04/25/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Rest in Peace, Etan Patz

Rest in peace, Etan Patz.

It appears the 1979 disappearance of the 6-year-old Soho boy is going to remain unsolved. New York City police say there was no evidence of a body in the basement they dug up this week. Perhaps, miraculously, they will find some minor bits of hair, or another clue.

Failing that, they have turned a legendary New York tragedy into something akin to the North Korean missile launch. Embarrassing for the cops, but much, much worse for the other people involved against their will. The boy's parents had to live through another round of media-mad but apparently fruitless searches. An old man who may have had nothing to do with the disappearance was humiliated in days of tabloid headlines and his family harassed.

Etan, as every New Yorker who was around in the 1980s remembers, disappeared on his way to catch a school bus on the first day his parents -- acceding to pleas from the boy himself -- let him walk alone two blocks to the bus stop.

It was one of those end-of-innocence moments. Millions of American parents stepped up their guard, remembering Etan Patz -- or not even knowing his name, but inheriting that feel of panic that comes when a small child goes out of your sight. Etan was the first kid to be pictured on a milk carton. And the police never solved the crime.

They came to have a pretty good idea about the perpetrator. Jose Ramos, a neighborhood handyman/junk collector/hanger-around, turned out to be a child molester. Ramos, who wound up doing time in Pennsylvania in connection with another case, admitted he had been with boy who looked like Etan on the day of his disappearance, but denied killing him. Ramos had briefly dated a woman who had taken care of Etan and other neighborhood children, and the evidence was strong enough for the Patz family, who won a wrongful-death suit against Ramos.

But there were always some problems. Ramos said he first saw the boy who looked like Etan bouncing a ball in Washington Square Park. This was possible, but it seemed unlikely. Ramos also claimed that after the boy spurned his sexual advances, he put the child on a subway to visit his aunt in Washington Heights. But the Patz family had no relatives in Washington Heights.

Ramos was also an unstable character who heard voices, and there was no solid proof of his involvement.

So the investigation was never closed.

Then, more than 30 years after the boy's disappearance, amid a wave of national publicity, investigators began digging up the basement of a building near the one where the Patz family lived. It had a cement floor that had been laid shortly after the abduction and police said a cadaver-sniffing dog had smelled something unusual there.

The investigators were focused on a handyman named Othniel Miller who had worked in that basement, who knew Etan, and who had in fact given him a dollar for helping him with his chores on the day before the boy disappeared.

Miller is now 75 and has suffered through several strokes. He was hardly capable of defending himself, but the cops spread the word that he was a possible suspect. The chain of events then took on a predictable and depressing life of their own.

With nothing turning up in the search of the basement, law enforcement needed to justify the decision to proceed with such great fanfare. So the tabloids trumpeted that Miller had been accused of raping his 10-year-old niece in 1986. The Times weighed in with sources who said the elderly man had become "aroused while he looked through a book of images of children."

I've been a reporter all my adult life, and I'm generally the last one to complain about police spreading tips. But this seemed outrageous. In a week's worth of news stories and tabloid headlines, Miller was hung out to dry. For a 32-year-old murder. About which, it appeared, there was no new evidence.

Maybe something will turn up, but as things stand now, law enforcement is looking a lot worse than Othniel Miller. You never want to fault the cops or the FBI for sticking with a case, no matter how cold. But if you pick up a new suspect 30 years after the fact, and then leak enough information to convict him in the court of public opinion, you had better have something to back up your case.