Pedro Hernandez, right, seen in a file photograph with his attorney, Harvey… (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)
NEW YORK -- More than 33 years after 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished while walking to his school bus stop in Manhattan, a man pleaded not guilty to kidnapping and killing the boy, whose remains never were found and whose disappearance put a spotlight on the plight of missing and abducted children.
The attorney for 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez, Harvey Fishbein, says the prosecution’s case is based on a false confession made by a man with a history of mental illness and that Hernandez never should have been charged in the haunting case.
Hernandez was indicted last month, six months after he told police he had lured Etan into the store where he worked in 1979 with promises of a soda.
“There is no crime scene. There are no witnesses to a crime,” Fishbein said after Wednesday’s court hearing, which Hernandez’s wife and teenage daughter attended.
Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., was not on investigators' radar as they combed the city after Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979. Etan had left his family's apartment for the short walk to his school bus stop early that morning, the first time he had been allowed to go alone. He never made it to the stop.
The wide-eyed boy's face became the first to be featured on milk cartons as the case galvanized efforts to heighten attention nationwide to the issue of missing children.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, never moved out of their SoHo apartment, in hopes Etan would return. They eventually became convinced, along with some investigators, that Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted pedophile who was serving time in an unrelated case in Pennsylvania, was responsible for Etan's death. In 2001, they had Etan declared legally dead. In 2004, a Manhattan civil judge declared Ramos guilty, although he denied it.
Police turned to Hernandez last May after getting a tip that he had told relatives he had "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York" years earlier. The tipster had been motivated to call police after a resumption of the search for clues to Etan's fate last spring. That search failed to turn up new evidence, but it reminded the tipster of Hernandez's comments from years earlier -- comments that Hernandez's associates apparently did not believe at the time.
Fishbein has said Hernandez suffers from mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder that could cause hallucinations and "unusual perceptual experiences." Fishbein also says his client “has an IQ in the borderline-to-mild mental retardation range."
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