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Etan Patz: N.J. man is questioned but skepticism remains

May 24, 2012|By Tina Susman

NEW YORK -- A New Jersey man was being questioned by New York police Thursday after claiming to have killed Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished 33 years ago on his way to school, but some investigators were skeptical that his confession would close one of the country's most gripping missing-child cases.

The man in custody was identified by a law enforcement official as Pedro Julio Hernandez of Maple Shade, N.J. Hernandez, 51, said he worked at a grocery store near the home of Etan, who was walking to his school bus stop on May 25, 1979, when he disappeared. He has never been seen since, and was declared legally dead in 2001.

The latest developments come one day before the anniversary of his disappearance, and a month after the FBI and police renewed their search for evidence by digging up the basement of a building down the street from the Patz residence in Manhattan.  At that time, investigators questioned a Brooklyn resident who had been a handyman with a workshop in the basement, which Etan would have passed on his way to the bus that morning.

The man denied involvement and was never called a suspect.  In 2004, a civil court ruled that another man, Jose Antonio Ramos, who is serving time in a Pennsylvania prison on an unrelated child abuse charge, was responsible for Etan's death, though criminal charges never were filed. The boy’s body never was found and Ramos has denied killing him.

Hernandez’s confession throws another wrinkle into the baffling case, which galvanized the nation to pay more attention to the plight of missing children. Etan's face was the first to appear on the side of a milk carton, part of the nationwide effort to find him and to publicize other unsolved cases of child abductions and disappearances.

Investigators would not say publicly why there was some suspicion of his claim to have killed the little boy; however, among other things, they would try to compare his version of events to what investigators know and could become skeptical if Hernandez was not familiar with certain details of the case.

“If that’s the case, it starts to raise a lot of questions,” said one investigator familiar with the matter, who said a “certain degree of skepticism” remains about Hernandez’s story.

Local media reported varying accounts of Hernandez’s claims; some said Hernandez told investigators he strangled Etan and then put the body into a box, which never was found. Others said he told investigators the boy was stabbed after being lured into Hernandez’s workplace with promises of candy.

Patz’s parents, who still live in the same apartment building where Etan lived, remained out of sight Thursday. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s measured response to the latest developments reflected the wariness of being too hopeful that the mystery finally would be solved.

“I certainly hope we are one stop closer to bringing them some measure of relief,” he said of Etan’s parents.

“This was a tragedy that broke the hearts of millions of people, especially parents, across this nation,” Bloomberg said.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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