For the first time in 33 years, an arrest has been made in the tragic case of 6-year-old Etan Patz.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly announced this evening that police arrested Pedro Hernandez tonight and charged him with murder. In a bizarre twist, the arrest comes nearly 33 years to the date of the boy's disappearance, on May 25, 1979.
About a month ago, police and FBI workers re-opened the case and began digging up a basement in SoHo where Patz used to play. The notoriety of the cold case spread, said Kelly, and about a week ago a Hernandez family member contacted the NYPD and said that Hernandez had killed the boy.
Police went to where Hernandez now lives, in Maple Shade, New Jersey, and took him into custody last night. He voluntarily returned with them to New York, where he spent more than three hours today telling police what happened 33 years ago.
According to Kelly, Hernandez told police he stopped the boy and lured him into a bodega at 448 West Broadway, by offering him a soda. Once there, Hernandez said he took the boy into the basement and strangled him to death. He then wrapped his body in plastic wrap and put the body in the trash.
Hernandez worked in the bodega stocking shelves at the time, and lived nearby on West Broadway.
He later left New York, and in the years since, he told at least one family member he had "done a bad thing and killed a child in New York," said police.
Police said they told the Patz family, who still lives in SoHo, of the arrest today.
"We can only hope this development brings them some measure of peace," said a somber Kelly.
Kelly said they have a written, signed confession from Hernandez.
"We think we have probable cause to go forward with the arrest," he said.
When he disappeared
On May 25, 1979, Patz's parents allowed the boy to make his first unaccompanied trip to the bus stop two blocks away. They never saw him again.
Although the boy was formally declared dead in 2001, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance re-opened the case in 2010 and investigators tore apart a basement on Prince Street in April looking for clothing and human remains after a cadaver-sniffing dog sensed something at the site.
Patz was one of the first missing children in the United States to have his photograph printed on milk cartons, and his case helped fuel an intense national outreach campaign for missing children in the 1980s.
Long targeted as a suspect in the case was Jose Antonio Ramos, a friend of Patz's babysitter who was later convicted of child molestation in a separate case in Pennsylvania. He is due to be released from prison in November.
Patz family members last month asked the media to respect their privacy as the days-long dig was under way just 100 yards from the home where they still live.
Authorities tore through the floor of a workshop used by a handyman, Othniel Miller, now 75, who had paid the boy to help him with chores. Miller was questioned by police but was not charged with a crime.
Neighbors hope family can now heal
In SoHo this morning, cops milled around the street and neighbors glanced up at the windows of the apartment where the Patz family lives.
Sammy Vargas, a super in a building across the street, said he had hoped cops would finally arrest someone and put the case to rest.
"It would mean a lot," he told Metro.
John Schneider, in charge of a renovation job on nearby Wooster Street, was reading the story about the suspect on his phone just steps away from where Patz disappeared.
"It's just one of those unsolved mysteries," he said. "They need to get to the bottom of it, closure for the family."
Aly Hamamsy has lived in the neighborhood for about 10 years, and told Metro locals have been "kind of freaked out" by the police presence lately, especially when investigators were excavating.
After decades of no arrests, he said he welcomed today's news.
"It's great that they stayed on it," he said of investigators. "Those poor parents."
Carly Baldwin and Alison Bowen contributed reporting.