A former prison informant testified at the Etan Patz murder trial Thursday that a convicted pedophile who defendant Pedro Hernandez claims is the real culprit once confessed to having sex with the 6-year-old at the time of his 1979 disappearance.
In a major boost for the defense, Jeffrey Rothschild, a credit-card con man who federal authorities placed in a cell with convict Jose Ramos in 1991, said he used his own experience with tell-all alcoholism therapy to get Ramos to open up about young boys.
"Ramos admitted to me in the plainest possible language the sex he had with Etan Patz," Rothschild testified, laying out to wincing jurors the details of sex acts Ramos said he had engaged in with Etan at Ramos' apartment, and Etan's resistance.
After relating the talk, Rothschild, 67, said his two weeks with Ramos in a segregation unit at the upstate Otisville federal prison was unforgettable. "I thought my life was a total mess," he testified, "but then I realized there are people deeper and darker than me."
Etan vanished without a trace on his way to get a school bus in SoHo on May 25, 1979. Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, told police in a now-disputed 2012 confession that as a teen working in a SoHo bodega, he lured Etan into the basement and strangled him.
The defense contends the confession was a delusion caused by a mental disorder, and has tried to focus jurors on a federal probe in the late 1980s of Ramos, based on his links to a woman who had chaperoned Etan to school in 1979 and inculpatory statements Ramos made to federal prosecutor Stuart GraBois and two informants.
Prosecutors say any case against Ramos is full of holes and Rothschild's claims, which have long been public, are not credible because he has a 40-year record of fraud, he might have lied to win favors, and none of Ramos' purported admissions were taped.
But in his first day on the stand, the white-haired ex-fraudster was cool, personable and disarming -- answering slowly, regretfully admitting he had always been a career liar out for himself, and mixing courtly apologies for mistakes with a colorful narrative.
Rothschild said he was a Jewish "jailhouse lawyer," and connected with Ramos because he wanted advice and was studying Judaism. After his release, Rothschild got into a new scrape with the law, saw a news report about Ramos and Etan, and decided to use the friendship to help himself.
Back inside, Rothschild said, he used Ramos' anger at GraBois and occasional shows of guilt to tease out tidbits about Etan -- whom he called "Eatin." Ramos said he used his tie with the chaperone to approach Etan, telling the boy, "Hi, I'm Susan's friend."
Jurors saw a map of SoHo that Ramos drew, according to Rothschild, with an "x" where he picked up Etan -- near the bodega and the school bus stop -- and the location of his nearby apartment on West Fourth Street.
Ramos never admitted killing Etan, Rothschild testified, but at one point said in an outburst at GraBois, "That [expletive] knows I did it. He can't prove it and it's killing him. Good. Let it kill him, and we'll both be buried next to Eatin.
When Rothschild asked if the boy was dead, he testified that Ramos responded, "Of course . . . But there is no proof and the kidnapping statutes are over." It was an apparent reference to the time limits on a prosecution for kidnapping.
The trial resumes Friday.