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Daughter of Etan Patz's suspected killer testifies of her father's obsessions and disturbing dreams

Becky Hernandez, center, testified in the murder trial

Becky Hernandez, center, testified in the murder trial of her father, Pedro Hernandez, on Monday, March 09, 2015. Hernandez is on trial after confessing to the murder of Etan Patz in 1979. Credit: Charles Eckert

The daughter of defendant Pedro Hernandez testified Monday at the Etan Patz murder trial that her father was a reclusive man with obsessive habits who woke screaming at night and had visions of shadowy figures, a woman in white and a bald man choking him.

"We knew he wasn't well, but we didn't want to hurt his feelings," said Becky Hernandez, 25, explaining how her mother, Rosemary, told her to cope.

"You know how children sometimes believe in something? That's the type of response we had. My mom always taught me that what he sees and what he believes is not what we have to see."

Pedro Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, confessed in 2012 that as a teenager working at a Soho bodega in 1979 he strangled 6-year-old Etan in the basement. Etan vanished with no trace. The defense says the confession was a fantasy caused by a mental disorder.

After a four-week prosecution case, Becky Hernandez, a college graduate who works in a hospital, was the first defense witness, setting the stage for psychiatric experts expected to say her father suffers from schizotypal personality disorder and has a borderline IQ.

She told jurors her dad had no friends and rarely talked, even with his family, leading to awkward silences, sometimes in the living room, and his life was shaped by routines.

Every Sunday, she told jurors, her family would go to church early and sit in the same pew with the same seating order -- Pedro, between his wife and daughter. Every summer on her parents' wedding anniversary, she said, the three would go to Wildwood for three days, stay in the same place and eat breakfast in the same spot every day, every year, and then lunch in a different restaurant, but the same one every day, every year.

Every morning, she said, her father got up at 2 a.m. to cook rice for the next night's dinner -- almost always chicken, rice and beans -- to make sure it was ready.

Each morning, she said, he left an hour or two early to drive his wife to work and his daughter to school, to make sure they were on time.

During the day, she said, he would lie on his couch watching shows like "Andy Griffith" and "Little House on the Prairie" -- he got a disability check for a back injury -- and cleaned the house "profusely." On school days he would be waiting for her outside the school.

His efforts to control her went to extremes, Becky Hernandez testified. He would never let her go out alone or be home alone, and insisted on written invitations two weeks in advance for her to visit friends. Mall trips were kept to two hours, chaperoned by her mom. She said it was intrusive -- even agreeing to the word "abusive" at one point -- but said he never did anything inappropriate, and she came to understand that he saw control as protectiveness.

"He's protective because he loves me," she said. "He loves my mom. He prays for us. . . . It's little things that show that he cares. That's why he loves me." She cried on the stand.

She said most nights he went to bed around 7 p.m. so he could wake up to make the rice, but he frequently screamed and had to be awakened from a dream. His visions included a woman in white with flowing hair, which he told her as a child was an angel passing through him, his body shivering as he described how it felt.

Sometimes he would see a man in a car when she and her mother saw no one, the daughter said. Other times he thought shadows were alive, or said that while sleeping he felt "something dark" and when he opened his eyes a "big, muscular man, bald" was there.

"As soon as he woke up he said he was scared and he choked him," she testified. "My Dad tried to fight him off."

The testimony was in contrast to witnesses called by the prosecution who testified that Hernandez was quiet and had few friends but appeared normal and never talked to himself or described visions.

The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday.

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