The unusual confessor who broke the Etan Patz cold case

Killing Etan Patz in 1979 may have been the only time alleged killer Pedro Hernandez hurt someone. While he avoided detection for 33 years, the secret took enough of a toll that Hernandez broke down in tears as he confessed, appearing remorseful and ‘relieved.’

Shirley Shepherd/Reuters
Pedro Hernandez is arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court via video link seen here in this courtroom sketch in New York Friday. Hernandez has confessed to killing Etan Patz.

After New York police dug into a SoHo basement in April searching for the remains of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old New Yorker who disappeared on May 25, 1979, Pedro Hernandez did something very unusual, family members told the press: He called his sister in New York, to talk about the case.

Working off a tip from an unnamed source, New York police on Friday arrested and arraigned Mr. Hernandez. It was the 33rd anniversary of the day when the tow-headed Etan, lugging a backpack painted with cartoon elephants, disappeared as he walked alone to school for the first time. The subsequent search for Etan sparked national “stranger-danger” fears and turned May 25 into the federally-recognized National Missing Children’s Day.

The man who had allegedly kept a sinister secret for 33 years broke down during a 3 ½ hour interrogation on Wednesday. He appeared both remorseful and “relieved,” New York detectives said.

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According to police, Hernandez, then an 18-year-old stockboy at a SoHo bodega, said he lured Etan into the basement with a soda, then strangled him and put the body into a plastic bag, which was then presumably taken to a city landfill. Hernandez told police that he realized Etan was “the one” after feeling an “urge to kill.”

While little is known about Hernandez, the story given so far by police is peculiar, experts say, for several reasons, including the apparent lack of sexual assault motive and the fact that Hernandez, described by some as shy and standoffish, appears to have retreated from the act into a quiet middle-class existence in New Jersey, perhaps never hurting anyone again.

But whether as a precursor of the crime or a result, Hernandez, a disabled construction worker, reportedly has wrestled with psychological problems for years. On Friday, as Hernandez remained on suicide watch at Bellevue Hospital, his attorney, Harvey Fishbein, said Hernandez had a “long psychiatric history,” including hallucinations, which a New York judge took into consideration, ordering a psychiatric evaluation to see whether he’s fit to stand trial.

Hernandez’s call to his sister and his “relief” at unburdening his story hints at a criminal case that strays beyond the standard profile of a killer. For one thing, Hernandez had talked about doing “a bad thing” as far back as 1981, though no one ever took him seriously enough to report that.

Especially if reports that Hernandez has a serious illness are true, the confession “would be a revelation that would make sense, given a review of your life,” Mark Safarik, a former FBI profiler, tells the Monitor.

Certainly, Hernandez’s alleged secret may be more complicated – and disturbing – than police are letting on. While investigators say they have no evidence of sexual assault, and Hernandez has given no motive, it’s unlikely to investigators following the case that there wasn’t a sexual component to the crime. One explanation given by family is that, especially when he was younger, Hernandez was “hot-headed” and temper-prone. But a bad temper alone hardly a murderer makes, says Mr. Safarik.

“What they’re putting out about him, that he had a short fuse and could really fly off the handle, that doesn’t go with the planning, the luring – those are things you do when you’re trying to get a 6-year-old for sexual purposes,” says the former FBI agent. “The problem in any case with no physical evidence is that [police are] left with behavioral evidence.”

But that doesn’t mean Hernandez fits into a neat box, either. Most child killers and molesters are psychopaths who, unlike Hernandez, often don’t display remorse or sorrow at what they’ve done. At the same time, even child molesters on average only kill 1 out of 100 victims, usually releasing them before anyone even knows they’ve been missing.

"It looks like his crime was spontaneous rather than methodically planned," Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin told ABC News. "Based on statistics concerning abductions by strangers and acquaintances, I would speculate that his motivation involved a sexual assault."

"It is conceivable that Hernandez never again molested a youngster," he added. "This is particularly likely in light of his confession."

Criminologists warn that, especially considering there are professed mental issues, that Hernandez may also have falsely confessed.

But given the many false leads, as well as several false confessions, in the Patz case already, experts say Hernandez must have given detectives something during the interrogation, which included a tour of the former bodega basement, that was corroborative.

One of his Maple Shade neighbors, Dan Wollick, told the New York Daily News that Hernandez seemed like a regular neighbor, a “nice guy” who mowed his lawn and waved hello to passers-by.  “It had to be eating him alive,” Mr. Wollick said.

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