NEW YORK – Pedro Hernandez watched 6-year-old Etan Patz from the corner store where he worked all those years ago, prosecutors said. He knew the little boy liked to get treats there, and that he waited for the school bus in the morning without adult supervision, they said.
He was "keenly watching and admiring this beautiful friendly child," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi said during summations Tuesday in Hernandez's retrial. Prosecutors say the 56-year-old Maple Shade, New Jersey, man lured the little boy into the basement with the promise of a soda on May 25, 1979, then choked him and dumped the body.
Etan's body was never found, but his case helped usher in an era of vigilance. The anniversary of Etan's disappearance became National Missing Children's Day. His parents helped press for new laws that established a national hotline and made it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about missing children.
Hernandez gave a surprise confession in 2012, after the case made national news again when federal agents dug up a New York City basement looking for Etan's remains. He was tried once before, but the case ended in a hung jury after all but one juror voted to convict after 18 days of deliberations.
The probe had long focused on another suspect, convicted pedophile Jose Ramos. Hernandez's attorney Harvey Fishbein said during his closing argument Monday that Ramos was the real killer. Ramos has said he didn't kill the boy.
Over the years, Hernandez told a friend, his ex-wife and a church group that he had killed a young person in New York by choking and dumping the body, though the details varied, according to trial testimony. He never mentioned Etan by name, but his brother-in-law called police with the tip that led law enforcement to him.
Those statements to others, the fact that he was a 19-year-old stock boy nearby when Etan vanished and his believable confession are enough to convict, Illuzzi said. Hernandez's description and demonstration on tape of how he choked the boy are chillingly aligned with testimony from a pathologist who explained how a choking person would lose consciousness.
"I was afraid of what I did," Hernandez said in the videotaped confession. "So I figure if he be alive, he will put me away."
Defense attorneys say the confession is the product of a vulnerable, mentally ill man who was manipulated by law enforcement.
Illuzzi said that's not true. She called him a guilty man desperately seeking to unburden himself after fleeing the city after the crime and slipping through the investigative cracks decades ago.
"It's all here," she said.
Illuzzi said it's easy to feel sympathy for the Patz family, whose lives were forever changed when Etan vanished.
"But it is not sympathy that needs to be invoked here," she said. "It is truth."
Jurors are expected to get the case Wednesday.