05.25.12 1:50 AM ET
Justice Delayed: Did the NYPD Blow the Etan Patz Case?
On the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the disappearance of Etan Patz, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the arrest of a man who police say has confessed to killing the six year-old.
At the time of Patz’s May 25, 1979, disappearance, Pedro Hernandez was a 19-year old stock clerk in a bodega near Patz’s school-bus stop. Kelly told reporters that Hernandez, now 51, confessed to luring the boy down into the basement of the store with the promise of a soda. Kelly said that Hernandez allegedly then strangled Patz, placed the body in a bag and put it out in the trash.
Kelly unequivocally dismissed as incorrect the contention of one law-enforcement source that Hernandez had confessed to the crime more than three decades ago. That source told The Daily Beast that police had been told by family members that Hernandez had confided to them that he had murdered Patz. Investigators, the source said, dismissed Hernandez as a “lunatic.”
In denying that account, Kelly said that police had been contacted about Hernandez only recently, after a fruitless five-day dig in a Soho basement triggered renewed interest in the case. Kelly said that police records prior to then show only a single mention of Hernandez, in a “DD-5,” or detective’s report.
Kelly did not explain why Hernandez was not more fully investigated at the time. Detectives might have taken particular interest in Hernandez after learning that Patz’s mother told them he headed off for school that morning with a dollar in his hand, saying he intended to buy a soda. The bodega where Hernandez worked is next to the school-bus stop and the logical place for him to have gone.
The law-enforcement source who says Hernandez confessed 33 years ago continued to insist that the Hernandez family had tipped off NYPD soon after Patz went missing. Investigators “thought he was a nut,” said the source.
The family’s original tip could have been lost or improperly recorded as investigators sorted through a mountain of information generated by intense publicity around the boy’s disappearance, the source said.
Kelly confirmed that Hernandez was brought in for questioning on Wednesday after NYPD was contacted by his family. The law-enforcement says that when the family made contact with the NYPD, they said in effect, “We called you before and you didn’t do anything.”
Kelly confirmed that Hernandez had told family members about the crime. He quoted Hernandez as confiding to relatives that he had “done a bad thing and killed a child in New York.”
Whether the tip from the family was the first, as Kelly reports, or the second, as the source insists, NYPD detectives this week took a serious look at Hernandez.
At 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, NYPD detectives escorted Hernandez from his rental apartment in a small suburban house on East Linwood Street in Maple Shade, New Jersey, 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 gone with detectives to the building at 448 West Broadway where he had worked 33 years before as a stock clerk. The bodega has since been replaced by an eyeglass store. It would be all but impossible to recover the boy’s remains now if Hernandez disposed of them among garbage that was then carted away by a sanitation truck.
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.
Until now, the prime suspect has been a convicted pedophile named Jose Ramos who is presently in a Pennsylvania prison for sexually assaulting a five-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 Patz’s parents to walk him home from school during a school-bus strike that spring. The former girlfriend had also been hired to house-sit 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.
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 Patz and has never confessed to killing the youngster, though he was found responsible for the death in a civil suit brought by the Patz family in 2001.
In reopening the case more than three decade 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 contact to investigators.
Now, the boy’s parents may finally get an answer to the question that has tortured them since the morning 33 years ago when he went off by himself to school. What happened to Etan?