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Murder arraignment 33 years after Etan Patz vanished

by Joseph Ax, Reuters

May 25, 2012 | 10:40 am

New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announces the arrest of Pedro Hernandez in relation to the case of Etan Patz in New York on May 24. Photo by REUTERS/Andrew Burton

New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly announces the arrest of Pedro Hernandez in relation to the case of Etan Patz in New York on May 24. Photo by REUTERS/Andrew Burton

A man who confessed to strangling Etan Patz faced arraignment for murder on Friday, exactly 33 years after the 6-year-old boy vanished from his New York neighborhood and soon changed the way the nation responds to missing children.

Pedro Hernandez, 51, who worked as a stock boy in a small food store on the Manhattan Soho street where Patz was last seen on May 25, 1979, was arrested on Thursday.

Patz’s highly publicized disappearance prompted President Ronald Reagan to sign into law the Missing Children’s Assistance Act in 1984, sparking the start of a non-profit missing children’s center and triggering enormous changes in the way police and the public respond to reports of missing children. As a result, Patz was one of the first missing children whose face appeared on a milk carton appealing to the public for information on his whereabouts.

Hernandez’s attorney, Harvey Fishbein, spoke to reporters at state Supreme Court in Manhattan, where Hernandez was to be arraigned.

“It’s a tough day. The family is very upset,” Fishbein said.

Hernandez’s wife and college student daughter were at the courthouse, where they spent the morning speaking in hushed tones and occasionally hugging each other.

Early Friday, Hernandez was transferred from his jail cell to Bellevue Hospital to ensure medications he was taking were administered properly, said Paul Browne, spokesman for the New York City Police Department. He declined to specify the medications or the illness being treated.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Hernandez would be charged with second-degree murder after he told police in a videotaped confession that he strangled the boy in the store’s basement, placed his body in a bag and dumped it in the trash.

Hernandez had been living in Maple Shade, New Jersey, where he lived with his wife and daughter.

The break in the case came a month after the FBI and New York City Police conducted an excavation of a basement in another neighborhood building, which failed to yield clues. It did, however, prompt a tip about Hernandez, who had told family members as far back as 1981 that “he had done a bad thing and killed a child in New York,” Kelly said.

His confession continued to draw skepticism from those who have closely followed the case, including author Lisa Cohen, whose book “After Etan” detailed what happened after his parents agreed to let him take his first walk alone to the school bus stop. He never returned.

“There have been hundreds and hundreds of false leads and moments when they know the case was solved - and it wasn’t,” Cohen said in an interview on CNN early Friday.

Patz told his parents he planned to stop at the store to buy a soda before boarding the bus, and Hernandez now says he lured the boy to the basement with the promise of a free soft drink.

Writing By Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Vicki Allen

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