Michael Appleton for The New York Times
Published: May 24, 2012
A New Jersey man was arrested in the killing of Etan Patz, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announced on Thursday, an extraordinary moment in a case that has gripped New York City’s psyche ever since the 6-year-old boy vanished in SoHo on his way to school in 1979.
The man, Pedro Hernandez, told investigators that he lured Etan to the basement of a bodega where Mr. Hernandez worked at the time with the promise of a soda, Mr. Kelly said. Once Etan was inside, Mr. Hernandez choked him, stuffed his body into a bag and took the bag about a block and a half away, where he left it out in the open with trash, Mr. Kelly said.
“He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part,” Mr. Kelly said during a news conference at Police Headquarters. “We believe that this is the individual responsible.”
The break in the case came a month after investigators spent five days excavating a SoHo basement near the spot where Etan disappeared. The search for his remains was fruitless.
But Mr. Kelly said the search had prompted a call to the missing persons squad earlier this month from a person who led them to Mr. Hernandez. The commissioner said that over the years since Etan’s disappearance, Mr. Hernandez told a family member and others that he had “done a bad thing and killed a child in New York.”
Mr. Hernandez had been making the claims since as far back as 1981, Mr. Kelly said, but he had never identified the child he had claimed to have hurt.
The news of the arrest was the latest chapter in a wrenching story that has tormented New York City since Etan’s disappearance 33 years ago on Friday in a neighborhood far grittier than today’s SoHo, with its tourist-clogged streets lined with boutiques and restaurants.
It is unclear whether investigators have been able to corroborate the account Mr. Hernandez has provided. Without any trace of human remains or other forensic evidence, any possible prosecution of him would face significant evidentiary hurdles.
Asked what about Mr. Hernandez’s confession had led detectives to find him credible, Mr. Kelly responded, “The fact that he had told this story to others in the past, and the specificity of what he said in the confession.” He said he did not know what the motive might have been.
Mr. Hernandez, 51, was charged with second-degree murder by the police. Mr. Kelly said he expected the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., to present Mr. Hernandez for arraignment on Friday, but could not say what charges would be filed.
Under the law, prosecutors will have to bring Mr. Hernandez before a grand jury within six days of the arrest and present sufficient evidence to convince them to vote for an indictment, or hold a preliminary hearing, an extremely rare occurrence.
And it was unclear on Thursday what evidence, beyond Mr. Hernandez’s confession, the prosecutors have in hand. Mr. Kelly acknowledged that there was no physical evidence implicating Mr. Hernandez, though he said the investigation was continuing.
Mr. Hernandez, who was 18 at the time Etan vanished, worked as a stockboy in a bodega at 448 West Broadway that is now an eyeglass store, Mr. Kelly said. Etan disappeared on the first morning his parents allowed him to walk alone from the family’s home on Prince Street to a school bus stop on West Broadway.
Mr. Hernandez was working in the basement, which had a separate door to the street, Mr. Kelly said. Etan was at the bus stop when Mr. Hernandez led him away and to the basement, Mr. Kelly said.
“It’s unlikely, very unlikely,” that Etan’s remains would be recovered, Mr. Kelly said.
Mr. Hernandez’s name was mentioned in a 1979 detective’s report as part of the investigation into Etan’s disappearance, Mr. Kelly said. The report listed him as an employee of the bodega, but Mr. Hernandez was never questioned by investigators, Mr. Kelly said.
“I can’t tell you why, 33 years ago, he wasn’t questioned,” he said. “We know that other people in the bodega were questioned.”
Etan’s family was told by the police ahead of time that Mr. Hernandez was going to be arrested in their son’s murder, Mr. Kelly said.
His father was “taken aback,” said Lt. Christopher Zimmerman, the commanding officer of the missing persons squad, and “overwhelmed to a degree.”
Shortly after Etan vanished, Mr. Hernandez left the store and moved to the Camden area in southern New Jersey, where he has many relatives, law enforcement officials said.
Investigators from the New York Police Department traveled to New Jersey and questioned Mr. Hernandez for several hours on Wednesday in the Camden County prosecutor’s office. Mr. Hernandez returned voluntarily to New York, where he led investigators to the address where he worked and described to them what he had done, Mr. Kelly said.
“They kept asking him, ‘Why did you do this?’ ” one law enforcement official said. “And he kept saying: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ”
Mr. Hernandez was placed into custody later on Wednesday and taken to the offices of the Manhattan district attorney, whose prosecutors are overseeing the inquiry by New York police detectives and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Hernandez was emotional and broke down in tears during the confession, the law enforcement official said, adding that it was videotaped, which is standard practice in New Jersey.
During his time in South Jersey, Mr. Hernandez does not appear to have been in any trouble with the local authorities.
He and his wife, Rosemary, live in an apartment in the back of a modest two-story house in Maple Shade, a town of about 19,000 residents east of Camden. The man who rents the front part of the home said Mr. Hernandez and his wife worked with computers, were Pentecostals and hosted many holiday parties with their friends and relatives.
“They were good people, and he was a good neighbor,” said the man, Dan Wollick, 71, adding that he and Mr. Hernandez shared chores like mowing the lawn, raking leaves and shoveling snow.
The investigation into the boy’s disappearance and presumed death has seen a parade of suspects and a range of theories over the years. Last month, the F.B.I. and the Police Department tore apart the basement of a building on Prince Street, just doors away from the longtime Patz family home. Etan’s parents still live on the street. The search was based on a belief among investigators that a local handyman who kept a workshop in the basement in 1979 had abducted and murdered the boy and possibly buried his body there beneath a concrete floor.
A woman interviewed by The New York Times last month who ran a playgroup in SoHo at the time Etan disappeared recalled seeing mounds of garbage bags in the days after the boy vanished, which included Memorial Day weekend. “I always thought there were so many garbage bags out and why did they not search them,” said the woman, Judy Reichler, who now lives in New Paltz, N.Y. “For three days everyone piled bags on the street and then they got picked up.”
The mobilization in the city to find Etan began a new era in the country, marked by children’s faces on milk cartons and made-for-television dramas about kidnapped children. Jim Bogie, 62, a window salesman in Flushing, Queens, said his three children are now in their mid- to late 30s, about the same age Etan would be, and remembered on Thursday being horrified by the disappearance three decades ago.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “If it could happen to him, it could happen to anybody.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg spoke to reporters about Mr. Hernandez while he was being questioned but before he was arrested. “I certainly hope we are one step closer to bringing them some measure of relief,” the mayor said, referring to Etan’s family.