Suspect used kiddie space as workshop
- Last Updated: 11:32 AM, May 14, 2012
- Posted: 1:44 AM, April 22, 2012
They are looking for evidence of death in a SoHo basement that once bustled with life.
Photos emerged yesterday that show beaming kids in the basement of 127 Prince St., where FBI investigators have been searching for evidence in the disappearance 33 years ago of Etan Patz.
The cellar that police now believe may hold the answers to the city’s most heart-wrenching mystery was a space transformed by industrious parents from a commercial cellar to a bright playground.
“We all got together and put down vinyl tiles on the floor and painted the walls,” said Donald Gangemi. “We wound up with 13 kids.”
The parents, lacking community facilities, chipped in to renovate the space, donated by an adjacent art gallery.
The room had no windows but ran the length of the building with a door to the outside, said Judy Reichler, one of the founding parents.
The basement would have been familiar territory to the Patz family. Etan’s older sister, Shira, was a play-group member, Reichler recalled.
But by 1979, the basement was also the domain of Othniel Miller, the now-75-year-old handyman known for doing odd jobs around the neighborhood who emerged this past week as a prime suspect in the case.
“He was a very good craftsman,” said Steve Kuzma, 78, building manager of nearby 133 Wooster St.
Just a day before Etan vanished in May 1979, he was in the basement, earning a buck from Miller for helping out in his workshop.
After Etan’s disappearance, investigators looking for him noticed freshly poured concrete — although they never dug it up after being told they’d have to pay for repairs.
“Every time I went down there, there was a different wall,” Kuzma told The Post. “It was a maze. [Miller] probably put in some of those walls.”
By the time Miller inhabited the basement, there were no longer smiling, laughing kids there every day, doing things like making necklaces out of macaroni.
“Nobody was living there,” Kuzma said. “It’s a storage basement. There’s a boiler in there and stuff like that.”
The renewed focus by investigators on Miller left Kuzma scratching his head.
“It’s pretty awful. It gives you a creepy feeling,” Kuzma said. “He didn’t seem like that type of guy.”
J.B Nicholas / Splash News
Yesterday a team of FBI and NYPD investigators finished ripping up the basement’s concrete floor in hopes of finding fresh clues in the search for Etan.
They have now begun meticulously sifting through the rubble underneath. The search — touched off when a cadaver dog “got a hit” to the scent of human remains — is expected to continue through Tuesday.
“This is a very slow, very methodical process,” FBI supervisor Timothy Flannelly said. “We’re still cautiously optimistic.”
He said about 30 to 40 agents were working in the basement.
According to WNBC-TV news the basement search has turned up a “stain of interest” on a piece of drywall. The significance of the stained area was not known, but it was cut out and sent for analysis. FBI agents, assisted by the NYPD, discovered the stain by spraying the chemical luminol, which can indicate the presence of blood, a law enforcement official told CNN.
NBC also reported that investigators questions a man who once worked with Miller named Jesse Snell. He was seen at the SoHo building the day Patz vanished.
Authorities obtained a search warrant for the basement after a new claim by Miller’s ex-wife that he raped his 10-year-old niece a few years after Etan disappeared.
FBI agents kept eyes on Miller’s Brooklyn apartment yesterday. A woman who answered the door refused to identify herself or say what the feds had wanted.
Etan vanished on May 25, 1979. For decades, investigators have believed Etan was abducted and killed by now-imprisoned child molester José Ramos, who was never charged in his disappearance.
Additional reporting by Sabrina Ford, Georgett Roberts and Liz Pressman