NEW YORK — A New Jersey man who was a teenage store clerk when 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished 33 years ago Friday told police he lured the boy into the store with promises of a soda, strangled him, then dumped the body into an alley — a dramatic confession that could solve one of the country's most chilling missing-child mysteries.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, speaking at a news conference Thursday night, said Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., had spoken to investigators for more than three hours, that his confession had been videotaped, and that Hernandez had told people over the years that he'd been involved in a horrible crime.
"In the years following Etan's disappearance, he had told a family member and others that he had … 'done a bad thing and killed a child in New York,' " Kelly said of Hernandez, who had worked for about a month at a small store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, down the street from Etan's home.
Etan left his apartment on the morning of May 25, 1979, to walk to his school bus stop — the first time his parents had allowed him to make the journey on his own. He never came back, and a body was never found, but Etan's parents, Stan and Julie, never gave up hope that their little boy would come home.
They still live in the same apartment building, and were told of Hernandez's arrest before Kelly's announcement. Lt. Christopher Zimmerman, who gave Stan Patz the news, described him as "a little surprised," adding, "After everything Mr. Patz has gone through, he handled it very well."
"I was glad to tell him … but I didn't want to upset him any more than he may have been," Zimmerman said.
Etan's disappearance sent a chill through parents nationwide about the unseen dangers that can lurk even in their own neighborhoods. His parents' determination to resolve the mystery helped launch a nationwide effort to improve methods for reporting and tracking missing children.
Etan was the first missing child to appear on the side of a milk carton, and in 1983 President Reagan proclaimed May 25 to be National Missing Children's Day to call attention to the plight of Etan and other lost youngsters.
The Patzes had Etan declared legally dead in 2001, and for years they were convinced that Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted pedophile serving time on an unrelated case in Pennsylvania, was responsible for Etan's death. In 2004, a Manhattan civil judge declared Ramos guilty, although he denied it.
Kelly said police were confident that Hernandez had told them the truth, and that he seemed "remorseful" and also relieved to get it off his chest. According to Kelly, Hernandez had not been considered a suspect in the past but for many years had hinted to acquaintances and relatives that he had a dark history.
One acquaintance was reminded of Hernandez's comments last month, after investigators dug up the basement of a building near Etan's apartment in a fresh search for evidence. The acquaintance alerted police, who began talking to Hernandez in New Jersey on Wednesday night. Kelly said Hernandez then came voluntarily to New York and met with investigators.
"He brought them to the scene of the crime," said Kelly, noting that the former grocery store was now an optical store. "Hernandez described how he lured young Etan from the school bus stop … with the promise of a soda. He then led him into the basement of the bodega, choked him there, and disposed of the body by putting it into a plastic bag and placing it into the trash."
Despite its lurid details, the confession raised many questions: Why would Hernandez kill Etan; how could the little boy's body go undiscovered given the intensity of the search for Etan at the time; and what does it mean for the judgment against Ramos, the Pennsylvania prisoner?
Kelly said Hernandez told them he had acted alone and offered no motive or physical evidence.
Some legal experts warned against accepting Hernandez's confession too quickly without corroborating evidence — something difficult to obtain without a body and after so many years had passed.
"Most people think someone would never confess to a crime they didn't commit. Unfortunately it happens all the time," said Lonnie Soury, co-founder of FalseConfessions.org, which monitors cases of wrongful convictions.
Soury warned that wrongful murder convictions that are overturned frequently involve false confessions.
Steven A. Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University who has researched false confessions, said the reasons for them can include mental instability, a desire for attention or a desire to end police questioning.
"It's very hard," he said of getting corroborating evidence to back up a confession of a crime that occurred so long ago. "If Mr. Hernandez could lead them to a body, that would be extremely powerful. But other information, like conversations with people over the years about this case, are going to be much harder to track down."
Kelly said the fact that Hernandez had told his story to others in the past, and "the specificity of what he said in the confession," gave police confidence they had Etan's killer. "We can only hope these developments bring some measure of peace to the family."
Kelly said Hernandez had worked in construction until 1993, when he suffered a back injury.
Hernandez's relatives in Maple Shade, a city of about 19,000 about 85 miles from Manhattan, did not speak to news media gathered outside their home, but some neighbors expressed surprise that Hernandez could have been involved in Etan's disappearance.
Patty Paige described herself as "flabbergasted."
"I can't think this guy would have anything to do with it," another neighbor, Dan Wollick, told reporters.