Police today arrested a former grocery worker in the 1979 murder of Etan Patz, apparently ending a mystery of what happened to the 6-year-old boy that has haunted New York City for three decades.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, confessed to police that he lured Patz to his death with the promise of a soda. He took police back to the basement of a Manhattan boedga and showed them where he claimed he strangled Patz.
He said he stuffed the boy's body into a plastic garbage bag, carried it to another location in the Soho neighborhood and dumped it in the trash.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Hernandez provided no motive for the killing.
Patz, a handsome blond boy, vanished on the first day he was allowed to walk to the school bus stop alone on May 25, 1979. Friday will be the 33rd anniversary of his disappearance.
Kelly said detectives were drawn to Hernandez in recent days because Hernandez had told family members and friends as early as 1981 that he had "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York."
It was one of those family members or friends who alerted police following renewed interest in the case when police excavated the basement apartment of a building on the same block last month where Patz lived and Hernandez worked.
Kelly said police had informed Patz's parents, who have for years wondered what happened to their 6-year-old son.
"We only hope these developments bring some measure of peace to the family," Kelly said.
Patz's father, Stan Patz, was "a little surprised, but after all the things he has gone through he handled it very well," said Lt. Chris Zimmerman, head of the NYPD Missing Persons Unit.
Investigators are convinced they finally have the right man given "the fact that he had told others in the past and the specificity of his statement," Kelly said.
Hernandez was "remorseful" and indicated a "feeling of relief," opening up to detective in three hours of questioning, Kelly said. Hernandez, he said, gave them a written and signed confession as well as a videotaped confession.
Kelly said there was "no reason at this time" to believe Patz had been sexually abused. But when asked whether the boy had been dismembered, Kelly said, "The investigation is continuing."
Patz who disappeared on a rainy New York day not unlike the one on which Hernandez was arrested, launched the modern missing persons movement and led to missing children being featured on milk cartons.
Hernandez was taken into custody at his residence in Maple Shade, N.J., on Wednesday morning where he lives with his wife and daughter. The apartment is rented by his wife, Rosemary Hernandez, who let her husband move in after he told her that he was dying of cancer.
"We never had a problem with him," Hernandez's brother-in-law, Jose Lopez, told KYW, a CBS station in Philadelphia. "There was never a problem. He was a normal person. Never gave any sign that he did something like that."
If Lopez could speak to Hernandez now, "I would tell him, 'Why didn't you confess years before, years ago, instead of suffering through all these years and letting this father and mother and this family suffer? Why didn't you do it? Why didn't you confess if you did it? ... I hope you're in peace now with yourself.'"
New York City police officers accompanied by local cops took Hernandez into custody at his New Jersey home at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday and brought him to the Camden County, N.J., Prosecutor's Office for initial questioning. He was then taken to New York City for additional questioning by authorities there.
Police have named other suspects in the past, but none had ever been arrested or charged.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg declined to provide details today, but said, "A person of interest is in custody and being questioned."
"The suspect came forward and made a statement implicating himself. I caution you all that there's a lot more investigating to do," the mayor said.
Referring to Patz's family, Bloomberg said he hopes that "we are one step closer to providing them some measure of relief."
This morning, NYPD Chief of Detectives Phil Pulaski walked along Prince Street, where Patz vanished. Pulaski and his team were reexamining the crime scene in light of new information they have obtained from questioning Hernandez.
Kelly said Hernandez worked at the bodega as a stock clerk for just a month, leaving soon after Patz's death. He told police he lured Patz into the store's basement through a doorway on the sidewalk and choked him to death in the cellar.
Today, the bodega is a trendy eyeglass shop. Police said they were attempting to contact other employees who worked at the shop with Hernandez in 1979.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who reopened the case Patz case when he was elected in 2010, has not commented on the arrest.
The search for Etan has been one of the largest, longest-lasting and most heartwrenching hunts for a missing child in the country's recent history. His photo was among the first of a missing child to appear on a milk carton.