After a full confession to police regarding the 1979 murder of Etan Patz, Pedro Hernandez entered no plea on Friday when Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance charged the 51-year-old with second-degree murder. Hernandez is currently being held at the psychiatric ward in Bellevue Hosptial on Manhattan’s East Side. The question now is whether Hernandez’ signed confession will stand up in court and prosecutors will finally be able to pin the notorious murder on a prime suspect, or whether this is just another in a long line of false starts in a case that has commanded the nation’s attention for over three decades.
Six-year-old Etan Patz was not the first child ever abducted, but his case garnered such attention that Ronald Reagan instituted National Missing Children’s Day on May 25, 1983 — the anniversary of Patz’ disappearance.
The emerging narrative implicating Hernandez looks grim. The New York Post reports Hernandez told police that he bagged Patz’ corpse, then stuck it in a box and left the box in a freezer at the SoHo bodega where he worked for three days. When the coast was clear he said he set it out for garbage pickup nearby. Despite the ongoing manhunt, the then 19-year-old Hernandez’ alleged plan worked, and the trash was taken away without his being found out. Now, NYPD is trying to sort through Sanitation Department records back to figure out where the body might have been taken. Perhaps to an outer borough garbage dump in Staten Island or Brooklyn. Or it might have been taken to an incinerator in the Meatpacking District.
At this point, the chances of recovering physical evidence of the crime is remote. So prosecutors will have to rely on the confession of a man whose defense attorney Harvey Fishbein insists is schizophrenic and bipolar. Certainly, Hernandez would not be the first person to falsely confess to a famous crime; John Mark Karr falsely confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey in 2006. Naturally, there has been a deluge of stories from people saying incriminating things about Hernandez; that he admitted killing a boy in New York as long ago as 1981; that he has a terrible temper; that he’s HIV-positive. While these accounts might serve as corroboration at trial, it might also be a case of public opinion swinging against a suspect suddenly thrust into the headlines.
If the case does see the inside of a courtroom — the defense may attack the confession on grounds that it was coerced and that Hernandez is mentally ill — prosecutors will have to explain away several previous suspects. Not the least of which is Jose Ramos, currently serving a prison sentence in Pennsylvania for sexually abusing an 8-year-old, who was ruled responsible for Etan’s death in a civil action back in 2004. Ramos knew Patz through a babysitter, but would not answer questions in civil court about the case leading to the finding against him. Ramos allegedly told investigators he had seen Patz the day he vanished, but police could find no evidence he was involved in the disappearance.
As recently as this April, NYPD were actively pursuing leads against other suspects in the case. Using cadaver dogs, x-ray equipment and blood-location chemicals, investigators dug up the basement workshop where local handyman Othniel Miller worked in 1979. Miller’s attorney told reporter his client “Had no involvement with what happened to this beautiful young boy.” Police found nothing to get them closer to solving the Etan Patz case.
Prosecutors are left relying solely on the words of an alleged child killer. With no physical or DNA evidence to present to jurors who have come to expect forensic proof after years of watching CSI and Law & Order, it might prove to be a difficult courtroom battle. District Attorney Vance knows the case against Hernandez is far from settled: “This is the beginning of the legal process, not the end,” he told reporters recently,”There is much investigative and other work ahead, and it will be conducted in a measured and careful manner.”