When a 6-year-old boy went missing in Manhattan three decades ago, police zeroed in on a convicted child molester named José A. Ramos, who was a friend of the boy’s baby sitter.
Now, 33 years after Etan Patz vanished near his SoHo home, investigators say a man from New Jersey implicated himself in the boy’s death. The man was identified by The New York Times as Pedro Hernández.
Hernández, who in the past was a suspect in the case, was picked up late Wednesday in Camden, N.J., and was being questioned Thursday by the Manhattan district attorney's office, which is heading the probe by the FBI and police.
His emergence as a person of interest was not related to the search of a Manhattan basement in April, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Investigators were still trying to confirm details of his story.
Both the person familiar with the probe and the official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the ongoing probe into the boy's disappearance in 1979. An investigator told the Star Ledger (Newark, NJ) that Hernández had confessed to kidnapping and strangling Patz during an interview Wednesday.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced earlier Thursday that a person in custody had implicated himself in the boy's death.
Etan vanished on May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood.
There was an exhaustive search by the police and a crush of media attention. The boy's photo was one of the first of a missing child on a milk carton. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed. SoHo was not a neighborhood of swank boutiques and galleries as now, but of working-class New Yorkers rattled by the news.
The April excavation of a Manhattan basement yielded no obvious human remains and little forensic evidence that would help solve the decades-long mystery of what happened to the boy.
His 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, down the street from the building that was examined in April. They have endured decades of false leads, and a lack of hard evidence.
The family did not immediately return a message requesting comment.
"I hope this is the end of it," said Roz Radd, who lives a couple of blocks from the Patz family's home and knows Etan's mother casually from walking dogs in the neighborhood. "There's going to be hopefully closure to her, to know what happened to her son."
Etan's disappearance touched off a massive search that has ebbed and flowed over the years. It also ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
In the past, the case seemed to have been largely focused Ramos, who is now serving time in Pennsylvania and had been dating Etan's baby sitter at the time the boy disappeared. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos' former basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
Stan Patz had his son declared legally dead in 2001 so he could sue Ramos, who has never been charged criminally and denies harming the boy. A civil judge in 2004 found him to be responsible for Etan's death.
More recently, the focus had shifted to a 75-year-old Brooklyn resident, though he was not named a suspect and denied any involvement. In 1979, he was a handyman who had a workspace in the basement where the April excavation occurred.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.