comscore Mistrial declared in 1979 case of missing NYC boy Etan Patz | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Top News

Mistrial declared in 1979 case of missing NYC boy Etan Patz

  • AP
    FILE - This May 28
[ AD HAS BEEN REMOVED FROM THIS STORY ]

NEW YORK » The 1979 disappearance of a young boy that stunned the nation has ended in an agonizing stalemate, with just one juror unconvinced that a former stock clerk was guilty of the crime that has confounded authorities for decades.

The deadlocked jury spent 18 days in painstaking deliberations poring over evidence and testimony, trying to decide whether to believe Pedro Hernandez’s confession that he choked 6-year-old Etan Patz to death and dumped his body a few blocks away.

But jurors said Friday for a third time that they were hopelessly deadlocked — 11-1, in favor of conviction. The judge declared a mistrial as the 54-year-old Hernandez sat impassively.

The Maple Shade, New Jersey, man was a teenage stock clerk at a Manhattan convenience store near where Etan vanished May 25, 1979. Etan would become one of the first missing children ever pictured on milk cartons.

The mistrial left Etan’s parents, who became national advocates for the cause of missing children, to await another trial. And one of the nation’s most wrenching missing-children cases remained still unresolved after nearly two generations.

"We are frustrated and very disappointed the jury has been unable to make a decision. The long ordeal is not over," said his father, Stanley Patz. But "I think we have closure already," he added.

Prosecutors immediately asked to set a new trial date in the case, which frustrated authorities for decades before a tip led them to Hernandez — never before a suspect — and he confessed in 2012. His lawyers said the confession was false and concocted by mental illness, and they said another longtime suspect was the more likely killer.

Stanley Patz tried for years to bring the earlier suspect to account for Etan’s death, but after the trial, he said: "I am so convinced Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed my son. … His story is simple, and it makes sense."

Hernandez will remain in jail to await another trial; the first took more than three months. He has a June 10 court date for a status update.

Several jurors said they found Hernandez’s confession compellingly detailed and buttressed by admissions he’d made to friends and relatives years before; those jurors said they felt his mental problems were the result of a guilty conscience.

"Pedro Hernandez, you know what you did," said forewoman Alia Dahhan, who works in the arts.

The lone holdout said he felt Hernandez’s mental health history was "a huge part of this case" and he couldn’t stop wondering about the roughly seven hours police questioned him before administering his Miranda rights and turning on a video camera.

"Ultimately, I couldn’t find enough evidence that wasn’t circumstantial to convict. I couldn’t get there," said the juror, Adam Sirois, a health care consultant.

Jurors announced they were deadlocked twice before Friday, on April 29 and on Tuesday. Both times, the judge told them to keep trying to reach a verdict.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement that he believed the state had "clear and corroborated evidence" of Hernandez’s guilt.

"The challenges in this case were exacerbated by the passage of time, but they should not, and did not, deter us," Vance said.

One of Hernandez’s lawyers, Harvey Fishbein, said he recognized the Patzes and even New Yorkers at large were yearning to resolve the case.

"I would say there’s only a resolution if the correct man is held responsible, and we firmly believe Pedro Hernandez is not the right man," he said.

After Etan’s disappearance, his parents helped shepherd in an era of law enforcement advances that make it easier to track missing children and communicate among agencies. The Patzes were at the White House when President Ronald Reagan named May 25 National Missing Children’s Day.

While New York City detectives frantically searched for the sandy-haired boy, Hernandez moved back to New Jersey and slipped off the radar. His name appears in police files only once, as someone officers encountered while canvassing the neighborhood, before his 2012 confession. In that police interview, he confessed to choking the boy in the basement of the shop, then putting the body in a bag, putting the bag in a banana box, walking it about two blocks away and dumping it.

But Etan’s body was never found. Nor was any trace of clothing or his belongings.

Several members of a prayer circle, an ex-wife and a friend testified that Hernandez had told them at different points during the past three decades that he’d harmed a boy in New York. The jury watched hours of his confession and heard from Julie Patz, Etan’s mother, who recounted in clear, sad detail the last time she saw her son.

No physical evidence tied Hernandez to the crime; the corner store closed in the early 1980s. No DNA was found. Hernandez’s ex-wife testified that she once saw part of Etan’s missing-child poster in a box belonging to Hernandez, but authorities turned up nothing.

"As I told you in the very beginning, Pedro Hernandez is the only witness against himself," Fishbein told jurors during closing arguments. "Yet he is inconsistent and unreliable."

Hernandez’s defense said all his admissions were imaginary, and doctors testified for the defense that Hernandez has trouble telling reality from illusion.

His lawyers also pointed to Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who admitted to a federal prosecutor that he had been with Etan the day the boy vanished, according to testimony. Ramos, now jailed in Pennsylvania, has since said he doesn’t have anything to do with Etan’s disappearance and prosecutors never felt they had enough evidence to charge him.

The Patzes, meanwhile, never moved or changed their phone number, for years wondering whether there was a chance their missing boy might call.

"Etan was a beautiful, outgoing, curious little kid," his father said Friday. "He would have made a great adult."

___

Associated Press writers Jake Pearson and Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up