The story had to wait three decades to be finally told, but now a child-disappearance case that gripped America way back when Jimmy Carter was president may have found a solution -- and, sadly, the name of a murderer. Pedro Hernandez, who was 19 in 1979, allegedly killed 6-year-old Etan Patz in a grocery store's basement in Manhattan, bagged the body and trashed it.
Thirty-three years later, Hernandez could end up paying for that crime, committed on May 25, 1979. That was the day Patz was walking to the school bus stop in SoHo. It was the first time the boy's parents allowed him to make that journey alone.
What happened next was a mystery to investigators: Patz went missing; he never made it to school, and no one knew what happened to the little boy with the big smile. The disappearance shocked America, became the first case of a missing child to end up on milk cartons, and scared parents all over America about their children's interactions with strangers.
No one knew, that is, until Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. reopened the case in 2010 after it had been cold for decades, and the investigation led Thursday to Hernandez confessing to the killing. Hernandez told police he killed the boy by choking him, and claimed he wrapped Patz's body in a plastic bag and placed it in the trash.
Neither Patz's body nor the bag containing it have ever been recovered.
But while the world has known about Etan Patz and the plight of his family for years, not much is known about Hernandez. Here's what investigators and neighbors have told the media about Hernandez:
1. Family Life: Hernandez is 51 years old, from Puerto Rico. He lives in a working-class town just outside of Camden, New Jerse. He has a wife and a teenage daughter. Gilbert Lopez, identified himself as Hernandez's brother-in-law, told Fox News that the suspect is one of about 12 children and that Hernandez lost his mother some seven years ago. Lopez said Hernandez was a good family man. Neighbors said the family is quiet and would occasionally join them at church. Sometimes Hernandez would host small backyard gatherings for up to 15 people. He would occasionally leave his apartment to puff on a cigarette.
2. Employment: Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the media during a press conference Thursday that Hernandez was working as a store clerk in SoHo when Patz was murdered. He was listed as an undocumented employee, working off the books. Shortly after the murder Hernandez left Manhattan for New Jersey, eventually settling down in Maple Shade. Kelly said Hernandez worked in construction and suffered a back injury in 1993. Since then, the alleged killer has been getting disability payments.
3. Troubled by Etan's death: Kelly said investigators have a signed confession from Hernandez with details of the killing. However, before Hernandez confessed to the killing to police, he was already telling others he had done something bad, two years after the murder. Kelly said as far back as 1981, Hernandez made reference to killing an unknown child in New York City.
4. He was never questioned: Police files list Hernandez as one of those who were present in the bodega, but he was never questioned, Kelly said. Police also believed the bodega was open and functioning at the time of Patz's death. As to why the other employees were questioned and Hernandez wasn't, Kelly couldn't say.
5. No criminal background: The police commissioner said Hernandez had no criminal background prior to his arrest Thursday.