NEW YORK -- More than three decades after a 6-year-old boy disappeared on his way to a bus stop in New York City, police and federal investigators relaunched their search for him Thursday, scouring the basement of a commercial building in Lower Manhattan as part of a milestone case that helped draw the plight of missing children into the national conscious.
"We're looking for human remains, clothing or other personal effects of Etan Patz," New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said. "It's a very painstaking process."
Patz's disappearance at the time prompted authorities to splash the child's image on the sides of milk cartons in hopes of gathering more information. It is thought to be the first time that step was taken for a missing child.
It is not clear why the search has started anew, though a source with knowledge of the investigation says what can be described as a new development prompted the effort. The source did not elaborate.
The excavation is to include boring into the basement floors and walls of a SoHo building on Prince Street in Manhattan, near where Patz is believed to have walked on his way to a bus stop in May 1979.
Dozens of police and federal agents gathered outside the building and are expected to continue their search for the next five days.
"The FBI's Evidence Recovery Team is on the scene," FBI special agent Peter Donald said.
Authorities have reason to think the new search could lead to the discovery of the boy's remains at that location, though remain wary after past leads in the case have not panned out, according to two sources familiar with the probe.
"I hope they find something," said resident Sean Sweeney, who says he's lived in the neighborhood since 1976.
SoHo, a lower Manhattan neighborhood now known for its boutique shops, art galleries and loft apartments, at the time was considered a grittier locale, where abandoned storefronts commonly dotted city streets.
Sweeney said he remembers the initial investigation into the Patz disappearance when police first knocked on his door in search of clues.
"That's odd, isn't it," he said, referring to the fact that 33 years later, police are again in his neighborhood searching for the boy.
Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester acquainted with Etan's baby sitter, had then been identified as a suspect in the case, but was never charged. He remains in a Pennsylvania prison on unrelated charges.
On the day of his disappearance, Etan's mother, Julie Patz, learned after her son failed to return home from school that he hadn't been in classes that day. She called the school at 3:30 p.m., then called the homes of all his friends. When she found no one who had seen her son, she called police and filed a missing person report.
By evening, more than 100 police officers and searchers had gathered with bloodhounds. The search continued for weeks, but no clues to Etan's whereabouts were found.
The boy's disappearance was a key event inspiring the missing children's movement, which raised awareness of child abductions and led to new ways to search for missing children.
Then-President Ronald Reagan named May 25, the day Etan went missing, as National Missing Children's Day.
In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. decided to take another look at the decades-old mystery.