05.24.12

Etan Patz Case: Cops Dismissed Suspect’s Confession Before

Nearly 33 years to the day after the disappearance of Etan Patz, detectives are reevaluating a suspect who had copped to the crime just days later. Michael Daly reports.

The man who allegedly confessed this week to killing Etan Patz had confessed to the crime more than 30 years ago, but was dismissed as “a lunatic,” a knowledgeable law-enforcement source says.

Relatives of Pedro Hernandez first contacted police not long after Patz vanished from his New York City neighborhood on May 25, 1979, according to the source. The relatives are said to have told police after Patz’s disappearance that Hernandez, who worked in a nearby store, had admitted to them that he killed the 6-year-old boy.

Detectives interviewed Hernandez at that time, the source says, and he confessed to the crime. But the detectives deemed this first confession to be “the raving of a lunatic,” in part because he told them that he had put the body in a box and stashed it someplace only for it to disappear.

“They didn’t believe him,” the source says. “You can’t just leave a dead kid out in the street and nobody reports it.”

Three decades later, an unsuccessful five-day dig in a SoHo basement revived intense interest in the case and prompted Hernandez’s relatives to once again contact the police. The source says the relatives essentially said, “We told you once before and we’re not telling you again.”

NYPD detectives took another look at Hernandez, who had lived and worked in the SoHo neighborhood where Patz disappeared. Hernandez has since moved to Maple Shade, N.J.

At 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, NYPD detectives escorted Hernandez from the rental apartment in a small suburban house on East Linwood Street where he has been living with his wife and a teenage daughter. Neighbors on the block described the Hernandez family as both quiet and pleasant.

Hernandez is said to have confessed again during his interviews on Wednesday. As he allegedly told other detectives more than three decades ago, the source says, Hernandez told detectives currently investigating the case that he strangled Patz, deposited the body in a bag, and then placed the bag into a box. He set the box out on a Manhattan street, the source said.

Photos: More Famous Cold Cases
cold-cases-teaser
Photos: More Famous Cold Cases (AP Photo (3))

Detectives today seem more inclined to believe Hernandez, although they still have no information as to what may have happened to the boy’s body. One horrifying possibility is that somebody came upon the box that supposedly contained Patz’s body and unknowingly disposed of it as refuse. The box could then have been carted away in a sanitation truck. That would make it all but impossible to recover his remains today.

With the absence of a body or other physical evidence, a case against Hernandez would rest upon the confession and any statements he may have made to relatives and acquaintances. The relatives are said to have become impatient with the police and upset that their tip has ceased to be completely anonymous.

Until now, the prime suspect has been a convicted pedophile named Jose Ramos, who is presently in a Pennsylvania prison for sexually assaulting a 5-year-old boy. Ramos initially became a person of interest in the case when detectives learned that a woman he dated had been hired by Etan’s parents to walk their son home from school during a school-bus strike that spring. The former girlfriend had also been hired to housesit for the Patz family over that Memorial Day weekend and had come by the loft to get a set of keys the day the boy disappeared.

The suspect’s relatives are said to have become impatient with the police.

Ramos reportedly admitted to having sex with a boy that day, but insisted that he dropped the youngster off at the subway. Ramos has never conclusively identified the boy as Etan and has never confessed to killing the youngster, though he was found responsible for Etan’s death in a civil suit brought by the Patz family in 2001.

In reopening the case more than three decades later, detectives took a new interest in Othneil Miller, a local handyman who had given the boy a dollar the day before. Miller had a workshop in a basement a block from the boy’s home and along his route to the school-bus stop. 

A signal from the cadaver dog that it sensed the presence of human remains in the basement triggered the dig, which received worldwide attention but produced nothing of evidentiary value.

What the dig did produce was intense interest in the case, and that seems to have resulted in Hernandez’s relatives deciding to try again—and investigators taking another look at him. A dead end resulted in a revived lead.

If Hernandez is indeed the killer, the motive remains unclear as we come to the 33rd anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, which has also become National Missing Children’s Day.