N.Y. investigators quiz witness, Camden police scour old records

Pedro Hernandez
Pedro Hernandez
Posted: May 31, 2012

Investigators from New York on Wednesday whisked away a former Camden prayer-group leader who has said he heard an admission in the 1980s by Pedro Hernandez that he had killed a boy in New York City.

Hernandez faces murder charges in the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz.

Minutes before he left his Blackwood house, accompanied by an investigator while another stood outside, Tomas Rivera said by phone that he was being taken to New York for more questioning.

Rivera, a short, older man, then stepped into a black Chevrolet Impala with New York tags and tinted windows whose open trunk revealed a pair of orange police lights. The New York Police Department declined to comment, citing a pending investigation.

Camden authorities, meanwhile, said they had found no record that a sister of Hernandez notified local police years ago of her brother’s alleged confession to the prayer group. Norma Hernandez, 53, of Camden, has told reporters in recent days that she went to police sometime after two other sisters separately told her they had heard their brother had admitted the crime.

Both Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk and Camden Deputy Police Chief Mike Lynch said records from that time period might not exist.

Norma Hernandez said she did not recall the exact year she told police of the rumor about her brother but remembered that an officer appeared to write something down in the police headquarters as she spoke. She said New York investigators interviewed her at her house last week. She declined to reveal details of that conversation.

The Prosecutor’s Office and Camden police had pored over log books dating back to 2003, said Jason Laughlin, Faulk’s spokesman. It was unclear what efforts were made beyond that, if any.

New York authorities said last week that Hernandez had confessed to strangling Patz and putting his body in the trash. Investigators hit at a roadblock this week as city sanitation officials said they could not track garbage pickups and landfill deliveries before 1989, possibly dashing hopes of locating any remains, the New York Times reported.

As Faulk and Lynch took questions about the killing during a news conference announcing a drug bust in Camden, Rivera responded briefly over the phone from his home to questions about his knowledge of the Patz case.

During an initial call, Rivera said that he was about to meet with a New York City prosecutor and detectives.

"They told me to not talk to anyone until they spoke to me first," he said, responding in Spanish to questions asked in that language while he waited for the officials to show up at his ranch-style house at the end of a leafy street. He said he did not have a lawyer present for the meeting.

A son, the Rev. David Rivera, parochial vicar at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Merchantville, directed questions to the NYPD.

"They can tell you what my father’s relationship to the case is," he said, declining further comment.

Another son, Tomas Rivera Jr., working at the family jewelry store on Federal Street in Camden, expressed surprise at hearing his father was being taken to New York.

"They would’ve called me, or, well, my mom would’ve called me," he said. He added that his father had recently spoken to New York authorities about what might have happened at the prayer group, but did not know what his father told the investigators then.

In news reports, his father has been quoted as saying that he had told members of Pedro Hernandez’s family to turn him in to authorities after he heard Hernandez’s alleged confession at the prayer group. The charismatic Catholic prayer group was associated with St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden.

Neither of the two plainclothes men who accompanied the older Rivera out of his house about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, one with a black handgun on his hip, would say why he was being taken away.

Rivera’s wife came out of the house and said, "No information."

After the vehicle drove away, just after 1 p.m., a handwritten note could be seen taped to the front door. It read: "Sorry no information."

Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqcvargas. Read her blog, "Camdenflow@philly.com."

Staff writer George Anastasia contributed to this article.

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