NEW YORK — A New Jersey man who confessed to choking a 6-year-old New York City boy to death in 1979 was arrested on a murder charge on Thursday, police said, the first arrest in a case that helped give rise to the nation’s missing-children movement.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was charged with the slaying of Etan Patz, who vanished on his way to school in his lower Manhattan neighborhood, police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Hernandez, who had worked at a convenience store near Etan’s home, confessed after hours of police questioning, Kelly said. Kelly said Hernandez told police he lured the boy to the convenience store with the promise of a soda, then took him into the basement and choked him.
“He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part,” Kelly said. “We believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime.”
Detectives are typically barraged with hoaxes, false leads and possible sightings around the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, which became National Missing Children’s Day by presidential proclamation in 1983.
The focus on Hernandez came after other leads arose and stalled, at one point taking investigators as far as Israel tracking reported sightings of the boy.
For most of the past decade, the investigation focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester now in prison in Pennsylvania. He had been dating Etan’s baby sitter. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos’ former basement in lower Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced in 2010 that his office was renewing the investigation into the case. A few weeks ago, investigators excavated another basement, down the street from the Patz apartment. The search found no human remains.
Investigators questioned a 75-year-old handyman who had a workspace in the cellar in 1979. But he was not named as a suspect and denied any involvement in the boy’s disappearance.
Hernandez, who moved to New Jersey shortly after the boy vanished, was picked up there late Wednesday and was questioned Thursday at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
He had been tied to the case in the past, and investigators recently received a phone call with a new tip, according to the law enforcement official. The official gave no details on the tip.
Neighbors in Maple Shade, N.J., said Hernandez lived with his wife and a daughter who attends college.
Sandy-haired Etan vanished while walking alone to his bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York’s busy SoHo neighborhood, which was a working-class part of the city back then but is now a chic area of boutiques and galleries.
Police conducted an exhaustive search. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed and hundreds of people interviewed about a disappearance that ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment.
They did not return a call for comment Thursday.