On National Missing Children's Day, a breakthrough in Etan Patz abduction case
Etan Patz was abducted 33 years ago, a day that will ever-more be marked as National Missing Children's Day. But this year, the New York Police announced what could be a breakthrough in that unsolved, cold case. They had arrested a suspect, and he had confessed.
It was 33 years ago Friday that Etan Patz, the 6-year-old New York boy, disappeared from his neighborhood in New York City.
On Thursday, though, there was a break in what had been a very cold case. Pedro Hernandez, a former Manhattan store clerk who once lived in the same New York neighborhood as Etan, was arrested in connection with the boy’s murder
"We have a confession, a written confession, a signed confession," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "He spoke for 3.5 hours, videotaped statements. Obviously, we believe that this is probable cause to go forward with the arrest."
According to Hernandez's statements to police, he lured Etan into the bodega where he worked with promises of candy, took him down into the basement and then killed him and left his body out with the trash. Etan had wanted to walk to the bus stop alone and was headed there when he was abducted.
The Patz case, and his subsequent appearance on the side of milk cartons, really was the catalyst for discussing missing and abducted children in America. It's also what led President Ronald Reagan, in 1983, to declare May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day.
Lisa Cohen, journalist and author of “After Etan: The Missing Child Case that Held America Captive,” has followed the case practically since the beginning. Cohen said Hernandez's name has never been a top target of the investigation. That said, Etan had a dollar bill he'd earned the day before and told his mother he was going to stop at the bodega and get himself a soda.
"I have a lot of questions. I don't really understand what the motive was. There's been a lot of spculation about whether or not he's come forward in the past, that he told others about this, that he'd perhaps even told authorities about this," Cohen said. "I think it's very early in the game, to be able to parse out this revelation that, for me at least, came out of the blue."
Cohen says the very specific confluence of circumstances in the Patz case gave it the enormous power over public perception that it's had. First, she points out, stranger abductions are very rare in this country. Even more rare are abductions where the child is never found.
"This is a story that never ended. Must cases there's a body found, or the child returns home, or there's some kind of revolution," she said. "This was an open-ended story. And every few years, there would be some new revelation or some new development that would bring it back into the public eye."
The story was also particularly tragic, and relatable. A child taking his first walk alone to the bus stop. His parents were also very compelling and well-spoken and reached out repeatedly to the public for help.
"His father is a professional photographers and his pictures (of Etan) were so beautiful," Cohen said. "This was a little, white, blonde-haired boy with blue eyes. He sort of represented every child."
The long-term legacy of the Patz abduction, Cohen said, was really a loss of innocence among American children. They were no longer free to walk down the block alone.
It also made it much easier and for law enforcement to track missing children — and in a far more organized manner. So it's made the recovery rates much higher, she said.
"I don't know that the numbers (of abductions) have changed, and I don't know that kids are less or more safe these days," Cohen said.
There remain reasons to be cautious over whether Hernandez, his confession notwithstanding, is actually responsible for Etan's abduction. According to the New York Times, others have been implicated and even implicated themselves in the abduction previously, only to have the facts now check out.
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