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Suspect in Etan Patz case pleads not guilty

Pedro Hernandez, 51, was scheduled to appear in

Pedro Hernandez, 51, was scheduled to appear in court for an arraignment on the murder charge in the death of Etan Patz, who disappeared on his way to a school bus stop more than three decades ago. (Nov. 15, 2012) Credit: AP

The New Jersey man who the NYPD says confessed to killing Etan Patz -- a case that has transfixed the city for decades -- pleaded not guilty Wednesday to murder and kidnapping charges at his arraignment in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.

Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., entered the plea nearly seven months after he was arrested in connection with the May 1979 abduction and death of Etan, 6, whose body has never been found.

Hernandez, who was indicted last month on two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree kidnapping, appeared in court before Judge Michael Sonberg in blue jeans and a gray sweater.

His wife and daughter were present but did not comment.

His attorney, Harvey Fishbein, explained outside the courtroom that Hernandez did not commit the crime and that there's nothing to support his earlier confession.

"Today . . . we entered a plea of not guilty to the indictment," Fishbein said. "And we filed our first motion, which is to attack the sufficiency of the evidence in the indictment . . . There is no crime scene, there are no witnesses to a crime and legally you need more than statements to support an indictment."

The next court date was set for Jan. 30.

After Etan's disappearance on May 25, 1979, his photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children's Day.

Earlier this year, police acted on a tip and approached Hernandez, a married father with no criminal record.

The tip came after federal authorities dug up a basement in the neighborhood hoping for clues, putting the cold case back into the limelight.

Investigators say Hernandez told them he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda. According to police, he said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away.

After his arrest in May, hearings for Hernandez were postponed for weeks, with both sides continuing to investigate.

Authorities seized a computer and a piece of old-looking children's clothing from Hernandez's home, scoured the basement of the building where he had worked in, then a grocery store, and interviewed his relatives and friends.

But nothing incriminating came of it, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The person wasn't authorized to discuss findings not yet made public and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Under New York State law, a confession can be enough to convict someone as long as authorities can establish that a crime occurred.

Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have been reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tries to reach out.

Etan was declared legally dead more than a decade ago so his father could sue convicted child molester Jose Ramos in the boy's death. Ramos was found responsible -- a ruling made because he didn't cooperate with questioning during the lawsuit -- and Fishbein could seek to make that a defense point.

Fishbein Wednesday implied that Ramos is more likely the boy's killer. Ramos, now 69, had been dating the boy's baby sitter in 1979 and was the prime suspect for years but never charged.

He was later convicted of molesting two different children. He completed a 27-year sentence last month but was immediately arrested upon his release from a Pennsylvania prison, because authorities said he had given them a false address for where he would be living.

When New York City police checked out the Bronx address he provided on his Megan's Law registration form, they found no one living there who knew Ramos.

And when police tracked down the cousin whose name Ramos had listed, she told them she hadn't had any contact with him in 35 years and did not plan to allow him to live with her, police said. Ramos was ordered to stand trial on a charge of failing to register properly as a sex offender.

With Igor Kossov

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