Why Pedro Hernandez Confessed to Killing Etan Patz

The ex-bodega worker denied recognizing Etan Patz. An hour later, a new story emerged. By Michael Daly.

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

The man charged with murdering Etan Patz did not just blurt out a confession like some crazy person off his meds.

Detectives, in fact, found Pedro Hernandez all the more convincing for the very reason that he so clearly seemed to be lying at the start of their interview with him.

According to a knowledgeable source, Hernandez began to incriminate himself only after more than an hour of questioning. He initially told investigators that he could not identify Patz in a photo they showed him. The statement was remarkable, coming from someone who lived and worked at the epicenter of the search at the time the 6-year-old went missing in 1979.

Hernandez claimed to be unsure of why he had been brought for questioning to the Camden, N.J., prosecutor’s office. He is said to have asked if cops wanted to talk to him about his ex-wife or late child-support payments.

A detective from the NYPD missing person’s squad then set down the photo of Patz and said something to the effect of, “You know why you’re here.”

Hernandez, the source says, looked away and replied, in essence, “I’ve never seen that before.”

The detective is said to have responded, “You know you’ve seen that before.”

The missing child’s father, Stanley Patz, had shown photos of his son in the bodega where Hernandez worked on the afternoon of Etan’s disappearance. Photos also were posted all over the neighborhood where Hernandez both lived and worked. The boy’s face appeared on milk cartons and in countless periodicals and television news shows. And all of it had been rehashed just one month earlier, when the FBI dug up a basement halfway between the Patz home and the corner bodega.

Yet, here was Hernandez saying he did not recognize this face known even to millions of Americans living far from New York City.

It was “deny, deny, deny,” says the source.

After about an hour, the source reports, there was a break in the questioning. Hernandez had a chance hallway encounter with a Camden cop who had grown up with Hernandez in that New Jersey town. An NYPD detective overheard a friendly exchange between the two and enlisted the Camden cop’s help in loosening up Hernandez as the questioning resumed.

The source says that the talk turned to a neighborhood doctor and word that Hernandez had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Hernandez is said to have spoken of how sick he felt and of the possibility that his illness could prove fatal.

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During the next hour, the source further reports, Hernandez began to admit that maybe he did recognize the boy in the picture, and that maybe he did know something about what happened to him.

Hernandez is said to have then spent more than an hour giving a detailed confession. He remained consistent and rational later during further questioning at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the source says.

At one point, detectives took Hernandez to the bodega on West Broadway where he allegedly lured Etan Patz down to the basement and strangled him. The bodega has since become a designer-eyeglass store, but Hernandez’s older sister, Luz Santana, still resides with her family in a second-floor apartment directly across Prince Street. She could have looked out her window and seen the brother who once lived with her standing with the detectives, showing them where he allegedly killed the boy. Hernandez passed directly beneath her window as he retraced the route he allegedly took while moving the body from the bodega’s basement to a row of garbage cans in a passageway around the corner.

The Patz family, meanwhile, still lives just a block-and-a-half down Prince Street, making this short stretch in a now-posh neighborhood disturbingly spooky with the decades-long proximity of victim’s family, prime suspect’s family, and the crime scene.

The NYPD says that case file indicates that investigators never took a serious look at Hernandez at the time of Etan’s disappearance, even though he was known to work in the place where the boy effectively announced he was going when he set off for home with a dollar in his hand, intent on buying a soda before boarding his school bus.

Hernandez still did not become a suspect when he quit working at the bodega one month later and moved back to New Jersey. A detective who visited the family in those days might have been told that Hernandez had become a changed person, jumping up and constantly peering out the window. The detectives he seems to have feared would be coming for him had instead fallen victim of tunnel vision, zeroing in first on the parents as suspects, then on a pedophile who once dated a woman who had briefly been paid to walk Etan home from school.

Hernandez only became a suspect 33 years after Etan’s disappearance because a family member called the police, apparently in response to the intense public interest in the case revived during the dig in the Soho basement in April. The relative told police that Hernandez had spoken of having done something bad to a boy in New York years before.

Prior to his arraignment, Hernandez was taken to Bellevue Hospital prison ward as a possible danger to himself. He was arraigned via video on a charge of second-degree murder and held for psychiatric evaluation prior to entering a plea. His lawyer says his client suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Detectives say they are confident that Hernandez was rational at the time of his confession.

But Hernandez’s possible motive is still not clear, and there seems little chance of recovering Etan Patz’s body or any other corroborating physical evidence. Still, those who wonder if cops finally have found the murderer might consider that Hernandez denied even recognizing the face everybody knows.