By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York investigators have interviewed a former handyman about the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, and spent a second day on Friday searching the basement of a building where the man once worked in hopes of solving the case.
The boy was formally declared dead in 2001. But his fate has remained a mystery and the case has continued to resonate with New Yorkers for more than three decades. Police declined to say if there were new suspects in the case, which helped spark a national movement on the issue of missing children.
A law enforcement official confirmed that investigators had recently spoken with Othniel Miller, a handyman in the SoHo neighborhood who previously used the basement as his workshop.
Police are now using jackhammers to tear up the basement of the building, located less than a block from where Patz once lived with his parents.
Miller's attorney, Michael Farkas, said his client had been cooperating with authorities. "Mr. Miller denies involvement with what happened to this beautiful young boy," Farkas said in a televised press briefing.
Police expect the search for clothing and human remains in the basement area of the SoHo building to last about five days. Any evidence that turns up will be examined at the site, but then sent to the lab for further testing, police said. At least one FBI archeologist was on the scene.
Authorities decided to dig up the basement after a cadaver-sniffing dog indicated the possibility of human remains, police said.
Patz disappeared on May 25, 1979, while walking to a bus stop, two blocks from his home. It was the first time his parents had allowed him to make the trip alone, after the boy pleaded with his parents that he was old enough to make the walk.
Police spokesman Paul Browne declined to say whether Miller was considered a person of interest in the case.
Browne said the basement had been part of a previous investigation, but noted that investigators had pursued multiple conflicting leads, including a theory that Patz had climbed into a taxi. He also said that investigators have met with Patz's parents in recent days to update them on the developments.
No one was ever criminally charged in the disappearance, but in 2004 the Patz family won a $2 million civil judgment against Jose Antonio Ramos, a friend of Patz's babysitter, who has denied any involvement in Patz's disappearance. The sum has not been paid.
Ramos, who was separately convicted of child molestation in Pennsylvania, is currently serving a prison sentence in that state. His sentence will expire in November, a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman said.
The case startled the city in 1979, and the boy's image was one of the first of a missing child to be printed on a milk carton - a practice widely used in the 1980s to publicize cases of children who had vanished in the hope that someone would see the picture and come forward with new information.
Forensics experts said that DNA evidence could still be present in any bones or bone fragments that may be recovered, and that clothing may be intact.
"Identifying the bones as Etan Patz is definitely doable," said Lawrence Kobilinsky, professor of forensic science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
He added, however, that nothing may turn up. "There is a distinct possibility the dog is wrong."
New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was a lieutenant on the force in the late 1970s, described Patz's disappearance as "a huge case" when it occurred.
"It changed the way the country thought about missing children," he told CNN on Friday.
(Writing by Paul Thomasch; Editing by Will Dunham)