NEW YORK – Jurors heard closing arguments Monday in the case against a man accused of killing 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose 1979 disappearance while on his way to school helped galvanize the national missing-children's movement.
Pedro Hernandez confessed to the crime in 2012 in a case that has confounded law enforcement for decades. Etan's body was never found, nor was any trace of clothing or his belongings. The defense says the admissions are the fictional ravings of a mentally ill man with a low IQ.
"As I told you in the very beginning, Pedro Hernandez is the only witness against himself," said defense attorney Harvey Fishbein. "The stories he told over the years, including in 2012, and since, are the only evidence. Yet he is inconsistent and unreliable."
"We did not hear, nor can they prove, that he's a child killer, that he murdered a child — because there's no evidence to support it," Fishbein said.
Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk in the neighborhood at the time Etan disappeared but had never been considered a suspect. His name appears in law enforcement paperwork only one time during their lengthy probe. The Maple Shade, New Jersey, man made the stunning admissions after police received a tip from a relative that he may have been involved in the case.
"I grabbed him by the neck and started choking him," said Hernandez, now 54. "I was nervous. My legs were jumping. I wanted to let go, but I just couldn't let go. I felt like something just took over me."
The trial began in late January, and jurors have heard from dozens of witnesses. Members of a prayer circle testified that Hernandez made tearful admissions during a retreat in the summer of 1979 that matched some of what he told authorities on video 33 years later: He gave a child a soda, took him to the store basement and choked him. One said Hernandez also admitted abusing the boy. When talking to police, Hernandez denied molesting Etan.
Mark Pike, Hernandez's former neighbor in Camden, New Jersey, testified that during a 1980 front-porch chat, Hernandez described how a boy in New York threw a ball at him, and "he lost it" and strangled the child.
"I just said, 'Why?'" Pike recalled. Hernandez gave no answer, he said.
About two years later, Hernandez told 16-year-old girlfriend Daisy Rivera he wanted to come clean about "something terrible" — he had strangled a "gringo muchacho," or white guy, who offended him while in New York.
The defense has suggested that another man, a convicted pedophile in jail in Pennsylvania, is the real killer. It called to the stand a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent who worked on the probe into Jose Ramos for years. A former jailhouse informant involved in the investigation testified that Ramos admitted molesting the boy while the men were roommates in prison. Jeffrey Rothschild said Ramos recounted in horrifying detail how he molested Etan and many other boys.
"I've never been the same since that day," Rothschild said. "I thought my life was just a total wreck and a complete and total mess, but there are other people deeper or darker than me."
In closing arguments, the defense honed in on Ramos.
"We did find out why Etan disappeared — but it was not because of Pedro Hernandez," Fishbein said. "It was because of Jose Ramos."
Etan's photo was one of the first on milk cartons. The day he went missing, May 25, was later named National Missing Children's Day.