Once Kids’ Safe Zone, Shop Now Focus in Patz Trial

NEW YORK (AP) -

With a prized dollar in hand and a treat in mind, Etan Patz headed toward the corner store that the neighborhood kids knew as a safe haven, a place their parents told them to go in case of emergency.

But within that comfort zone lurked a killer, prosecutors say, and it became the scene of one of the nation’s most notorious crimes against children when teenage stock clerk Pedro Hernandez lured 6-year-old Etan to the basement and killed him in 1979.

The long-gone store has suddenly come into sharp focus in his murder trial, after decades of being just another one of hundreds of locations tied to the long, fruitless search for the boy.

“It’s ironic and particularly tragic that this was the place that turned out to be the most dangerous for a child,” Assistant DA Joan Illuzi-Orbon said during opening statements.

Now a boutique where bracelets cost upward of $300 in a chic neighborhood, the bodega was then a cramped oasis of soda, beer, candy and household supplies. Sometimes a live rooster perched on the counter.

It was a homegrown precursor of today’s official “safe havens,” establishments that various organizations designate as willing to help children who feel they’re in danger.

Counter worker Juan Santana was a guy everyone in the neighborhood knew. But no one knew that his brother-in-law, Hernandez, would become the suspect in Etan’s death.

Santana has become a confounding witness during testimony this week. Many of his answers didn’t match others’ remembrances, and Illuzi-Orbon even warned jurors that Santana was worried about protecting himself and would not be cooperative.