Long before there was an official confession, there were the confidants: friends and relatives who heard a disturbing story about killing a child from the man now on trial in the disappearance of Etan Patz.
Most didn’t tell authorities until police approached them decades later. And, during testimony last week, they’ve had to explain why.
There was the neighbor whom Pedro Hernandez told in the 1980s about strangling an unnamed boy in 1979, the ex-wife who says Hernandez not only made a similar admission but kept a piece of the missing-child poster, and the prayer circle where he broke down in tears and confessed.
Prosecutors see their testimony as evidence bolstering Hernandez’s own 2012 confession to authorities in one of the nation’s most prominent missing-child cases. His defense says all his admissions were false.
Hernandez’s confidants gave varied reasons for not alerting authorities: They didn’t take him seriously; they didn’t feel they had enough information to act. Psychology experts also point to the well-known bystander effect, in which witnesses don’t intervene in crimes or emergencies, particularly when they’re in a crowd.
“From a social psychological perspective, it makes perfect sense why people might not have gone to the police,” says Daniel M. Day, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.
Mark Pike, Hernandez’s former neighbor in Camden, N.J., testified that, during a 1980 front-porch chat, Hernandez described how a boy in New York threw a ball at him, and “he lost it” and killed the child.
“I just said, ‘Why?’” Pike recalled. Hernandez gave no answer, he said.
Hernandez became a suspect only after his brother-in-law Jose Lopez told police in 2012 that Hernandez had confessed years earlier to killing a child in New York. Then Hernandez confessed to authorities.
Ambiguity initially stopped Lopez from going to police, he said, because he didn’t have enough information and had heard about Hernandez’s statements only secondhand.
But the story stuck with him. And after getting internet access and finding out about Etan’s case in 2000, he tried calling missing-children’s advocates twice, but no one took him seriously, he testified.
Finally, after seeing a new round of news reports about Etan’s case in spring 2012, he decided to try once more. He called the New York Police Department, thinking “maybe someone would listen to me.”
And he was right.