Neighbors shocked that Etan Patz’s confessed killer lived among them

Rosemary Hernandez (left), with daughter Becky, is bombarded by reporters Thursday in Maple Shade, N.J., after husband Pedro Hernandez told cops that he strangled 6-year-old Etan Patz in Manhattan in 1979 and dumped his body in the trash. Barbara Laker / Daily News Staff
Rosemary Hernandez (left), with daughter Becky, is bombarded by reporters Thursday in Maple Shade, N.J., after husband Pedro Hernandez told cops that he strangled 6-year-old Etan Patz in Manhattan in 1979 and dumped his body in the trash. Barbara Laker / Daily News Staff
Posted: May 25, 2012

A SMALL DOG yapped at the front door while Rosemary Hernandez sat in her living room on an antique couch with her head down, rocking back and forth. She cried sporadically, looking frightened and confused Thursday, knowing a throng of reporters, photographers and cameramen wasoutside, encircling her two-bedroom home in Maple Shade, N.J.

For 33 years, almost to the day, her husband, Pedro Hernandez, had lived with a loathsome secret.

It was May 25, 1979, when Etan Patz was 6 years old and his parents allowed him to walk alone for the first time to the school-bus stop in the SoHo section of Manhattan.

Hernandez, who worked at a nearby bodega, lured Etan to the basement with the promise of a soda. Hernandez told investigators that he then strangled Etan and stuffed his body into a bag, which he carried about a block and a half away and tossed in the trash.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announced Thursday night that Hernandez was charged with second-degree murder.

"He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part," Kelly said at a news conference.

Etan’s disappearance sparked an international manhunt to find missing children and their captors or killers. Etan’s impish face, framed with blond hair, was the first to be pictured on the side of a milk carton. Across the country, Etan became the national symbol of a parent’s horror.

In contrast, Hernandez, 51, was a stranger on his South Jersey block.

"It was like you were living next to no one," said Chuck Diehm, a neighbor and former Philadelphia police and Port Authority officer. "To say a church mouse would be too loud."

Rosemary Hernandez and the couple’s daughter, Becky, have rented the back apartment of the small, modest tan-and-brown house on Linwood Avenue since 2007, said landlord Anne Cutry.

"She told me she had a restraining order against her husband," Cutry said. "The mom and her daughter were very nice."

Cutry never saw Pedro Hernandez and didn’t know he had been living with his wife and daughter, even though neighbors said he rarely left home. Diehm and other neighbors said they often saw Hernandez smoking a cigarette on a green folding chair on his small porch. His yard backed up to a playground.

Those who had done work on the Hernandez house told both Diehm and Cutry that Hernandez was very sick. "A worker told me he was ill with cancer and he was dying," Cutry said.

Neighbors said Hernandez didn’t appear to work. Cutry said his wife was an insurance underwriter and daughter Becky was a college student, and they attended a Jehovah’s Witness church.

Shortly after Etan vanished, Pedro Hernandez moved to the Camden area, where he had many relatives. Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, still live in the same apartment.

Etan was officially declared dead in 2001. In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said he would reopen the criminal case.

NYPD investigators and the FBI believe Hernandez has told a family member and others over the years that he "had done a bad thing" and killed a child in New York, without giving specifics.

Earlier this month, the NYPD Missing Persons Squad received information from a tipster that led them to identify Hernandez as a person of interest, Kelly said.

Investigators traveled to Maple Shade on Wednesday and about 8:30 a.m. whisked Hernandez and his wife and daughter away. Neighbors said Rosemary and Becky Hernandez were brought home alone about 2:30 p.m.

In the decades Hernandez has spent in New Jersey, he doesn’t appear to have been in any trouble with the law.

Nobody on Linwood Avenue seemed to know the balding, 5-foot-8, slender Hernandez well because he rarely spoke with anyone other than to say hello.

"He was Mr. Normal. He would put out his trash. He would mow his lawn and shovel snow," said Dan Wollick, 71, who rented the front apartment of the same home. "You wouldn’t look at him and say, ‘There goes a killer.’

“He had this deep, dark secret. That’s something you couldn’t push out of your mind. How could he walk around with that all these years? He must be in hell."

Many of Hernandez’s neighbors are older with grown children, but Ashley Kabbeko, 25, lived next door with her 5-year-old daughter, Alannah. Kabbeko stood outside Thursday afternoon under a light drizzle with her arms cupped around her daughter’s shoulders.

"It’s shocking to me," she said. "That’s what they say, though — always watch out for the quiet ones."

As reporters continued to knock on Rosemary Hernandez’s door and to yell questions over the barking dog, she sat on her couch, sometimes talking with her daughter.

Finally, a cop arrived and escorted her and Becky to a blue Chevy in the driveway. Rosemary Hernandez got into the driver’s seat without answering reporters.

Neighbors hovered around, shaking their heads in horror, that the man who confessed to killing a first-grader on his way to school lived among them.

"It goes to prove," said neighbor Maryanne Hammel, "you really don’t know people." n

Contact Barbara Laker at 215-854-5933 or lakerb@phillynews.com.

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