Etan Patz case: Nearly 40 years leading to the conviction of Pedro Hernandez

A jury found Pedro Hernandez guilty in the Etan Patz murder case in February.

A sentencing date of April 18 has been set for Pedro Hernandez, who was found guilty in February of killing 6-year-old missing child Etan Patz in 1979.

The judge’s decision was handed down despite motions from defense lawyers calling for a hearing on whether jury deliberations were affected by information that pro-conviction jurors from the first trial were attending with Etan’s family.

Hernandez, 55, was a bodega worker at the time of the murder. He confessed in 2012 to luring Etan into a SoHo basement and strangling him to death.

Hernandez’s defense claimed he hallucinated committing the crime, and a jury was deadlocked 11-1.

Hernandez’s retrial on second-degree murder and kidnapping charges, began in October 2016, over a year after his first case ended in a mistrial. He was found guilty on Feb. 14 after nine days of deliberation. 

Here, we take a look back at how Etan’s disappearance became the most notorious missing child case and what prosecutors faced.

The day of

Etan left his SoHo home on Prince Street on a crisp morning on May 25, 1979. He was on his way to school at P.S. 3, where he was in the first grade. He had never walked the one-and-a-half blocks to the school bus stop by himself before.

His mother, Julie Patz, in emotional testimony during Hernandez’ retrial, said it was his first time walking to the bus stop alone and that he had $1 to buy a treat at the bodega

Instead, he was last spotted a block away — at the corner of Prince and Wooster streets — according to a Times article from May 1980.

His parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, called the school when Etan didn’t come home that day, according to the article.

The days and weeks following

In the days after Etan disappeared, an intense police dragnet in the neighborhood never turned up a body, or forensic evidence of a crime, or witnesses who recalled seeing him at the bus stop.

Police peppered the city in missing posters, the young boy’s blond-haired, smiling face staring out at people. “Still Missing” in large, bold lettering.

His joyous face — captured by his photographer father — would eventually be printed on the posters, milk cartons, and projected in Times Square, according to ABC News.

In the two weeks after he vanished, hundreds of tips or reports flowed in each day, and more than 500 detectives and officers were assigned full time or part time, according to a New York Times article from July 1979. But that number started to trickle to only a handful of tips a day, with four full-time detectives investigating.

Detectives interviewed everyone from possible witnesses to psychics. Etan’s parents were at first considered suspects, but quickly ruled out, according to ABC.

By October, police released a sketch of a man reportedly seen talking to Etan the day he disappeared, according to the Times. But by May 1980, a year after he vanished, police were no closer to finding any trace of him.

“It’s not getting easier, it’s getting harder,” Julie Patz told The New York Times.

“The cold realization that we may never get him back sinks in a little farther each day,” his father, Stanley Patz, added. “You can always come to grips with a set of circumstances — I mean the finality of death.”

The years after

By May 1982, the Patzes had offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to their son’s return or proof that he was, indeed, dead.

A series of seemingly false reports started to emerge: Etan had gotten into a cab the morning he disappeared. Etan was smuggled to Israel by a group of ultra-Orthodox Romanian Jews (FBI agents went to Israel but the report led nowhere). And Etan’s story was even the inspiration behind the 1983 movie “Without a Trace.”

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan named May 25 (the day Etan disappeared) as National Missing Children’s Day. And the next year, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was established.

In November 1989, a convicted child molester in custody on an unrelated case told authorities he had picked up Etan in Washington Square Park the day he disappeared.

The man, Jose Antonio Ramos, said he brought the boy back to his Lower East Side apartment for sex, but denied hurting him, claiming Etan left the apartment and was going to get on a subway train.

At the time, Ramos was friends with a woman who had been hired to take Etan to school during a bus strike that only ended the day before he vanished.

Ramos was later dubbed the “Drainpipe Man,” because he apparently lured young boys into a drainpipe where he lived in the Bronx. Those parents, however, said their sons were not physically harmed.

In the spring of 2000, Ramos apparently confessed to his cellmate, telling him “Etan is dead” and “I was the last person to see Etan alive.” And in June 2001, 22 years after Etan disappeared, he was legally declared dead, clearing the path for a wrongful-death suit against Ramos.

In 2004, according to The Associated Press, a judge ruled that Ramos was in fact responsible for Etan’s death. At the time, Ramos was serving a 20-year sentence in Pennsylvania for the sex abuse of a different 8-year-old boy.

In the summer of 2016, a judge reversed the wrongful death suit after Stanley Patz was convinced of Pedro Hernandez’s guilt, according to CBS New York and The Associated Press.

The case in recent years

In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance agreed to take a new look at the evidence collected against Ramos. Two years later, in April 2012, detectives started excavating the basement of a Prince Street building, at the corner of Wooster Street, where Etan was last seen alive. The dig started just a few weeks after cadaver dogs picked up trace scents of human decomposition in the small space, which had been sealed with fresh concrete around the time Etan vanished. After several days of searching, no apparent human remains were found.

Only a month later, a new suspect was named in Etan’s death: Pedro Hernandez, who police said admitted to luring the boy into the basement of a bodega at 448 W. Broadway, promising a soda, and then choking him to death before putting his body in a box and leaving it near a garbage bin.

Hernandez, who started working in construction but suffered a back injury in 1993 and had been receiving disability payments since, apparently confessed to family that he killed a young child years before he was caught.

At the time of Etan’s disappearance, former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Hernandez’s name was on a police report as an employee of the bodega, but he was not questioned.

Hernandez’s lawyers argued that his confession was a delusion stemming from schizotypal personality disorder and that Ramos was the one responsible for Etan’s disappearance.

The jury was deadlocked 11-1, a mistrial was declared and a retrial was ordered.

With Newsday

Alison Fox