The alleged killer of Etan Patz said in a taped confession played in court today that he tried to stop choking the 6-year-old but couldn’t.
"It was like something just took over me," said suspect Pedro Hernandez on the three-hour tape, as Patz's father listened. "I tried to let go but I just couldn't let him go."
The three-hour alleged confession to the 1979 crime is being played in full in a New York City courtroom today, as part of a pre-trial hearing in which a judge will decide whether the tape will be admissible at trial.
Patz’s disappearance from outside his lower Manhattan home on May 25, 1979 helped spark national efforts to find missing children, including putting pictures on milk cartons and the designation of May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day, but the case lay dormant for decades.
In 2010, the Manhattan district attorney’s office reopened the case. In 2012, Pedro Hernandez of Maple Shade, New Jersey allegedly told investigators that he had abducted and killed Patz.
On Monday morning, Patz’s father listened as Hernandez, who was 18 in 1979 and working at a convenience store near the Patz home in Soho, described how he allegedly approached and abducted the boy, who was headed to school.
Hernandez said he was the boy on the street holding a little book bag and approached him. “I asked him if he wanted something to drink, a soda or something, so he said, ‘Yeah.’ So I told him to go down to the basement.”
When they got down to the basement, said Hernandez on the tape, he allegedly grabbed the boy by the neck and began to choke him.
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On the tape, he said he put the boy in a garbage bag and then in a cardboard box. He said he lifted the box to his shoulder and carried it several blocks to a nearby alley, where he left it in a basement.
"I went back to work just like that," he said. "My mind was completely blank, like nothing happened. That's how I was feeling. Like nothing happened."
Asked by the assistant district attorney how he could do such a thing, Hernandez said, "I don't know why I did it."
"For 30 years," said Hernandez, "I could have said something but I was afraid to come forward."
Hernandez said he went back the next day to check on the box, but it was gone. He said he didn’t know whether someone had found it and thrown it away.
Now in his 50s, Hernandez attended Monday's hearing in an orange jumpsuit. He has been behind bars since his arrest in 2012.
On the tape, Hernandez wears glasses and his beard and goatee are gray. He wears a plain white t-shirt and a dark zip up jacket. When speaking, his tone is calm and matter of fact.
The tape was recorded in Manhattan on May 24, 2012, a day after Hernandez allegedly confessed to New York investigators in New Jersey. At the beginning of the tape, an assistant district attorney can be hear reading Hernandez his Miranda rights, following each statement with, “Do you understand?”
In a soft, high-pitched voice Hernandez answered, "Yes."
Hernandez's attorney, Harvey Fishbein, hopes to get the tape thrown out. He said he will present testimony from a forensic psychiatrist that will bolster the defense's argument that Hernandez did not fully understand his rights. Fishbein also argues that his client, who has a low IQ and a history of mental illness, falsely confessed to the crime.
"There is no question that when the detectives were finished with my client on the morning of May 23rd my client believed what he was saying was true," said Fishbein. "The issue is, is it reliable?"
In court and to reporters outside the courtroom, Fishbein argued that his client's statement is not reliable. For example, investigators never found the boy’s bookbag, which Hernandez said he threw behind a freezer, despite four searches of the basement. The body was never found, though Hernandez said he left it in a box just blocks away.
There are inconsistences in the video as well. Late in the interview, Hernandez said he first saw the boy at nine or ten in the morning. "You think it was that late?" the prosecutor asked. Hernandez said maybe it could have been earlier.
Hernandez’s own story appears to be the primary evidence against him. Fishbein indicated the holes in it will also be key to his defense.
"We will show he's wrong all the time. He's unreliable. He's a terrible historian. He's inconstant. And he's the only evidence against himself."
Hernandez was interviewed after a detective on the case got a tip on May 8, 2012. The anonymous tipster turned out to be Jose Lopez, Hernandez’s brother-in-law. He said Hernandez had confessed to a church group that he had killed Patz.
Detectives interviewed for more than seven hours in New Jersey on May 23 before prosecutors say he admitted to the crime. Then they turned on the video camera. He was then taken to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, where a Manhattan assistant district attorney began to interview him in the early hours of May 24. This second tape is the one that was played in court Monday.