read Altman's testimony that she'd given to a detective in the 80s, where she said she thought Harrington's boyfriend was Johnny — something Altman now says she doesn't remember saying.
Altman, who also owned now shuttered Moe’s Bar in Fort Greene and restaurant Maggie Brown, said she still remains close with the Patz family.
She said for many years following Etan’s disappearance “the [Patz] house was in a state of grief.”
Earlier on Monday, Etan’s mother, Julie Patz, spoke about her family’s long suffering after the loss of Etan.
The trial is slated to continue tomorrow.
The accused murderer, Pedro Hernandez, is a 53-year-old father of two without a previous criminal record. His lawyer says he suffers from delusions and he made a false confession to police about strangling the boy in the basement of a SoHo bodega nearly 35 years ago.
The defense lawyer argues that Ramos, who was declared Etan's killer in a civil court, is the the actual murderer, not Hernandez.