After 33 years, arrest is made in Etan Patz killing
NEW YORK — A former convenience store worker confessed to luring 6-year-old Etan Patz from a school bus stop in 1979 and choking him to death in a basement, police said on Thursday, ending a three-decade investigation into one of the nation’s most baffling missing-child cases.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was arrested on a second-degree murder charge after telling police he promised the boy a soda, took him to the basement of the convenience store where he worked and killed him there, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said during a Thursday evening news conference.
Hernandez told police he put Etan’s body in a bag and put the bag among some trash about a block from the store, Kelly said, and it’s possible it was picked up by sanitation crews.
No body has been recovered, and Kelly said it’s possible the remains will never be found.
Hernandez was questioned by police for more than three hours after he was picked up in New Jersey on Wednesday, and he gave police a signed confession, Kelly said.
His motive was not yet clear.
It’s not clear if he had an attorney. No one answered the door at Hernandez’s New Jersey home Thursday night.
“He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part” to confess, Kelly said. “We believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime.”
Detectives often are barraged with hoaxes, false leads and possible sightings around the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, which is today.
But Kelly said they had probable cause to believe Hernandez’s story was true because of details he gave to police. Continued...
Hernandez, who was 19 when Patz disappeared and had worked as a clerk at the store for about a month and lived nearby, wasn’t questioned at the outset, Kelly said. But he later told relatives, as far back as 1981, that he had “done something bad” and killed a child in New York City, he said.
After a search of a basement near Patz’s home last month hurtled the case back into the news, a tipster pointed police to Hernandez. Kelly said the person wasn’t a relative but knew Hernandez had said he had done a bad thing.
Hernandez was known to police as being a worker at the convenience store — a popular fixture in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan — but was never questioned, though other people in the shop were.
Hernandez left his job days after Etan disappeared and moved to New Jersey, where he had relatives, Kelly said. Hernandez later worked in construction but has been collecting disability payments since a 1993 back injury, police said. He is married with a teenage daughter.
The focus on Hernandez came after other leads arose and stalled, at one point taking investigators as far as Israel to track reported sightings of the boy.
For most of the past decade, the investigation has focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester now in prison in Pennsylvania. He had been dating Etan’s baby sitter at the time of the boy’s disappearance. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos’ former basement in lower Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced in 2010 that his office was renewing the investigation into the case. A few weeks ago, investigators excavated another basement, down the street from the Patz apartment. The search found no human remains.
Investigators questioned a 75-year-old handyman who had a workspace in the cellar in 1979. But he was not named as a suspect and denied any involvement in the boy’s disappearance.
Neighbors in Maple Shade, N.J., said Hernandez lived with his wife and a daughter who attends college. They expressed surprise Thursday night at the arrest.
“I knew the guy. He was not a problem. His family was great people,” said Dan Wollick, 71, who rents an apartment in Hernandez’ home .”He didn’t bother anybody.” Continued...
Sandy-haired Etan vanished while walking alone to his bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in SoHo, which was a working-class part of the city back then but now is a chic area of boutiques and galleries.
Police conducted an exhaustive search immediately after Etan vanished. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings were canvassed and hundreds of people were interviewed about a disappearance that ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
Etan was one of the first missing children in the United States to be pictured on milk cartons.
The anniversary of Etan’s disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day by presidential proclamation in 1983.
Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out to them. They still live in the same apartment.
They did not return a call for comment on Thursday.
Lt. Christopher Zimmerman, of the NYPD’s Missing Persons Squad, said he’d spoken to Patz’s parents.
“Mr. Patz was taken aback, a little surprised, and I would say overwhelmed to a degree,” he said. “He had a few specific questions. He was a little surprised. But I think after everything Mr. Patz has gone through, he handled it very well.”
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