Etan Patz: Painfully Obvious Evidence

Why did it take 33 years for police to find a neighborhood stockboy? By Michael Daly.

Elizabeth Williams / AP Photo ; New York City Police Department / AP Photo

On Friday morning, at the very hour that Etan Patz disappeared exactly 33 years before, a white sanitation truck pulled up just past the New York City storefront where police believe the 6-year old was lured into the basement by a low-wage worker and strangled.

A sanitation worker wearing a green T-shirt and a blue bandanna alighted from the truck and marched over to a pile of 30-gallon garbage bags, much like the one that police allege Pedro Hernandez used to dispose of Etan’s body. The worker slung one bag, and then another, and then another into the back of the truck. A cop standing a few feet away remarked that plastic of that size could easily hold a dead child.

Other crime-scene investigators were around the corner, photographing a narrow passageway that tenants of the adjacent building use to place garbage between collections.

Hernandez, who in 1979 was a stockboy at a bodega in the city’s downtown neighborhood of SoHo, is alleged by police to have said in his confession that he carried the bag containing Etan’s body from the bodega basement onto the sidewalk and then lugged it around the corner to this passageway. The bag would then presumably have been set out on the street by the building's unsuspecting super and loaded onto the back of a truck by sanitation workers, just like the one worked by the man wearing the blue headband who was slinging bags into the back of his truck Friday.

For a sanitation worker then or now, the contents of a particular bag are seldom of any interest. It is just more weight to collect, and 40 pounds would not be all that remarkable.

In a few moments on this foggy morning in 2012, all the bags were loaded into the back of the truck, and it continued on, just as the police believe a truck drove off with Etan's remains in 1979, leaving not a trace.

The Patz home is a block and a half up Prince Street from the storefront that once housed the bodega and is now a designer-eyeglass shop. Etan’s mother, Julie Patz, has said that her son left around 8 a.m. May 25, 1979, clutching a dollar that a neighborhood handyman had given him the day before. She suggested he pocket the bill, but he told her he intended to buy a soda on the way to school.

Off he went, with the dollar still in his hand, taking maybe 250 child-size steps across Wooster Street and then West Broadway to the only place on his route where he could have bought his soda. Whoever else may have been working in the bodega that morning apparently did not see 18-year-old Pedro Hernandez lure him into the basement.

One continuing mystery is why Hernandez might have killed Etan. New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly says he does not believe that Etan was sexually abused. And if Hernandez is a pedophile, it would be unlikely that he could have continued preying on children without being caught in the three decades since Etan’s disappearance.

Some investigators believe Hernandez was simply mentally ill. His lawyer Harvey Fishbein says Hernandez suffers from bipolar disorder as well schizophrenia; diseases often surface during the late teens. The lawyer claims that Hernandez has suffered from visual as well as auditory hallucinations.

Detectives who questioned Hernandez on Wednesday and Thursday are said to have asked him his motive. His reply, they said, is that he had no motive, or that perhaps he acted because Etan reminded him of his least-favorite nephew.

Like the nephew, Etan at 6 was still in those earliest bright-eyed years when everything seems possible. Etan could stride up to the bodega wearing his junior-flight-captain hat and believe he could grow up to become a real flight captain or anything else he wanted.

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But Etan also was alone and vulnerable and helpless. Perhaps so much so that he aroused whatever cruelty and anger and lunacy that Hernandez may have had pent up. Hernandez would have needed only a moment to exercise the greatest power anyone can wield, the power to take a life.

Or maybe Hernandez was taking drugs. Or maybe he really is just nuts. He apparently nonetheless had enough of his wits about him to dispose of the body. And he said nothing when Etan's panicked father, Stanley Patz, came in to the bodega that afternoon showing a contact sheet of head shots he had taken of Etan and asking if anyone had seen his son.

Another mystery is how the police could have taken so long to focus on someone who was working that morning in the only place where Etan could have bought the soda he left home announcing he was going to buy.

One law-enforcement source says that Hernandez was in fact investigated years ago and discounted as a "lunatic." Kelly dismisses this, saying the only record of Hernandez in the case file is a brief entry on a single report saying little more than that he worked in the bodega.

In a way, that is worse. How could police not have taken a serious look at Hernandez, a worker at the only bodega selling sodas close to Etan's school-bus stop three decades ago?

Part of the problem may be that the missing-persons squad in that era was known as a dumping ground where sidelined detectives spent much of their time in the office, completing paperwork. Additionally, some investigators in the unit suspected the parents, throwing the probe into a dead end.

Still, there is little doubt that numerous detectives over the years did show great dedication to the case. One retraced Etan’s last-known steps every day for months. Other detectives spent countless hours shadowing members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, watching members meet in Times Square to exchange photos. Another detective doggedly investigated leads suggesting that Etan may have been kidnapped by a cult and made a human sacrifice.

Just in April, New York City cops and the FBI spent five days digging up the basement workshop of the handyman who gave Etan the dollar.

The police department says that Hernandez only became a person of interest after the publicity accompanying that five-day dig prompted relatives to report that Hernandez had spoken to them back in 1981 of having killed a boy in Manhattan.

The police say that this was the first time the family contacted them, but this is disputed by the same source, who contends that the cops dismissed Hernandez as a lunatic. The source says that the family contacted police years ago with no result.

However it came to be, Hernandez was scheduled for arraignment Friday morning in Manhattan criminal court and charged with second-degree murder in the case. His wife, Rosemary Hernandez, and his daughter, Becky Hernandez, sat in the hallway outside the courtroom. The wife held a soda similar to what Etan hoped to buy that morning. The daughter had a sports drink—a beverage that hadn’t been invented back in 1979.

Both left the courthouse after word came that the arraignment had been delayed. Hernandez had been taken to Bellevue Hospital to receive unspecified medication and then kept there after he talked about hurting himself. Arrangements were made for Hernandez to be arraigned via a video link between Bellevue and a fifth-floor courtroom on Centre Street.

In the early evening, the proceedings commenced. Hernandez appeared in the courtroom on a five-foot projection screen. He sat in an orange prison jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind him, blank faced. The sight of him was made all the more disheartening by the thought of everything Etan Patz might have become.

“It’s been 33 years, and justice has not yet been done in this case,” said Assistant District Attorney Armand Durastanti.

Back on Prince Street, the missing boy's parents had returned from Boston, where they had attended their daughter’s graduation with a master’s degree from Harvard. Since Etan’s disappearance, they have stayed at the same address and kept the same phone number, hoping against hope that he was alive and might try to contact them.

Now cops and prosecutors on this most famous of cold cases hope that they are finally about to bring Stanley and Julie Patz some measure of peace.