Over 30 years since Etan Patz, a six-year-old Manhattan child, went missing, a man confesses to his abduction and murder. Etan Patz’s disappearance sparked national bedlam about missing children and led to that iconic symbol of the 1980’s: the face on the milk carton. Now Pedro Hernandez, a 51-year-old mentally ill man, says he lured the child into his convenience store with the promise of a soda before strangling the child and disposing of his body.
Hernandez is charged with homicide in the second degree for the killing of Etan Patz. A “murder 2” charge is generally used in cases where the physical evidence is lacking, even though from a legal perspective, “murder 2” is what is known as a crime of passion killing as opposed to a deliberate, premeditated “murder 1.” In this case there is no body, no DNA evidence, no forensic evidence of any kind and no corroborating evidence, so the Manhattan District Attorney is charging based on Hernandez’s statements alone.
Given that the Manhattan DA’s office was only recently under fire for its mishandling of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case (wherein the president of the International Monetary Fund was charged with sexual assault based on the statement of a witness with credibility problems) it’s clear that the office wants to proceed cautiously with another high profile case.
On November 12, 2012, a grand jury in New York County formally indicted Hernandez on two charges of second degree murder and one charge of first degree kidnapping:
– Murder in the Second Degree in violation of Penal Law §125.25(1) for intentionally causing the death of Etan Patz.
– Murder in the Second Degree in violation of Penal Law §125.25(3) for causing the death of Etan Patz in furtherance of committing the crime of kidnapping.
– Kidnapping in the First Degree in violation of Penal Law §135.25(3) for abducting Etan Patz on or around May 25, 1979.
Six-year-old Etan Patz was walking two blocks from his home to the school bus stop on May 25, 1979, when he disappeared. It was the first day his parents had allowed him to make the short trip by himself.
His disappearance threw the city of New York, and then the nation, into a panic. There was no trace of the child, no witnesses, no evidence, and no leads. The boy was simply, inexplicably, gone. His face was posted on every street lamp, seen in every newscast and appeared soon on every milk carton, asking for anyone with information to step forward. No one ever did, and the case languished and grew cold.
Two years ago, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office reopened the case. They excavated a basement in lower Manhattan, looking for clues or remains. There was nothing.
This May, a source came forward with information that 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez had once admitted to “killing a child in New York.” Law enforcement went to Hernandez’s home in New Jersey and questioned him for hours. Hernandez told the police that he had been working at a convenience store near the Patz residence in 1979, and that on May 29 he lured the boy into his shop with a cold soda.
After speaking with the police for hours, Hernandez made a full written confession, telling investigators that he strangled the boy. Hernandez admitted that he wrapped up the body in a plastic bag, then a box, and stored it in a basement cold storage unit for three days before dumping it in the trash.
As the furor over the missing boy came to a head, Hernandez left his job at the shop for New Jersey, where he has lived quietly ever since. He has no criminal record.
The police arrested Hernandez, and he is currently in custody at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, where he is being treated for various mental disorders. According to family members, he has suffered from hallucinations related to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for years. The case is on hold while psychiatrists evaluate Hernandez’s mental health.
Based on the confession, the Manhattan District Attorney has charged Hernandez with second-degree murder. On November 14, 2012, a New York County grand jury indicted Hernandez on two charges of second degree murder and one charge of first degree kidnapping. Following Hernandez’ confession police launched a full investigation that included more than 300 interviews and a search of at least six separate sites, but have not yet identified any corroborating evidence.
Update 2/19/14 – Pedro Hernandez’ murder trial is being postponed for months as psychiatric exams and other preparations continue. The 51-year-old was tentatively set to go on trial in April in the case surrounding Etan Patz but a judge said Feb.19 he now anticipates the trial starting in September.
Pedro Hernandez – A 51-year-old New Jersey man who has allegedly confessed to killing Patz 33 years ago. Hernandez has no criminal record and reportedly suffers from psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia.
Etan Patz – The six-year-old child who went missing in 1979, sparking nationwide anxiety about leaving children unattended. His was the original face on the milk carton.
Suspect Confesses, Where Do We Go From Here?
Police: Man Arrested In Etan Patz Disappearance
When Etan Patz’s face appeared in the news again, we at Wild About Trial all recognized him right away. Some younger staffers did not recall the tumult and anxiety the case of the missing boy caused in 1979, but we all grew up looking at his face on the milk carton.
In these very old cases, it is so rare that a suspect is found without the assistance of DNA evidence. Usually in a cold case, new technology makes it possible to analyze a piece of evidence discovered at the time, and that can lead to reopening the investigation. But with Etan Patz’s case, that little piece of forensic evidence – the stray hair, say, or the smudged fingerprint – was never there. The police weren’t even sure the child had, in fact, been killed.
This case so far has only one component to it – the confession of a man who is reportedly mentally ill. Being mentally ill does not automatically make the confession invalid or untrue or inadmissible in court, but it will make the prosecution’s job a little bit harder. For example, it could be that someone suffering from grandiose delusions would confess to an old, high-profile case simply for the fifteen minutes of fame it would bring.
False confessions abound in high-profile cases. Recall the murder of another young child not too long ago, JonBenét Ramsey. In that case, John Mark Karr confessed to killing the six-year-old beauty pageant queen ten years after the girl was found dead. Upon further investigation, though, police found that Karr could not have murdered the child.
Probably one of the most famous missing child cases of all time was the Lindbergh baby in the 1930s. More than 200 people came forward and confessed to being the culprit.
Police and prosecutors know that confessions to notorious cold cases must be treated with utmost care and caution, given this precedent, which is why the investigation for corroborating evidence of any kind will continue. Corroborating evidence – which could be as simple as someone who can testify that she saw Patz go into Hernandez’s shop on the morning he disappeared, or as conclusive as the boy’s DNA evidence found in the basement of the building where the shop used to be – is not necessary for a conviction, but it certainly helps.
Another problem for the police and prosecutors is that Hernandez had no motive to kill the boy. He does not have any kind of a criminal history or record that would tend to show that he has a history of abusing children.
One thing that lends credibility to Hernandez’s confession is the amount of detail he went into when describing what he did following the killing. He precisely describes the layout of the shop where he worked and of the basement area, leading investigators to look to old blueprints of that building to see if they match Hernandez’s descriptions.