Man Found Guilty of Kidnapping & Killing Etan Patz in 1979 (Multi-Video)

By Rick Rojas

Pedro Hernandez, a former stock clerk in a Manhattan bodega who confessed to luring the 6-year-old Etan Patz into the store’s basement and attacking him, was found guilty on Tuesday of murder and kidnapping, a long-awaited step toward solving the nearly 40-year mystery that bedeviled investigators and forever changed the way parents watched over their children.

A jury in State Supreme Court found Mr. Hernandez guilty on the ninth day of deliberations and after two lengthy trials that brought new attention to Etan’s disappearance on May 25, 1979, as he walked to his school bus stop alone for the first time.

Etan’s disappearance shook New York City, as photographs of the boy, with his sandy hair and sweet smile, were printed on “missing” posters plastered around the city and splashed on the front pages of newspapers, on television newscasts and even — for the first time — on milk cartons.

The alarm caused by his disappearance reverberated around the country, embodying the worst fears of parents and helping to change the way the authorities tracked child abductions.

(Hernandez Found Guilty. Courtesy of CBS News and YouTube)

On Tuesday morning, jurors returned from a three-day weekend and watched — “for the 100th time,” as one juror later put it — Mr. Hernandez’s recorded confessions. Shortly before noon, they sent a note to the judge saying they had reached a verdict.

Though jurors declined to discuss how their views evolved over the course of the deliberations, they acknowledged significant divisions that had to be overcome.

“Deliberations were difficult,” Tommy Hoscheid, the foreman of the jury, said, “but I think we had constructive conversations based in logic that were analytical and creative and adaptive and compassionate, and ultimately, kind of heartbreaking.”

Another juror, Cateryn Kiernan, said the jury was initially “majorly divided,” and it took several days to talk through the disagreements in a case that had been fraught with complications and months of testimony.

“It’s not a black-and-white case,” she said. “There’s a lot of gray.”

(From May 28, 2015, Etan Patz juror Adam Sirois speaks out about why he choose to vote not guilty in the case. Courtesy of CNN and YouTube)

Decades of looking into various suspects and fruitless searches failed to yield answers for Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, who have remained in their loft on Prince Street as SoHo evolved into a place far different than the semi-industrial area it had been when Etan was a child.

Investigators were led to Mr. Hernandez, who lived in a small New Jersey town outside Philadelphia, only after his brother-in-law called detectives in 2012 to share his suspicion that he could be responsible.

For Stanley Patz, Etan’s father, the verdict meant a nearly 38-year vigil was nearing an end.

“The Patz family has waited a long time, but we finally have some measure of justice,” said Mr. Patz, who sat through every day of the trial, carrying his own cushion for the hard wooden benches in the courtroom.

“I’m really grateful — I’m really grateful — this jury finally came back with what I’ve known for a long time,” he added, “that this man, Pedro Hernandez, is guilty of doing something really terrible so many years ago.”

Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, in 1980. (Image Credit: John Sotomayor, The New York Times)
Etan’s parents, Stanley and Julie Patz, in 1980. (Image Credit: John Sotomayor, The New York Times)

The outcome was a victory for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who decided to prosecute Mr. Hernandez a second time; a previous trial ended in 2015 with the jury deadlocked after 18 days of deliberation.

A lone juror declined to convict, saying he had been persuaded by the defense’s arguments about Mr. Hernandez’s mental health issues and the possibility of another suspect.

“The disappearance of Etan Patz haunted families in New York and across the country for nearly four decades. Bringing closure on Etan’s disappearance to the Patz family has also been among my highest priorities since I took office,” Mr. Vance said in a statement.

“Today, a jury affirmed beyond all lasting doubt that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed the missing child.”

Mr. Hernandez, 56, faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for both the kidnapping and murder charges, prosecutors said.

Etan’s remains have never been found, and prosecutors did not have any scientific evidence from crime scenes to corroborate their arguments.

But the prosecution team, led by two veteran assistant district attorneys, Joan Illuzzi and Joel J. Seidemann, zeroed in on Mr. Hernandez’s own words to build their case, pulling from the detailed confessions he had given to the authorities around the time of his arrest and to mental health experts during evaluations of him.

In the various interviews recorded on video, which prosecutors repeatedly played for jurors during the four-month trial, Mr. Hernandez described encountering a boy on the sidewalk outside the bodega and asking him if he wanted a soda.

He told investigators that he led him down the steps into the basement, and then, he started choking the boy as his own legs quivered. He said he put the boy into a plastic bag and the bag into a box, which he left with garbage nearby. But, he said, he believed the child was still alive.

(WARNING GRAPHIC: Alleged Etan Patz killer Pedro Hernandez gave another confession to a psychiatrist 2 years after his initial admission to the murder, posted Apr 6, 2015. Courtesy of the New York Daily News and YouTube)

He also signed one of the “missing” posters, confirming for investigators that Etan was the boy he attacked. “I just couldn’t let go,” Mr. Hernandez said in one of the interviews. “I felt like something just took over me.”

He did not offer a motive, claiming he had not sexually abused Etan or any other child. But in her closing arguments, Ms. Illuzzi argued otherwise, calling it the likely reason for the attack.

Mr. Hernandez’s lawyers tried to undermine their own client’s credibility, saying that he was the only witness against himself and that he was an unreliable one.

They described Mr. Hernandez as having a low I.Q. and a personality disorder that made it difficult for him to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The defense contended that Mr. Hernandez’s confessions reflected a fiction he had concocted.

They also argued that he was susceptible to pressure from detectives during an hourslong interrogation where, at one point, he had curled on the floor into the fetal position and repeatedly asked to go home.

Mr. Hernandez, who had been stoic throughout much of the trial, showed little emotion as the verdict was announced. “We are obviously terribly disappointed,” Harvey Fishbein, the lead defense lawyer, told reporters minutes later in the hallway outside the courtroom.

He said he planned to appeal, claiming the grounds to do so were “too lengthy to start to list right here.”

“We’re confident we’ll be back here some day,” Mr. Fishbein said. “Unfortunately, in the end, we don’t believe this will resolve the story of what happened to Etan back in 1979.”

Prosecutors sought to portray Mr. Hernandez as mercurial and controlling yet also deeply religious and desperate to unburden himself of the guilt he carried for attacking Etan.

To support that argument, the prosecution called to testify different people to whom Mr. Hernandez had made admissions over the years, telling them, with some varying details, that he had killed a child in New York City.

(From May 25, 2012, Police arrest Hernandez in the 1979 murder of Etan Patz. Courtesy of ABC News and YouTube) 

A member of a church group testified that Mr. Hernandez fell to his knees in tears, saying he had attacked a child. His former wife, with whom he has had an acrimonious relationship, recalled on the witness stand him pulling her aside before they married and telling her he had killed a “muchacho,” which she had inferred to be a teenage boy.

Though she also testified that, after they had married, she found an image of Etan, taken from one of the missing posters, in a box of his in a closet.

The first witness called to testify by prosecutors at the start of the trial in October was Etan’s mother, Julie Patz.

She recounted a hectic morning and what turned out to be her final moments with her son. It was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend; she was busy tending to her other children, and Etan sprung out of bed.

He had been pushing to be more independent, she said, and he pleaded with her to let him walk the nearly two blocks to the bus stop on his own. She reluctantly agreed and walked him outside. He set off wearing his Eastern Airlines cap and carrying a $1 bill given to him by a neighborhood handyman on a visit to his workshop.

His plan was to stop in the bodega for a soda along the way. That afternoon, when Etan did not return home, Ms. Patz testified, she called around and learned that he had never made it to school or boarded his bus.

(From Apr 20, 2012, CNN’s Susan Candiotti retells the day of Etan Patz’s disappearance that became an infamous part of U.S. history. Courtesy of CNN and YouTube)

At the time, Mr. Hernandez was an 18-year-old high school dropout who had recently come to the city from Camden, N.J. Prosecutors said that soon after Etan disappeared, possibly within days, Mr. Hernandez returned to New Jersey, later taking a job at a dress factory.

His lawyers depicted Mr. Hernandez as struggling with a mental illness that loosened his grip on reality. They said that he had schizotypal personality disorder, a condition marked by symptoms that include severe social anxiety, paranoia and unusual beliefs.

His youngest daughter, Becky, testified that he discussed the hallucinations he had of demons and an angelic woman in white. She also described how he would cover windows and cracks in the walls out of fear of being watched and would water a dead tree branch thinking they would grow.

The defense suggested that another man, a convicted pedophile, could have been the culprit. The man, Jose Ramos, had a relationship with a woman who had been hired to walk Etan home from school, and was, for years, considered a suspect by investigators. The defense contended that Mr. Ramos, who is in prison, had the motive and the opportunity to have been responsible.

Prosecutors have dismissed the theory of Mr. Ramos’s involvement, saying that it was not supported by the evidence. The prosecution also countered that Mr. Hernandez was feigning symptoms of his mental illness.

They argued that he was savvy enough to negotiate a divorce from his former wife on his own and obtain disability benefits.

Ms. Illuzzi described Mr. Hernandez as a predator, whose reserved demeanor in the courtroom belied his cunning.

In her closing arguments, she said that before he struck, Mr. Hernandez had been “keenly watching and admiring this friendly, beautiful child.”