Late last month, Pedro Hernandez – the confessed killer of 6-year-old Etan Patz back in 1979 – was moved to Riker’s Island from his bed in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. But that doesn’t mean Hernandez is in a right state-of-mind, and it certainly doesn’t make this an open-and-shut case for prosecutors.
A local TV station reports that Hernandez is currently being administered some sort of medication at the jail. While it is unconfirmed whether those are psychoactive drugs – his defense attorney Harvey Fishbein would not comment on his client’s mental state – various family members have come forward with tales of Hernandez’ mental illness.
Generally, a confession makes for an easy prosecution, but if the confessor is mentally ill, then investigators try to bolster their case with corroborating evidence. In a case that began 33 years ago, such evidence might be hard to come by. The NYPD police has not reported finding anything of great evidentiary value after searches of Hernandez’ home and several trips to the SoHo bodega (now an eyeglass shop) where Hernandez worked in 1979 when Patz disappeared.
Hernandez’s arrest for the Patz murder was announced 33 years to the day that Etan Patz disappeared. To skeptics, this seems like a too-pat coincidence. And the revelations that came in the ensuing days. The case seemed to be bolstered by revelations from Hernandez’ ex-wife Daisy Rivera who said she found a picture of Etan Patz, apparently taken from one of the ‘missing’ posters, and that Hernandez became angry with her when confronted about it. It would be logical to interpret this as evidence against Hernandez. But it is plausible to believe the crime had an impact on Hernandez who could well have seen the boy on his way to school during his time as a stockboy in the bodega near Patz’ school bus stop – and that his rancor at his now ex-wife was motivated by something other than guilt over Patz.
Hernandez is not the first mentally unbalanced person to be linked to Etan Patz’s disappearance. Jose Antonio Ramos, a friend of Patz’ babysitter, allegedly told investigators in 1989 that he met Etan Patz at Washington Square Park and took the boy back to his house. When Patz rejected Ramos’ sexual advances, Ramos said, he put the boy on a subway train to visit an aunt in upper Manhattan.
Investigators never postively linked Ramos to the crime – and, in fact, Patz had no aunt in the Washington Heights area as Ramos related. Police searched Ramos’ home for clues, but came up empty. Despite this lack of evidence, the Patz family pursued a wrongful death claim against Ramos which was granted in 2004. Ramos, who was serving a Pennsylvania prison sentence for an unrelated sexual assault on a young boy, never answered any questions under oath.
The phenomenon of unstable people claiming responsibility for high-profile child murders is not particular to the Patz case. Ten years after JonBenet Ramsey’s death, John Mark Karr came forward in a Thailand press conference and admitted: “I loved JonBenet… I was with JonBenet when she died; she died accidentally.”
Karr was extradited to the US, but was ultimately cleared of the crime when his DNA did not match samples retrieved from the child’s corpse. In the years after the charges were dropped, Karr underwent a sex-change operation and changed his name to Alexis Reich.
In the coming months, Pedro Hernandez may face trial for the murder of Etan Patz. During that trial, the truth about the defendant’s mental state will certainly come to light. And a jury will decide whether to take believe whether Hernandez was in his right mind when he when killed Etan Patz or if he was crazy when he admitted doing so.