NEW YORK — A man who was a teenage store clerk when 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished 33 years ago was indicted on murder charges Wednesday, six months after his confession stunned Etan’s parents and some investigators who had blamed a convicted pedophile for the boy’s disappearance.
The indictment was announced by Harvey Fishbein, the attorney for Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J.
Fishbein said Hernandez was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly strangling Etan after luring him from the sidewalk into the basement of the bodega where he worked in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.
Prosecutors did not immediately announce the charges.
Hernandez was never apparently on investigators’ radar as they combed the city after Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979. Etan had left his family’s apartment for the short walk to his school bus early that morning, the first time he had been allowed to walk alone. He never made it to the bus, and his body was not found. The wide-eyed little boy’s face became the first to be featured on milk cartons as the case galvanized efforts to heighten attention nationwide to the issue of missing children.
Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, never left the apartment in which the family lived, in hopes Etan would return. They eventually became convinced, along with some investigators, that Jose Antonio Ramos, a convicted pedophile serving time on an unrelated case in Pennsylvania, was responsible for Etan’s death. In 2001, they had Etan declared legally dead. In 2004, a Manhattan civil judge declared Ramos guilty, although he denied it.
The case was thrown into turmoil in May when Hernandez confessed to strangling Etan and was arrested. Police had begun questioning him after getting a tip that Hernandez had told relatives he had “done a bad thing and killed a child in New York” years earlier. At the time of Etan’s disappearance, Hernandez had been working in a store that the boy would have walked past on his way to the bus stop.
The tipster had been motivated to call police after a resumption of the search for clues to Etan’s fate last spring. That search came a few months before Ramos’ scheduled release from prison. It failed to turn up new evidence pointing toward any suspect, but it reminded the tipster of Hernandez’s comments from years earlier — comments that Hernandez’s associates apparently did not believe at the time.
Some legal experts warned against accepting Hernandez’s confession without corroborating evidence — something difficult to obtain without a body and after so many years had passed. In a statement, Fishbein said the charges “are not supported by any evidence whatsoever despite extraordinary investigative efforts by the police back then, and now.”
He also said that Hernandez suffers from mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizotypal personality disorder that could cause hallucinations and “unusual perceptual experiences.”
“Partly as a result of that disorder, my client has an IQ in the borderline-to-mild mental retardation range,” Fishbein added.
Ramos, meanwhile, was released earlier this month from a Pennsylvania prison, where he had been serving a 20-year term for child molestation, but was immediately put back behind bars after failing to give police an updated address, as required for sex offenders.