Pedro Hernandez, an intellectually limited former bodega worker, was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison on Tuesday for killing Etan Patz, bringing to a climax a case that haunted parents and police alike for 37 years since the 6-year-old’s disappearance in 1979.
Hernandez, 56, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, was convicted based on a disputed confession in which he said he strangled the boy in the basement of the Soho bodega where he worked and left the body in a box near a trash bin — setting off a frenzied search, a national movement to find missing children and a mystery that lasted nearly four decades.
When Etan’s father Stanley, with his wife Julie beside him, stood to address Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley at Tuesday’s sentencing and denounced his son’s convicted killer, Hernandez did not appear to meet the dad’s glare.
“Pedro Hernandez, after all these years we finally know what dark secret you had locked in your heart,” Patz said. “You took our precious child and threw him in the garbage.”
“We will never forgive you, and the god you pray to will never forgive you,” added Patz, who then referenced testimony about horrific beatings Hernandez had suffered from his own father. “You are the monster in your nightmares and you’ll join your father in hell.”
Hernandez confessed after a relative tipped off police in 2012. He gave no motive and the body was never found, but prosecutors — without evidence — claimed Hernandez tried to molest Etan.
The defense said Hernandez’s confession was a delusion caused by a mental disorder, and tried to blame a convicted child molester who had links to the Patz family.
Detained since 2012, Hernandez was convicted in February after his second monthslong trials. The first ended in an 11-1 deadlock for conviction in 2015. Tuesday’s sentencing unfolded in a courtroom packed with Patz relatives, news media, and former jurors from both trials. Hernandez’s wife and daughter were not inside the courtroom.
Hernandez, who has a low IQ, declined to speak to Wiley, but defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said his client had asked him to say two things on his behalf — he felt bad for the Patz’s but wasn’t the one who killed Etan.
“He wanted to express his deep sympathies to the Patz family over the disappearance of their child,” Fishbein said, “but he also wanted me to make it quite clear that he is an innocent man that had nothing to do with the disappearance of Etan.”
Fishbein also pledged an appeal, complaining that the judge had deprived his client of a fair trial. His co-counsel, Alice Fontier, said that like the Patz’s, her client’s family had been destroyed.
“There can be no just sentence where there isn’t justice,” Fontier said. “ . . . This family has been destroyed. It has been destroyed by police and prosecutors’ endless pursuit of a guilty verdict.”
Wiley said he believed the jurors who thought Hernandez was guilty got it right. Even though Hernandez had no criminal record from before or after Etan’s death, Wiley rejected any argument that his clean record in the decades he kept the crime a secret called for leniency.
“It does not,” said the judge. “His silence caused the Patz family indescribable anguish.”
Wiley imposed concurrent sentences of 25-years-to-life on Hernandez for murder and kidnapping. He will serve a minimum of 25 years before being eligible for parole.
In a news conference after the sentencing, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said the Patz case reflected his office’s commitment to never forget the victims of cold cases, and Stanley Patz said he attributed Hernandez’s failure to show remorse to his lawyers’ false hopes of a reversal.
“He should have, but we know who this person is,” Patz said. “He doesn’t have feelings like the rest of us. ”
The case at a glance
- May 25, 1979. Etan Patz leaves his home on Prince Street in SoHo, heading to the bus stop by himself for the first time. Etan never gets on the bus and is discovered missing when his parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, call the school after the first-grader doesn’t come home that day.
- Spring 1979. In the days after his disappearance, police, joined by SoHo residents, go door to door, with helicopters and bloodhounds joining in the search. Missing posters with the young boy’s blond-haired, smiling face pepper the city, and his photo eventually graces milk cartons and is projected in Times Square.
- October 1979. Police release a sketch of a man reportedly seen talking to Etan the day he disappears. But by May 1980, a year after Etanvanished, police are no closer to finding any trace of him.
- 1983. President Ronald Reagan names May 25 [the day Etan disappeared] National Missing Children’s Day. The next year, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is established.
- November 1989. Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted child molester in custody on an unrelated case, tells authorities he had picked up Etan in Washington Square Park the day he disappeared. Ramos, who was friends with a woman who had been hired to take Patz to school during a bus strike that ended the day before he vanished, says he brought Patz back to his Lower East Side apartment for sex. He claims the little boy left the apartment and was going to get on a subway train.
- Spring 2000. Ramos apparently confesses to his cellmate, telling him “Etan is dead” and “I was the last person to see Etan alive.”
- June 2001. Etan is legally declared dead, clearing the path for a wrongful-death suit against Ramos.
- 2004. A judge rules that Ramos is responsible for Patz’s death.
- 2010. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. agrees to take a new look at the evidence collected against Ramos.
- April 2012. Detectives start excavating the basement of a Prince Street building, where Patz was last seen alive. After several days of searching, no apparent human remains are found.
- May 2012. Pedro Hernandez of New Jersey is arrested. Police say he admits to luring the boy into the basement of a bodega at 448 W. Broadway, promising a soda, and then choking him to death before putting his body in a box and leaving it near a garbage bin.
- May 2015. A mistrial is declared against Hernandez on the 18th day of deliberations after jurors in the case say they are split 11-1, after a 10-week trial. Hernandez’s defense says his confessions are due to his delusion of guilt caused by a mental disorder.
- Summer 2016. A judge reverses the wrongful-death suit after Stanley Patz is convinced of Pedro Hernandez’s guilt. Ramos remains in prison in Pennsylvania for lying on a sex-offender registration after his released on charges of molestation.
- Oct. 19, 2016. Opening statements in the retrial of Hernandez begin.
- Feb. 14, 2017. Hernandez is found guilty of murder on the ninth day of jury deliberations.
- Apr. 18, 2017. Hernandez is sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.