NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Nearly 33 years to the day that 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced the arrest of South Jersey resident Pedro Hernandez in his murder.
Speaking at a news conference Thursday evening, Kelly said Hernandez, of Maple Shade, N.J., spoke to detectives for more than three hours, adding that police have a written and signed confession to the 1979 disappearance and killing.
“We believe there’s probable cause to go forward with this arrest,” Kelly said.
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The new developments may finally unlock the mystery behind the missing boy, which has gripped his family, community and the nation for years. Hernandez will be arraigned sometime Friday morning.
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Kelly said after Hernandez was questioned in New Jersey on Wednesday night, he voluntarily returned to New York City and took police to the scene of the crime. Hernandez was 19 years old at the time of the disappearance.
“Hernandez described to the detectives how he lured young Etan from the school bus stop at West Broadway and Prince Street with the promise of a soda. He then led him into the basement of the bodega, choked him there and disposed of the body by putting it into a plastic bag and placing it into the trash,” Kelly said.
Hernandez had also made mention of and alluded to the killing of the boy when speaking with people he knew, Kelly said.
“In the years following Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez had told a family member and others that he had ‘done a bad thing and killed a child in New York,'” Kelly said.
Police have no physical evidence or a motive for the killing at this time.
Hernandez worked as a stock clerk in a bodega in Patz’s SoHo neighborhood at the time of the boy’s disappearance, Kelly said, adding Hernandez “was remorseful” and that detectives sensed “a feeling of relief on his part.”
“We’re working closely with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office on this investigation and we can only hope that these developments bring some measure of peace to the family,” Kelly said.
CBS News senior correspondent John Miller said the case is problematic for prosecutors because the only information they have with regards to Hernandez’s alleged involvement is from Hernandez himself.
“This is case turned upside down. The normal track is you develop the clues, you bring them into an interview situation with a suspect and then you elicit the confession. In this case, you’ve got a confession that came tumbling out yesterday where they are now going to try and find those clues to go with it,” Miller said.
After the news broke, Rosemary Mendizaball, Hernandez’s common-law wife, and her daughter fled the media encampment outside their Maple Shade home.
Neighbors said were shocked to find out about the arrest on Thursday.
“I never would have expected him. I mean, his wife and his daughter seemed very nice,” said Janet Mabie Diehn. “But I’m just devastated.”
Just last month, police and the FBI spent days digging up a basement in Patz’s SoHo neighborhood looking for clues, but authorities said that no obvious human remains had been found. Hernandez, meanwhile, began making statements to relatives and members of his church about the disappearance, CBS 2’s Pablo Guzman reported.
“I think that he did the right thing to confess and get this thing over with for the people out there and the family over here,” Jose Lopez, the husband of Hernandez’s sister, said.
Sources said Hernandez told police different details than he told his family. The conflicting points involve Hernandez telling his family he stabbed the boy and put him a box as opposed to allegedly strangling him.
Hernandez has a previous criminal record that includes DUI convictions in 1992 and 1994 in Texas, in addition to a 2000 arrest for assault of a family member, Guzman reported.
LAST MONTH’S SEARCH REVEALED NOTHING
District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance reopened the search for Patz in 2010. Just last month, police and the FBI spent days digging up a basement in Patz’s SoHo neighborhood looking for clues, but authorities said that no obvious human remains had been found.
The basement was used as a workshop by handyman Othniel Miller, now 75, who was interviewed soon after Patz vanished in 1979.
Back in April, Miller was questioned again by law enforcement officials. Miller’s attorney, Michael Farkas, said his client is innocent.
“Mr. Miller did not do this,” Farkas said in April. “He’s going to remain cooperative to the extent that’s reasonably possible given this investigation.”
Speaking exclusively to CBS 2 last month, Miller’s daughter, Stephani Miller, also said her father “had nothing to do with the murder.”
On Thursday, Farkas told WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell that he is outraged that his client’s reputation has been smeared and irreparably harmed by the investigation.
THE HISTORY OF THE COLD CASE
The little boy was last seen walking to a school bus on May 25, 1979. Patz’s parents let him walk to the bus alone for the first time that morning and he was never seen again.
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The 6-year-old’s disappearance caused a frenzy in New York City and prompted huge changes in the way missing children cases were handled. He was also the first missing child whose picture appeared on the back of a milk carton.
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Patz was officially declared dead in 2001 in a civil lawsuit filed against Jose Ramos. He is a convicted child molester currently behind bars for an unrelated case. His girlfriend used to babysit Patz, but Ramos has denied killing the boy.
Now retired NYPD detective Joe Gelfand caught Ramos with three young blond boys in 1982. Ramos not only had two knives when he was arrested, but other suspicious items.
“He also had several photographs of young boys that had this Etan Patz look,” Gelfand told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell.
Ever since, he thought that Ramos was the prime suspect in the Patz case. Now Gelfand isn’t sure what to think, but told Haskell that he certainly hopes this case can be closed.
“I would like to see some closure for the Patz family,” he said Thursday.
Gelfand said this is a case he still thinks about 33 years later.
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