A 51-year-old unemployed New Jersey man was arrested Thursday in the death of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old Manhattan boy whose disappearance 33 years ago Friday on his first solo trip to school gripped the national psyche.
At a packed Manhattan news conference at NYPD headquarters, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Pedro Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., who had no prior criminal record, admitted to luring Etan into the basement of a bodega at 448 W. Broadway with the promise of a soda on May 25, 1979, choking the child and then disposing of his body by placing it in a black trash bag on the street.
Kelly said he was charged with second-degree murder.
"It was a block and a half away, in a pile of trash, in an open area," Kelly said. Hernandez disposed of the body soon after killing the boy, the commissioner said.
"He was remorseful," Kelly said of Hernandez, who broke down and cried during the interview. Kelly said that at some point during the interview, Hernandez was read his Miranda rights but Hernandez didn't say he had an attorney.
"We believe this is the individual responsible for the crime," Kelly said.
Hernandez had worked as a stock clerk for about one month at the bodega when he enticed Etan into the store, said Kelly, who provided no motive for the crime.
After leaving the bodega job, Hernandez went into the construction trade but suffered a back injury in 1993, when he retired and began receiving disability payments, Kelly said.
Kelly admitted that the main evidence in the case was the statement given to detectives by Hernandez, the father of a teenage daughter. Several times when asked about other evidence, Kelly said the investigation was continuing.
"There is no physical evidence at this time," Kelly said.
Suspect's family reacts
Gilbert Lopez, 45, of Camden, N.J., whose wife is Hernandez's sister Millagros, said she called him in shock after her brother's arrest. "She couldn't believe it," he said. "We're just in shock. We had no idea."
But a woman outside the home of sister Carmen Hernandez said her brother, the defendant, told relatives about 15 years ago, after a holiday dinner, that he harmed a boy years before.
"No one believed it," she said. "Then, when it came on [the news last month] again, we said, 'It's time to tell them [police].' " She said her husband spoke with police about her brother's admission.
She also said Hernandez's wife, Rosemary, was in shock. "What do you think? She's destroyed."
Kelly confirmed at the news conference that in the 33 years following Etan's disappearance, Hernandez did tell family members and others that he had done "a bad thing and killed a child in New York." It was only after the highly publicized excavation last month of a basement on Prince Street in search of Etan's possible remains that a tipster was emboldened to approached police with information leading them to Hernandez as a subject of interest, Kelly said.
Kelly said the boy's family was told of the arrest. "We can only hope these developments bring some measure of peace to the family."
Boy's parents learn news
Lt. Chris Zimmerman, who heads the missing-persons squad, said that Etan's father, Stan, was a little taken aback by the news but took it very well. His wife, Julie, was elated at the news, a source close to the case said. "She was very emotional. This is something they've waited for a long time."
The Patz family was upstate on vacation and couldn't be reached last night, said an attorney who has represented them.
Etan was the first to have his picture appear on the side of a milk carton, and his case also turned May 25 into National Missing Children's Day. His disappearance eventually led to the formation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The case against Hernandez has been turned over to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., whose staff also questioned the suspect Thursday, and prosecutors would decide what charges would be put into a criminal complaint, Kelly said. He said he expected Hernandez to appear in court Friday morning.
Kelly said Hernandez's name was on a police report prepared at that time as being an employee of the bodega, but that he was not questioned.
It was Wednesday night when detectives from the missing-persons squad traveled to Hernandez's home and had what Zimmerman said was a "friendly" and "not adversarial" talk with the suspect. During the drive back to New York, which Hernandez consented to, he talked further, said Zimmerman, who didn't give details.
While Kelly and his staff disclosed some details of Hernandez's confession, he indicated that more investigation was needed. Legal experts said that for a successful prosecution it would be critical for police to develop more evidence beyond what Hernandez told them.
"Just as a general proposition, getting a suspect or an arrest 30 years later certainly inherently poses its challenges. But by no means is it impossible to convict someone," Schroeder said. "A written, videotaped, signed confession is very powerful evidence. There has been a lot of talk about corroboration, with no body, no physical evidence, but that's not required."
He explained, "New York State requires that a person cannot be convicted of a crime based solely on a confession without some other evidence that a crime has been committed. In this instance, a young boy disappeared off the face of the Earth, and has been missing, and presumed dead and now you have someone giving confession to killing him, a very pointed confession. . . . So that is sufficient corroboration."
Early Thursday morning, scores of reporters and photographers also began to gather outside the Patz home on Prince Street. Last month, authorities began ripping up an old basement just down the street from the family loft with the aim of finding Etan's remains.
Evidence taken from the basement of 127 Prince St. -- 16 swabs of DNA, stained concrete and pig bones, likely from Chinese takeout -- was tagged for testing at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., the source said. Initial tests at the scene of the stained concrete wall section tested negative for human blood, said the source.
For years, investigators considered convicted sex offender Jose Antonio Ramos, 68, now finishing up a 27-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison in an unrelated case, as the key suspect in Etan's disappearance. Ramos was never charged.