For decades, the father of Etan Patz believed he knew who killed his six-year-old son on the way to school in 1979, and it wasn’t the man whose trial he just endured.
But after hearing every word of nearly three months of testimony, Stan Patz is sure that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed Etan — even if the jury wasn’t.
“The family of Etan Patz has waited 36 years for an explanation as to what happened to our sweet little boy,” his father said after a hung jury spurred a mistrial Friday. After hearing prosecutors’ case against the former corner-store clerk who gave what his defense called a false confession in 2012, Patz said, “I’m convinced. … It makes sense, from beginning to end.”
As the trial ended unresolved, even Patz’s new certainty marked another twist in his family’s painful trajectory in trying to get answers and justice.
The investigation stretched across decades and continents. For years, Patz and many others blamed Jose Ramos, a convicted criminal associated with a woman who sometimes walked Etan home from school. Patz was so sure of this that he mailed a copy of Etan’s missing-child poster to Ramos in prison each year, asking: “What did you do to my little boy?”
Prosecutors have asked the judge to set a new court date next month but haven’t said whether they will again try the case, which made Etan’s face one of the first missing-children appeals to appear on milk cartons.
After Ramos emerged as a suspect in the 1980s and told federal authorities about interacting with a child he was all but sure was Etan on the day he vanished, Stan Patz plunged into efforts to hold Ramos accountable. Ramos has denied involvement in Etan’s death.
Patz filed a suit that led to a finding that Ramos was responsible, by default, after he stopped cooperating with questioning. Manhattan prosecutors concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Ramos criminally, but current DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. pledged to re-examine the case after meeting with Patz while campaigning in 2009.
Then a 2012 tip led to Hernandez, 54, of New Jersey, who had worked at a shop near Etan’s school bus stop. Police learned that he’d told people years before on three separate occasions that he’d killed a child in New York. Then he confessed to police he’d choked Etan and left his body — never found — in a box in an alley.
Patz said he asked Vance early on to persuade him that he had a better case against Hernandez than Ramos. Vance assured him he’d be convinced by the trial, Patz said.
And he was, although considerable evidence about authorities’ investigation into Ramos also was aired in the courtroom.
“It became apparent that all we had was suspicion. We had no facts,” Patz said.
Meanwhile, Patz said he found Hernandez’ confessions chillingly powerful. And he viewed the defense’s false-confession argument — which centered on mental illness and a very low IQ — as “psychobabble.”
“He is a guilty man who has been conscience-stricken, due to his deeds, and haunted by demons ever since that day,” he said.
Eleven jurors ultimately felt as Patz did, voting to convict Hernandez. The lone dissenter said he felt Hernandez’ mental health was a major factor and the evidence too circumstantial.
Stan Patz isn’t shaken by the fact that the jury didn’t see it as he did.
Jurors deliberated for 18 days, he noted, but “I’ve had 35 years to think about this.