An arrest has been made in the 33-year-old cold case of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who went missing on his way to a Manhattan schoolbus stop in 1979.
Police charged Pedro Hernandez, a 51-year-old man from Maple Shade, N.J., Thursday after he confessed to choking the boy in the basement of a convenient store where worked, according to Commissioner Ray Kelly. The store was close to Patz's home.
Hernandez, apprehended in New Jersey Wednesday, will be charged with second-degree murder. His arrest is the first made in the case that shook the nation 33 years ago. The encounter between police and Hernandez happened at his house.
Etan went missing on May 25, 1979, while walking to the school bus stop alone for the first time. He became the first missing child to have his face featured on a milk carton.
Friday is the 33rd anniversary of the boy's disappearance.
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Kelly said Hernandez confessed after hours of questioning, admitting to police that he lured Etan into the store promising to give him a soda. Hernandez, then 19, took the boy to the basement and choked him to death, he said.
Kelly said a short while after the murder Etan's body was taken from the bodega and left in the trash in the neighborhood. He doubts any remains will ever be found.
The bodega was open and functioning, we believe, Kelly said. Etan was led to the basement. Hernandez was a stock clerk.
No motive has been established for the killing and Kelly said police have no reason to believe there were any signs of sexual abuse. He believes Hernandez acted alone.
Our issue is probable cause and we had probable cause to make this arrest, Kelly said during a press conference Thursday evening.
He added that attention was brought to Hernandez as a result of the search of a Manhattan basement last month.
That raised issues to people who had some knowledge of things that he had said in the past, Kelly said. We believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime.
The tip police received said that Hernandez, who has lived in South Jersey for years, had made statements about a bad thing he had done, killing a boy in New York City.
We believe the first statement was made in 1981, Kelly said, refusing to give specifics of who the tipster was.
The tip was called in directly to a missing person squad, Kelly added.
Whether the boy's body was taken in the city trash collection will be a part of police investigation.
Investigators with the NYPD and the FBI spent four days last month excavating the basement of a Prince Street building looking for clues that could lead them to the boy. The basement was the workshop for local handyman Othneil Miller. Police executed the search warrant after a cadaver dog detected a hit at the site. But no new evidence was found.
Etan was seen at Miller's workshop the day prior to his disappearance. Miller, now 75, had given Patz a dollar for helping him around the shop. Miller was questioned by police when the incident happened but had always maintained his innocence and cooperated with the investigation. He was never charged in the case.
Kelly said it was unfortunate that the media labeled Miller as a suspect in the case, and said his force never did so.
The detectives believe in the credibility of the statement of Mr. Hernandez, Kelly said. The suspect was identified in one of the files as being present in the bodega but was not questioned.
Hernandez hasn't taken a polygraph and Kelly couldn't say why he wasn't questioned 33 years ago, but said the suspect quit his job shortly after Patz disappeared.
He was an undocumented employee at the store, Kelly said. It was close to Etan's disappearance when he terminated his employment.
He clarified that undocumented meant working off the books, not being an illegal alien.
Patz was declared legally dead in 2001 and his case was reopened in 2010 by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
It has been an emotional roller coaster over the years for the boy's parents, Stan and Julie Patz. They haven't moved from their apartment or changed their phone number since his disappearance. They've always hoped Etan would make contact.