His 6-year-old face became a symbol of parents' darkest fear, animating a national push to find lost children and a cultural shift toward hyper vigilant child rearing.
As a suspect in Etan Patz's disappearance heads to trial 35 years later, missing-children's advocates see it as proof that such cases still can be pursued after decades, if also a reminder that many have gone unsolved and garnered less attention. Parenting experts wonder whether retelling Etan's haunting story will kindle new anxiety for present-day moms and dads who grew up in the protective shadow of his disappearance.
"I remember looking at that kid's face on a milk carton ... and thinking: 'Oh, Lord. Please help them,'" said Sheliah Bradley-Smith, whose grandnieces would disappear 22 years after Etan. "But never once would I think or imagine that I would be the 'them' I was praying for at that time."
The upcoming trial, to her, shows that authorities don't give up. "One thing we fear is being forgotten," she said.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday for the murder trial of Pedro Hernandez, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, who wasn't a suspect until police got a tip in 2012. Hernandez then confessed — falsely, because of mental illness, his lawyers say. Hernandez denies the charges.
After Etan disappeared while walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979, his case entered Americans' consciousness, and even their homes, in new ways. He was one of the first vanished children on milk cartons, and National Missing Children's Day marks the anniversary of his disappearance.
While there have always been protective parents, "fear became a national issue" with Etan's disappearance, said Susan Newman, a psychologist and parenting specialist. She expects the trial may reverberate through today's families, many led by parents too young to recall it happening.
Alarm intensified with the kidnapping and killing of Florida 6-year-old Adam Walsh in 1981 and other child abductions in the '80s and '90s. Frightened parents stopped letting children walk alone to school and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.
New laws established a national hotline and smoothed law enforcement information sharing about missing children, and later the Amber Alert system began broadcasting news of them through radio and television stations and on billboards. Adam Walsh's father, John Walsh, launched TV's "America's Most Wanted," which ran from 1988 to 2011.
Yet there were nearly 34,000 active missing-child records nationwide at the start of this year, according to FBI statistics. Authorities cleared hundreds of thousands of other cases. A 2002 study for the U.S. Department of Justice found the vast majority of missing-child reports concern youths who ran away, got lost or injured, or were taken by relatives; abductions by strangers accounted for a fraction of a percent.
While awareness of missing children has grown, advocates rue that it isn't always spread evenly. A 2010 academic study found that disproportionately few national TV news missing-child stories were about black and female children, compared with their percentage among missing-children reports.
"We are not trying to dishonor anyone at all, but we also want to even the playing field," said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of the Black and Missing Foundation. Nearly 40 percent of all missing-child reports involve black children.
Still, she feels the trial in Etan's much-covered case — however uncertain the outcome — encourages all families waiting to learn what happened to their loved ones.
If a trial can provide explanations, they are excruciating, says Marc Klaas, who watched the trial of the man convicted of killing his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, after snatching her from a California slumber party in 1993.
"I had to be there, for her," said Klaas, whose KlaasKids Foundation aims to prevent crimes against children. But "it was absolutely brutal ... having the last two hours of my daughter's life replayed in any number of ways."
Families like his talk of justice and answers, not resolution. "Our families hate the word 'closure,'" said Alison Feigh, the program manager of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, founded by the parents of a Minnesota boy abducted in 1989.
Ten-year-old Tionda Bradley and 3-year-old Diamond Bradley disappeared from their Chicago home in July 2001. Police searched but have said they didn't find enough evidence to link a suspect to the crime. But Bradley-Smith, the girls' great-aunt, still yearns for an answer.
"There are times when you have hope, and there are times when you don't," she said. "There are times when you pray to find them alive, but then over time, you pray to find them dead — because you just want to find something."