Maple Shade man is charged in 1979 slaying

Pedro Hernandez of Burlington County was charged with killing Etan Patz.
Pedro Hernandez of Burlington County was charged with killing Etan Patz.

Milestone in the vanishing of boy, 6, in N.Y.C.

Posted: November 15, 2012

NEW YORK - A man authorities say confessed to the infamous 1979 disappearance of a 6-year-old boy from his New York City neighborhood has been formally charged with murder and kidnapping, a major milestone in a case that has stymied investigators and Etan Patz's devoted family for decades.

The indictment against Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, Burlington County, was made public Wednesday and sets up a potential showdown at trial over whether prosecutors can convince a jury that his claim that he strangled the boy - a secret kept for more than 30 years - is credible.

The suspect's attorney has argued that Hernandez, who is due Thursday in state court in Manhattan on second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping charges, is mentally ill and prone to hallucinations, and that his confession can't be trusted.

"Nothing that occurs in the course of this trial will answer what actually happened to Etan Patz," defense attorney Harvey Weinstein said in a statement. "The indictment is based solely on statements allegedly made by my client, who has, in the past, been repeatedly diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia."

Prosecutors countered that an exhaustive postarrest investigation found enough evidence to seek an indictment and proceed to trial.

Robert Gottlieb, who represents Hernandez's wife, Rosemary, told The Inquirer on Wednesday that his client was "appalled and extremely disappointed" that Vance was pursuing the case.

"She firmly believes that her husband's statements are wholly unreliable and the product of a long-standing problem of delusions and hallucinations," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb said Hernandez's wife plans to be in court on Thursday. "She firmly believes her husband is innocent," he said.

Etan's disappearance led to an intensive search and spawned a movement to publicize cases of missing children. His photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children's Day.

The boy's body has never been found.

Etan was declared legally dead by his father more than a decade ago so he could sue convicted child molester Jose Ramos in the boy's death. Ramos was found responsible, but it's unclear how that finding could now factor into the prosecution of Hernandez.

Ramos, now 69, had been dating the boy's babysitter in 1979 and was considered a suspect. He was later convicted of molesting two children and is in a Pennsylvania prison.

Investigators began focusing on Hernandez this year after a tipster called police about comments by Hernandez's sister that she heard secondhand he told a Camden church prayer group in the 1980s that he killed a child in New York City.

Hernandez, now a married father, was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Etan disappeared on his way to school on May 25, 1979. Police say he told investigators he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda.

He allegedly said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away. The convenience store is now an eyeglass shop, and city records pinpointing where garbage was dumped don't go back that far.

Hernandez's Maple Shade neighbors were shocked by the allegations. He didn't seem unusual; he took out the trash, smoked cigarettes and shoveled snow, they said.

Three weeks after his arrest, Rosemary and the couple's college-age daughter moved out of the duplex, said Dan Wollick, 79, who also lives there.

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