It is hard to believe or understand, but people confess to committing crimes — sometimes horrible crimes — when they are completely innocent. It happens more often than you can imagine. False confessions can be traced to unjust interrogation techniques, poor legal advice or even the mental illness of the suspect.
That’s one reason detectives involved in the groundbreaking missing persons case of 6-year-old Etan Patz are still hard at work even though 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez has now confessed to killing the boy more than three decades ago.
False confessions often come in to police around the anniversary of high-profile, unsolved cases, and Hernandez made his self-incriminating statements to police just days before the 33rd anniversary of Etan’s disappearance. Detectives must proceed cautiously as they work to find corroborating evidence to back up the Hernandez confession. They are faced with multiple hurdles as they search for clues.
You’ve likely heard the latest about the case. For reasons unknown, the New York District Attorney reopened the cold case of Patz recently, and detectives compiled a list of possible suspects (Hernandez was not among them).
Working from that list, the NYPD and the FBI dug up the basement of a handyman who worked in the Patz’s neighborhood and had given Etan a dollar the day before he disappeared. When 6-year-old Etan left his home the morning of May 25, 1979, clutching that dollar — having convinced his parents to let him walk to the corner bus stop alone for the first time — he told his mother he was going to stop and buy a soda at the corner bodega.
In the April 2012 dig, authorities found nothing at the handyman’s basement. But the news about the effort sparked Hernandez’s brother-in-law, Jose Lopez, to call police and tell them that Pedro had been confessing to the crime for years.
Hernandez had been an 18-year-old stock boy at the bodega, and he admitted he had lured Etan down into the store’s basement, strangled him and put his body out at the curb in a trash bag. The supposition is that a sanitation truck picked up the 40-pound bag and dumped it at one of several nearby landfills. Hernandez’s motive is still not clear, although one report was that the boy “reminded him of his least favorite nephew.”
Police Chief Raymond Kelly told reporters at a news conference last week, “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.’” The family swears it told their local New Jersey police about Pedro’s confession back in the 1980s, but the news apparently never made it to detectives in Manhattan.
So, with the confession in hand, some folks are talking like this case is a done deal. But that’s not the way it works. A confession does not a case make. Hernandez’s attorney has said his client is bipolar and schizophrenic, and suffers from hallucinations. With that description, the ground has been tilled for a defense claim of false confession or a request to dismiss the second-degree murder charges for lack of evidence.
A clever defense attorney could also point to the fact that over the last three decades Hernandez has never been on any suspects list. In fact, suspicion has long focused on a man named Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who has been in prison for years for sexually molesting young boys. Ramos was dating Etan’s babysitter at the time the boy disappeared.
This is why it is so important for detectives to find corroborating evidence to — as they put it — “stand up the confession.” It is a daunting task. First, there is no body and no possibility of finding forensics to tie Hernandez to any crime. There is no murder weapon to test for evidence, and there is, literally, no crime scene left, as the gritty bodega has been renovated and is now a fashionable eyeglass store.
Detectives are interviewing everyone in the Hernandez family to see how often he might have said something about killing a child and whether he may have revealed any details about the crime. They are talking to every available former bodega employee to determine if anyone remembers anything specific about that day or about Hernandez himself that might be important. And forensic investigators have swooped down on the storefront to check for any possible clue that might remain. I doubt if they are hopeful of finding anything.
I recently saw a news clip of the Patz’s filmed years ago when they were in their 30s. They looked so young and hopeful, and they spoke of waiting as long as they needed for their son to come home. Thirty-three years later, Julie and Stan Patz still live in the same apartment and say they kept the same phone number over the years in case Etan ever tried to find them.
America was a different place back then. In 1979, Stan Patz, having put up fistfuls of fliers bearing his son’s image, lamented that it was easier to locate a missing car than a missing child. He was right. It was the horrendous and mysterious disappearance of little Etan that sparked the phenomena of placing missing children’s photos on milk cartons.
Today, everyone is aware of the risk to children.