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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pedro Hernandez's Confession in the Etan Patz Case

The Disappearance

     On May 25, 1979, the parents of 6-year-old Etan Patz allowed the boy to make his first unaccompanied walk to the Manhattan bus stop two blocks from his apartment building. They never saw him again. The missing boy, the first to have his photograph printed on milk cartons, helped fuel the national missing persons recovery movement that took root in the 1980s. Etan Patz was declared dead in 2001. 

     From the beginning, investigators suspected a friend of Etan's babysitter, a man named Jose Antonia Ramos. Ramos was later convicted of child molestation and sent to prison in Pennsylvania. While never prosecuted in the Patz case, the missing boy's family won a $2 million wrongful deal judgment against Ramos in 2004. He is due to be released from prison in November 2012. 

The Cold Case Investigation

     In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance reopened the Etan Patz investigation. FBI agents and detectives with the NYPD, in April 2012, interviewed a 75-year-old man named Othniel Miller, a former handyman who, in 1979, had worked in a 13 by 62 foot room in the basement of the family apartment building on Prince Street in the SoHo section of manhattan. Etan did chores for Miller, and on the day before he disappeared, Miller had given the boy a dollar. At the time of the abduction, Miller was not a suspect because he had a solid alibi. However, Jose Ramos, the imprisoned child molester, worked for Mr. Miller, and had access to his basement workshop. 

     After questioning Othniel Miller, FBI crime scene investigators placed "scent pads"--material that can absorb and retain odors--in Miller's old basement workshop. A cadaver dog, upon sniffing the pads, indicated the scene of human remains. (This technique, because it is not reliable, and subject to many variables, should not be confused with forensic science.)

     Under the supervision of the FBI and the New York City police, workers dug up the workshop's concrete floor and screened the dirt below for signs of Etan's remains. At one point, crime scene investigators thought they had discovered a suspicious stain on an chunk of cinder block, but further analysis determined it was not blood. After four days of excavating, the authorities shut down the operation, and began cleaning up the mess. 

     The April questioning of Othniel Miller, and the crime scene investigation of Mr. Miller's former basement workshop, brought the Etan Patz case back into the news as a national, headline story. 

The Hernandez Confession

     After receiving a tip from a family member or friend of 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez, New York City detectives went to Maple Grove, New Jersey to question this potential suspect. According to the tipster, Hernandez, as early as 1981, had told family members he had "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York." At the time, the 18-year-old worked at a convenience store in Etan Patz's neighborhood. Now married with a daughter in college, Hernandez has for years been receiving disability payments for a bad back. He has no criminal record, or history of suspected pedophilia. (It has been reported he has HIV.) 

     On May 16, during a videotaped interview, Hernandez confessed to murdering Etan Patz in the Manhattan convenience store. He said he lured the boy into the basement with a soda, choked him to death, then placed his body into a bag he deposited with a pile of trash a block away. Shortly after the murder, Hernandez left the city. 

     New York City police, on May 24, arrested Hernandez for second degree murder. They took him to the mental ward at Bellevue Hospital where he was kept under lock and key and put under a suicide watch. The next day, via a video link from his hospital room, Hernandez, now represented by court appointed attorney Harvey Fishbein, was arraigned. According to Mr Fishbein, his client was bipolar, schizophrenic, and has a "history of hallucinations, both visual and auditory." At the arraignment, Hernandez did not enter a plea. He is being held without bail. The judge overseeing the case has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of the suspect. 

A Question of Credibility

     It is not unusual, in murder cases that generate a lot of publicity, for people to come forward with false confessions. This happened in the wake of the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case, in the JFK assassination, and more recently, in the JonBenet Ramsey case. In 2006, John Mark Karr, an elementary school teacher working in Thailand, confessed to killing 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home. Following the 1996 murder, the girl's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, came under suspicion. Mr. Karr fit the general profile of a pedophile, and was not bipolar or schizophrenic. Moreover, his confession was quite detailed. But in the end, Karr's confession did not comport with the physical evidence in the case. His DNA didn't match crime scene bodily fluids, and forensic document analysis excluded him as the writer of the ransom note found at the Ramsey house. The JonBenet Ramsey case remains unsolved. (In my view, John and Patsy Ramsey, completely innocent, were wrongfully vilified by the police and media.)

     In the Etan Patz case, without a body or a crime scene, there is no physical evidence against which Pedro Hernandez's confession can be tested. There is no way to corroborate or discredit his story. The fact he has a history of serious mental illness increases the chance that his confession is a product of his psychosis. (FBI officials, who still consider Jose Ramos the prime suspect, have serious doubts about Hernandez's confession. Remember, there was enough evidence against Ramos to support a wrongful death suit verdict against him in 2004.) 

Can Pedro Hernandez be found guilty of murder?

     I'm going to stick my neck out here and predict he will not be convicted of murdering Etan Patz. In New York state, by law, a confession without more, is not enough to sustain a conviction. Unless investigators can produce corroborating evidence of this man's guilt, he cannot be prosecuted. In the event detectives can produce circumstantial evidence of his guilt, the case will fall apart if Hernandez recants his confession. 

     Pedro Hernandez's admission of guilt, while providing the New York Police commissioner and the mayor some good public relations, may end up becoming a public relations problem. Now that he has confessed, there is pressure to successfully prosecute him. If the authorities can't do this, they will be criticized, and the case will be stuck in a state of limbo. The confession has also made it virtually impossible to prosecute Jose Ramos who will be getting out of prison in six months.


     James Ramos, the longtime suspect in the Patz murder, after serving 25 years on the child molestation convictions in Pennsylvania, was released from prison on November 7, 2012. So far the investigation of Pedro Hernandez, beyond his confession, has not implicated him in the murder. His attorney claims that he's insane. 


1 comment:

  1. The Bodega where Hernandez was once employed has been replaced by an optical store, its eye glasses are being sold for as much as 500 bucks. Rice with beans were no longer available in the Village; store rents became too high for Hernandez to get an inexpensive lunch.