Etan Patz case goes to court on 33rd anniversary

5/24: Etan Patz murder confession, convicted rapist exhonorated
Etan Patz, left, is seen alongside Pedro Hernandez, 51, who was arrested May 24, 2012 in the boy's 1979 disappearance.
CBS/Inside Edition

(CBS News) NEW YORK - After 33 years, New York City police have made an arrest in the disappearance of Etan Patz, who became a symbol of missing children.

Pedro Hernandez, who worked in the neighborhood at the time of Patz's disappearance, will be arraigned on murder charges Friday. Hernandez was 18 years old then. Today, he is 51, and police say he confessed to the crime.

It was exactly 33 years ago, May 25, 1979, also a Friday, when a boy walking to the school bus stop alone for the first time, no more than a single block away, seemed to vanish into thin air.

Police began their investigation at the Patz family's Manhattan loft. They followed up on leads in Israel, Columbus, Ohio, even the Pennsylvania woods.

But on the eve of the anniversary, it was learned that the answer to the mystery may have been no farther than the corner store.

"[Hernandez] lured young Etan from the school bus stop ... with the promise of soda," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters. "He then led him into the basement of the bodega (grocery store), choked him there and disposed of the body by putting it in a plastic bag and placing it in the trash."

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Hernandez worked at the neighborhood store, which the Patz family knew well.

But it was another clue, a dead-end lead, that forced the truth out of hiding.

Last month, when investigators dug up the basement of a building down the street, stories of the mystery of Etan Patz were back in the news and triggered the conscience of someone who had been carrying a dark secret for too long.

It was a relative of Hernandez who called police.

"In the years following Etan's disappearance, Hernandez had told a family member and others that he had 'done a bad thing' and killed a child in New York," Kelly said.

On Wednesday, New York City police detectives came to a small New Jersey house. Within hours, they say, Hernandez had confessed, and then allowed police to follow as he retraced his steps at the scene of the crime.

But his motive for the confessed attack is still unknown, with even Hernandez saying he didn't know why, according to police.

Two years ago, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance reopened the case. The New York Police Department and FBI worked with a list of the top 10 possible suspects. Hernandez wasn't on it.

For Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, it has been a long wait for answers.

"This is just the latest in a very, very long line of big breaks in the case and I think they certainly are taking the wait-and-see approach," said Lisa Cohen, author of "After Etan: The Missing Child Case that Held America Captive."

This is as close to the end as the family and authorities ever been to a resolution of the case. There have been confessions before, but not confessions that stood up under questioning or challenged by the fact. And there's never been an arrest.

And while police see Hernandez's detailed confession as strong proof, in addition to the fact that he had means and opportunity, a lawyer might say a confession is not enough. If Hernandez's defense ultimately challenges the confession, a jury will likely want to see evidence beyond that.

A confession alone apparently wasn't enough for the district attorney.

The phone lines were burning up between police headquarters and the district attorney's office Thursday, with prosecutors pressing investigators for more. The district attorney's office wanted to hold off on Thursday's press conference announcing the arrest, but police were determined not to release Hernandez, sources said.

To see John Miller's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • John Miller
    John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.