The daughter of defendant Pedro Hernandez testified at the Etan Patz murder trial on Monday that her father was a reclusive creature of obsessive habits who woke at night screaming and was beset by visions of a woman in white and a bald man trying to choke him.
"We knew he wasn't well," said Becky Hernandez, 25, explaining how his mother Rosemary taught her to go along with his dreams but not get caught up in them. "We didn't want to hurt his feelings. What he sees he really sees, but we don't have to see it."
Hernandez, 53, of Maple Shade, N.J., confessed in 2012 that when he was a teen working at a SoHo bodega in 1979 he strangled six-year-old Patz in the basement. The defense, which began Monday, contends it was a fantasy caused by a mental disorder.
His daughter said that Hernandez would wake up every night at 2 a.m. to cook rice for the next night's dinner - almost always chicken, rice and beans - and was so concerned about time that he would insist on leaving an hour or two early to take his wife Rosemary to work and his daughter to school.
During the day, she said, he would lay around on his couch watching shows like Andy Griffith and Little House on the Prairie, but would always be waiting for her right outside the school entrance. He would never let her go out alone, she said, and insisted on written invitations from friends for her to visit their house.
Every summer on his wedding anniversary, Becky Hernandez testified, the three would visit Wildwood for three days, staying in the same place, eating every breakfast and every lunch in the same place every year. During the day, she and her mother would go out for activities, while he would stay in their room.
He had no friends, and didn't really converse even with his family in his own home. On Sundays, they would go to church - always arriving early, always sitting in exactly the same pew, with Pedro always sitting between his wife and daughter.
"I know that he's protective but he's protective because he loves me," said the daughter, a college graduate who now works in a hospital. "He loves my mom. He prays for us. He tries hard to drive us because he thinks there's going to be traffic. It's little things that show that he cares. That's why he loves me."
She said most nights he went to bed around 7 p.m. so he could wake up to make the rice, but frequently would start screaming and would have to be awakened from a dream. His visions included the woman in white with flowing hair, which he told her as a child was an angel who would pass through him, his body shivering as he described how it felt.
Sometimes he would see a man in a car when she and her mother saw no one, the daughter said, and sometimes he would say that while sleeping "he could feel something dark" and when he opened his eyes a "big, muscular man, bald" would be there.
"As soon as he woke up he said he was scared and he choked him," she testified. "My dad tried to fight him off and when he did Jesus and the figure basically did this twist thing and left the room."
The testimony was in contrast to multiple witnesses called by the prosecution, who testified that Hernandez was quiet and had few friends, but appeared normal and never talked to himself or described visions.
Becky Hernandez said the odd behavior occurred only in their home. In public, she said, even at family gatherings, he would sit on a sofa and not speak.
Testimony resumes Monday afternoon.