NEW YORK (AP) — The case of a 6-year-old boy who vanished in 1979 marked the end of an innocent era but has led to reforms that have helped save many children from a similar fate, a prosecutor said Tuesday at the trial of the man accused of killing him.
Etan Patz "is larger than his very little, important life," Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said in closing arguments at the Manhattan murder trial of Pedro Hernandez. She asked jurors to convict Hernandez of murder, saying he was a calculated killer who committed a terrible crime and then spent three decades trying to hide from it.
Hernandez confessed 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. He had never been considered a suspect — his name appears only once in law enforcement paperwork at the time Etan disappeared.
The defense says the admissions are made up, the ravings of a mentally ill man who sees visions and has a low IQ.
A teenage stock clerk at the corner shop, Hernandez knew there were children in and out of the store, and Etan had been there countless times, the prosecutor said. She said Hernandez saw Etan with a dollar and calculated he wanted a drink, so he asked him to the basement.
"Day after day he saw this beautiful little boy," she said. "One day, he acted on an impulse and did something terrible to this little boy."
She said the motive was sexual, and Etan likely fought back. "The quickest and easiest way to shut him up and shut him up permanently was to choke him to death," she said.
Illuzzi-Orbon said his first confession to a prayer group shortly after the boy disappeared was the most accurate — he was confessing to God, and he was trying to unburden himself.
Prayer circle members testified that Hernandez made tearful admissions during a 1979 retreat 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. Two said Hernandez also admitted abusing the boy; when talking to police, Hernandez denied molesting Etan.
A former neighbor and his ex-wife also testified he told them about killing someone in New York.
The Maple Shade, New Jersey, man made the stunning admissions to police after authorities received a tip from a relative who saw news reports of the case in 2012.
"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."
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said the confession video shows "a man sitting there convinced he killed a child — on a day that he doesn't know, at a time he doesn't know, at a location near a bus stop that he doesn't know."
The defense has suggested that the real killer is a convicted pedophile jailed in Pennsylvania who was the longtime suspect in the case.
That man, Jose Ramos, denies involvement. However, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent testified that Ramos told investigators he was "90 percent" sure a boy he took from a park was Etan, and Hernandez's former prison cellmate testified that Ramos admitted molesting the boy.
"Two confessions," Fishbein said. "Which person is more likely to have been a predator?"
Etan's photo was one of the first on milk cartons. The day he went missing, May 25, became National Missing Children's Day.