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Etan Patz trial: Members of prayer group testify that Pedro Hernandez said he killed boy

Witnesses Paito Concepcion, left, and Neftali Gonzalez, right,

Witnesses Paito Concepcion, left, and Neftali Gonzalez, right, arrive at Manhattan Supreme Court for the murder trial of Pedro Hernandez on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. Hernandez is on trial after confessing to the 1979 murder of Etan Patz. Credit: Bryan R. Smith / Bryan R. Smith

Two more members of a New Jersey charismatic prayer group testified at the Etan Patz murder trial on Friday that defendant Pedro Hernandez said at a 1979 retreat on a farm that he had killed a boy in a bodega basement.

Witnesses Paito Concepcion and Neftali Gonzalez echoed the Thursday testimony of a third man at the retreat, Ramon Rodriguez, but the three memories differed on significant points -- whether Hernandez said he sodomized the boy, and whether he said he cut the body up.

Concepcion also indicated that he never reported Hernandez's statements to authorities in part because he thought the defendant had some kind of mental problem, echoing a key claim of the defense.

"We thought the man, you know, he wasn't doing well," he said, pointing his finger at his head and circling it to illustrate his point. "And second, I was not at the scene [of] the crime, I did not see anything."

Hernandez, 53, a married father from Maple Shade, New Jersey, is accused of kidnapping and murdering Patz, the 6-year-old first-grader who disappeared in SoHo on May 25, 1979, on his way to catch a school bus. His body was never found.

The charges in the long-unsolved disappearance are based on a 2012 confession in which Hernandez said that as a teen working in a SoHo bodega, he lured Patz into the basement with a soda, strangled him, and disposed of his body in a box he left in an alley.

The defense contends Hernandez has a borderline IQ that made him vulnerable to police pressure, and fantasized the crime because of a mental disorder that causes him to hallucinate.

The prayer retreat at a farm in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, is one of three occasions between 1979 and his arrest in 2012, prosecutors say, when Hernandez privately made reference to having hurt a boy in New York.

Concepcion, Gonzalez and Rodriguez, all Puerto Rican residents in their 70s, testified through a Spanish interpreter that they were living in the Camden, New Jersey area in the late 1970s, and knew Hernandez only fleetingly, when he became connected to their charismatic Catholic group through a relative.

Rodriguez said the confession occurred in a private conversation after God told him to approach Hernandez, and Hernandez said he sodomized the boy with a stick before killing him. Concepcion and Gonzalez said Hernandez began crying in a prayer circle, and was urged by the group leader to talk.

"He said that he tried to abuse a child," Gonzalez said, before adding a new element. "The child didn't let him. He strangled him and threw him in the garbage."

Concepcion recalled Hernandez saying he abused the boy but added a different detail on the disposal of the body. "Later he asphyxiated him," he testified. " . . . Then when he asphyxiated him, 'I cut him. I cut him,' he said. 'I put him in a bag, a plastic bag, and I threw him in the garbage.' "

In a statement to police, Concepcion was more specific -- using the phrase "cut him to pieces." A police witness and bodega manager Juan Santana, Hernandez's brother-in-law, have both testified police searched the basement in 1979 in the hunt for Patz, and the defense has suggested they would have found a bloody crime scene.

Hernandez's first wife is expected to testify when the trial resumes on Monday. It is expected to last at least into March.

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