A Look at Case of Etan Patz, Who Vanished in ’79

January 4, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015

NEW YORK—A look at the murder case stemming from the 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz, which helped catalyze a national missing-children’s movement:

The Case

Six-year-old Etan Patz was walking to his Manhattan school bus stop alone for the first time when he vanished on May 25, 1979; the anniversary is now National Missing Children’s Day. His body has never been found, but his family had him legally declared dead in 2001.

The investigation stretched across decades and continents before police announced that Pedro Hernandez had confessed in May 2012. He worked at a convenience store in Etan’s neighborhood but was never a suspect until police got a tip shortly before his arrest.

Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, N.J., has pleaded not guilty.

The Prosecution

Prosecutors’ case appears to center on Hernandez’s confessions to police and prosecutors, plus statements they say he made to a friend, his ex-wife, and a church prayer group in the 1980s about having harmed a child in New York.

The prosecution team, led by veteran Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon, hasn’t alluded to any physical evidence against Hernandez, and his defense has said there is none.

In his video-recorded confessions, Hernandez tranquilly recounts offering soda to entice Etan into the convenience store basement and choking him.

Pedro Hernandez appears in Manhattan criminal court in New York on Nov. 15, 2012. Jury selection is set to start Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, in Hernandez's murder trial. He has pleaded not guilty to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz who vanished in 1979 while walking to his school bus stop. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)
Pedro Hernandez appears in Manhattan criminal court in New York on Nov. 15, 2012. Jury selection is set to start Monday, Jan. 5, 2015, in Hernandez’s murder trial. He has pleaded not guilty to killing 6-year-old Etan Patz who vanished in 1979 while walking to his school bus stop. (AP Photo/Louis Lanzano)

He says he put the still-living boy into a plastic bag, boxed up the bag, and left it on a street.

Prosecutors call the confessions credible, and Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley ruled they could be used at trial. The decision followed a weeks long hearing on whether Hernandez was properly advised of his rights to stay silent and mentally capable of understanding them.

The Defense

Hernandez’s defense maintains his confessions are the false imaginings of a man who has an IQ in the lowest 2 percent of the population and has problems discerning reality from fiction. He has taken anti-psychotic medication for years and has been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder; characteristics include social isolation and odd beliefs. The defense—led by Harvey Fishbein, an attorney known for representing mentally ill murder defendants—and prosecutors differ on the extent and implications of Hernandez’s mental problems.

The defense may ask the jury to consider that police questioned Hernandez for more than six hours before reading him his rights and turning on recorders.

The defense also wants jurors to hear about longtime suspect Jose Ramos, a convicted Pennsylvania child molester. A civil court declared Ramos responsible for Etan’s death after he rebuffed questioning, but he was never criminally charged and has denied involvement.

Ramos has refused to testify at Hernandez’s trial, saying he’d invoke his rights against self-incrimination, but some evidence about the investigation into Ramos will be allowed.

From The Associated Press