By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and J. DAVID GOODMAN
New York authorities are investigating the claims of a man who has told investigators that he had a role in the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who vanished in SoHo on his way to school and is believed to have been murdered, officials said on Thursday.
“An individual now in custody has made statements to N.Y.P.D. detectives implicating himself in the disappearance and death of Etan Patz 33 years ago,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a statement issued early Thursday. “We expect to provide further details later today.”
The man, identified by one law enforcement official as Pedro Hernandez, was taken into custody late Wednesday in New Jersey and was taken to the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus R. Vance, whose prosecutors are overseeing the inquiry by New York Police detectives and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
One law enforcement official said detectives and F.B.I. agents were proceeding cautiously, noting that the man had provided no information to investigators that was not already in the public record. But another law enforcement official said prosecutors and investigators were treating the man’s admissions as a serious lead.
Investigators have focused on Mr. Hernandez, who was picked up in Camden, N.J., as a suspect in the past, one official said, although it was not immediately clear when he became the object of their interest nor what prompted his arrest.
The development came weeks after what had appeared to be a break in the decades-old death when detectives honed in on a Soho basement in search of human remains. That search ended in late April with the police declaring that “no obvious human remains” had been found in the basement, which housed a workshop and was located in a building along the route that Etan, walked by himself to a school bus stop on the day of his disappearance. It was the first time that the boy’s parents had allowed him to go to the stop by himself.
Etan’s parents still live half a block away from the building, at 113 Prince Street.
At the time the boy vanished, the basement housed the workshop of Othniel Miller, who has recently come under scrutiny in the case. A team of evidence recovery specialists from the F.B.I. and crime scene investigators with the Police Department searched for five days along the walls of the basement and under its concrete floor, which was poured shortly after Etan’s disappearance.
The day before Etan vanished, Mr. Miller, a neighborhood handyman, had given him a dollar for a chore the boy had done for him. Mr. Miller has been questioned repeatedly by investigators over the last year. His lawyer has denied that his client had anything to do with Etan’s disappearance.
Mr. Vance had said in 2010 that he would reopen the case, which focused national attention 30 years ago on the problem of missing children and began a new era marked by children’s faces on milk cartons and made-for-television dramas about kidnapped children. President Ronald Reagan declared May 25, the day of Etan’s disappearance, as National Missing Children’s Day.
The police have long had a prime suspect in the case, Jose A. Ramos, a convicted child molester who lived on the Lower East Side and was an acquaintance of a woman who worked for the Patzes as a baby sitter. Mr. Ramos remains imprisoned for molesting a boy in Pennsylvania, but has denied kidnapping or killing Etan.