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Etan Patz Update: Jose Ramos, former suspect in case, to be freed after serving 25 years in prison

Inmate Jose A. Ramos is seen in this May 28, 2010, photo provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Inmate Jose A. Ramos is seen in this May 28, 2010, booking photo CBS/AP Photo/Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

(CBS/AP) NEW YORK - Jose Ramos, the former suspect in the 1979 disappearance case of Etan Patz, is set to be freed next month after serving more than two decades in prison.

Pictures: Man in custody in Etan Patz disappearance

Ramos was declared responsible for Etan's death in a civil court, but the Manhattan district attorney's office said there wasn't enough evidence to charge him criminally. After serving 25 years on child molestation convictions in Pennsylvania, he's set to be freed Nov. 7, about a week before prosecutors are due to indicate whether they believe there's evidence enough to keep going after the newest suspect in the 6-year-old's disappearance, Pedro Hernandez.

Hernandez was charged with murder after police said he emerged as a suspect and confessed this spring. But there's no public indication that authorities found anything beyond his admission to implicate him, and his lawyer has said Hernandez is mentally ill.

Etan's disappearance made national news when he was last seen walking to his Manhattan school bus stop in 1979. His case raised awareness about children's safety, making him the first vanished youngster ever pictured on a milk carton. The day of his disappearance, May 25, is now National Missing Children's Day.

Hernandez, who worked at a convenience store near Etan's home when the boy disappeared, wasn't a suspect until a tipster contacted police this spring. After his arrest, the New York Police Department announced that Hernandez admitted to strangling the boy and leaving his body in a trash bag.

But since Hernandez's arrest, months of extensive probing has failed to reveal any further evidence against him. Hernandez's attorney, Harvey Fishbein, raised further doubts about the case, saying Hernandez is schizophrenic and bipolar. Fishbein also said his client has heard voices.

Ramos, now 69 years old, was under suspicion decades before Hernandez was considered a suspect because he had a relationship with Etan's former baby sitter, but investigators didn't find anything solid. He was arrested in the early 1980s, although not convicted, on charges that he tried to lure children to a drainage pipe where he was living. Photos of young, blond boys were found in his backpack.

Ramos then traveled the country by bus, attending gatherings of the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a loose collection of peace activists who come together around the country. He was accused of luring three boys into his bus and assaulting them at two of the group's gatherings in Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s.

"He had thousands of dollars in `Star Wars' toys on his bus. He had videotapes, and he had all kinds of materials he used to lure children inside," Barry Adams, a longtime Rainbow member, recalled this week from his Montana home. "It was a horrendous circumstance from A to Z."

Stuart GraBois, a Manhattan federal prosecutor assigned to help the investigation into Etan's disappearance, got attention of Ramos' record and became convinced he assaulted and killed Etan upon interviewing him. GraBois helped Pennsylvania authorities get one of their convictions against Ramos. He was ultimately sentenced to a maximum of 27 years in the two cases, but got credit for time served and is being released.

Over the years, Ramos has made a series of ambiguous admissions and denials about Etan. Two jailhouse snitches claim he confessed to them, and GraBois said Ramos gave him a "90 percent confession." But during sworn questioning in 2003, Ramos said he'd never encountered the vanished boy.

"I have nothing to hide," he said, according to a transcript.

Etan's parents pursued Ramos in a 2001 wrongful death lawsuit. After Ramos refused to answer some questions, a judge ruled him responsible for the boy's death. But there wasn't enough evidence to make a criminal case.

Complete coverage of the Etan Patz case on Crimesider