For almost 40 years, this case went unsolved...
Etan Patz, 6, vanished on the way to school in 1979. Decades passed, but Etan’s body was never found and his killer remained at large. Finally, in 2012, a man told police he’d killed Etan – but could his confession be trusted?
Just before 8am, a blond-haired boy left his home in the SoHo area of New York.
It was 25 May 1979 and Etan Patz, 6, was making his first solo trip to the stop where he’d catch his school bus.
His anxious mum Julie watched him leave, a dollar to spend at the shop in his hand. She hadn’t wanted to let Etan go alone, but the independent lad had pestered his mum.
It was a short journey and a close-knit community where everyone knew their neighbours. So Julie gave in – a decision she’d regret forever…
At 3.30pm, Julie worried when Etan didn’t arrive home as usual. She called his school pal, who said she’d saved a seat for Etan on the bus that morning, but he’d never shown up.
His teacher had marked him absent from class.
Panicking, Julie called the police and then her husband Stan, who was at work.
By then, Etan had already been missing for eight hours. Those hours turned to days, then weeks, with no leads.
Hundreds of officers with bloodhounds led daily searches.
Etan’s dad Stan Patz was a photographer, and now the precious pictures he’d taken of his son were all over the city on missing-person posters.
Etan’s cheeky grin was even projected on the famous screens in Times Square, and he was one of the first missing children to appear on milk cartons.
Still there were no clues.
The Patzs gave up hope of their son being found alive and, instead, focused on justice.
Finally, in 1982, police had a suspect. Jose Ramos was picked up by officers for trying to lure two boys into a drainage tunnel.
Inside, photos of other blond-haired boys were discovered.
Ramos confessed that he’d known a woman who’d sometimes cared for Etan.
He even admitted that he’d taken a child to his apartment to abuse and was ‘90 per cent sure’ it was the same boy from the ‘missing’ posters.
But he denied killing Etan, and police didn’t have enough evidence to charge him.
Before long, Ramos was behind bars in Pennsylvania for abusing young boys in an unrelated case.
It made officers and Julie and Stan Patz even more sure that Ramos was Etan’s killer.
But there was still insufficient evidence for a criminal conviction.
In 2001, despite no body being found, Etan was declared legally dead.
The Patzs sued Ramos in the civil courts, where he was found responsible for Etan’s death.
But, with no criminal conviction, Etan’s murder remained unsolved.
Then, in 2010, the case was reopened, and renewed publicity led to a new suspect.
In 2012, a man came to police claiming he’d learned that his relative, Pedro Hernandez, had confessed to killing Etan.
Hernandez was arrested.
Officers learned that, at the time of Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez, then 18, had been working at the grocery shop by the bus stop.
The shop where Etan had planned to spend his money…
After six hours in police custody, Hernandez confessed to killing Etan.
He said he’d lured the 6-year-old into the shop and taken him to the basement. Then he described strangling Etan, putting the child’s body in a plastic bag and a box while he was still breathing, before dumping him with the rubbish.
It seemed that police finally had little Etan’s killer.
Yet, when the case came to Manhattan’s State Supreme Court in January 2015, Hernandez had changed his story.
When asked for his plea, he replied ‘not guilty’. His lawyer claimed that the confession was false and he’d only made it because of mental problems.
Dr Michael First told the court Hernandez had schizotypal personality disorder, which can include symptoms such as paranoia and the inability to tell fantasy from reality.
The defence said there was no physical evidence against Hernandez – no DNA, no witnesses, no crime scene. No body…
They also pointed to convicted paedophile Jose Ramos as a more credible suspect, despite the earlier civil ruling against him having been reversed.
But the prosecution said that Hernandez, a religious man, had fled New York soon after Etan’s disappearance. A sign of guilt?
They also claimed that, even if Hernandez did have schizotypal personality disorder, it didn’t mean that he was innocent of the murder.
Other witnesses testified that Hernandez seemed to have made veiled confessions to the killing over the years.
The most explosive testimony came when Hernandez’ ex-wife said he’d confessed to her that he’d killed a muchacho – Spanish for young boy – before they’d married.
And, although she also claimed she’d found a part of Etan’s ‘missing’ poster hidden in her husband’s belongings, this was discredited by the prosecution.
In his closing statement, Hernandez’ defence said the prosecution had failed to produce any credible witnesses or evidence that could prove Hernandez guilty.
The jury had a tough task ahead. After 18 days, they remained deadlocked, with a single juror saying he couldn’t vote to convict Hernandez.
Last October, Pedro Hernandez faced a retrial.
Different jurors heard the same evidence and, after a three-month trial, went to consider their decision…
In February this year, Pedro Hernandez, 56, was convicted of the 1979 kidnap and murder of Etan Patz. He is currently awaiting sentencing.
After the verdict, Etan’s dad Stan said, ‘The Patz family has waited a long time, but we finally found some measure of justice for our wonderful little boy.’
Hernandez’ legal team has indicated it intends to appeal.