After 35 Years, the Etan Patz Case Opens in Court

Journalists line the corridor as people exit the courtroom for lunch break in New York on January 30,2015. (Swati Gupta/NYCity Lens)

Horrifying, tragic, painful, and shocking—these were just some of the words that Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon used to describe the kidnapping and murder of Etan Patz, the six year old who was kidnapped and murdered on the morning of May 25, 1979 in lower Manhattan. After almost 35 years, the man who allegedly snuffed out the little boy’s life is on trial in New York Criminal Court.

Opening arguments began in the historic case on Friday, after the jury selection, which took almost three weeks. The defendant, Pedro Hernandez, is charged with murder in the second degree. Illuzzi-Orbon began with a description of Soho in the 70’s: “A time when hippies, not hipsters, graced the streets of Lower Manhattan,” she said. She drew a visual picture of the life that the Patz family had, and how it was horribly and irrevocably changed that day.

On a cloudy and rainy Friday, Patz, for the first time, was allowed to walk to the school bus stop by himself. Usually accompanied by his mother or elder sister, this was a big moment for the little boy. “A very tiny big man,” as described by Illuzzi-Orbon, walked out of his home at 7:50 a.m. to catch the school bus. He never returned.

According to Illuzzi-Orbon, Patz had earned a dollar all by himself the day before and he was doubly excited on the fateful morning as he planned to buy a soda at the adjacent bodega before he boarded the school bus. Wearing a jacket to protect him from the cold and carrying a small blue tote bag with elephants drawn it, Patz headed to the bodega. Hernandez at the time was working at the bodega and used to help the owner by carrying out cases of soda, beer, and other supplies from the basement to the shop.

That afternoon, at 3:30 p.m., Julie waited for her son to walk in at any time. After ten minutes, she began to worry and started making calls. Patz had never reached school, and within the next few hours, the NYPD had launched one of the biggest investigations in a missing child’s case in New York to date. According to the prosecution, within a few weeks of the incident, Hernandez moved to New Jersey. Soon after he joined a religious retreat, where he told the members that he had killed a child by stabbing him with a stick. None of the retreat members reported the shocking confession to police, she said.

Almost 33 years after the incident, the missing persons unit of the NYPD received a tip from Jose Lopez, Hernandez’s brother in law. Years ago, Lopez was allegedly told by a distressed and guilt-ridden Hernandez that he had killed a boy in New York. Over the years, Lopez said he had tried to reach out to the police despite family pressure but said he never received a response to his calls. After the NYPD reopened the investigation in 2012, Lopez saw the news on his television in New Jersey. He immediately called the police. “I’ll try one more time,” he said, according to Illuzzi-Orbon.

One month after the tip, NYPD detectives headed to New Jersey where Hernandez was living and detained him for questioning. During the interrogation, the 54-year-old Hernandez confessed to killing Patz. He explained in detail and later helped to recreate the scene, according to the authorities. He lured Patz into the basement with the promise of giving him a soda. He described choking the boy and said that  “something took over me” and he couldn’t stop, he said in the videotaped confession.

The initial interrogation took place at the prosecutor’s office in Camden County. Hernandez confessed that he got a 40-gallon bag and put the body in it. He then shoved the bag into a box and carried it across the street.

Defense Attorney Harvey Fishbein opened his statements by praising the exemplary work done by the NYPD at that time. “It is so good to see the pieces of the puzzle come together. We have been waiting for this trial for two and a half years,” he said.

Fishbein said he intends to prove that Hernandez—who has an IQ of just 70 and suffers from a type of schizophrenia—is an unreliable witness. “He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not real. His IQ places him in the lower two percent of the population. He is inconsistent and unreliable and yet he is the only witness against himself.”

The inconsistencies that Fishbein referred to are the varying accounts of the witnesses to whom Hernandez has confessed over the years.

Another suspect over the years was Jose Ramos, the boyfriend of Etan’s nanny. The Patz family filed a civil case for wrongful death against Ramos and won after the NYPD could not find the evidence to charge him. Ramos is currently serving a 28-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for sexual assault. Fishbein described Ramos as a cunning and despicable man in court Friday.

Summing up the opening statements, Fishbein advised the jury to not make assumptions or skip over parts. “It is impossible to move on,” he said referring to the Patz family. “It is just a sad twist in a tragic saga. There will be no resolution for anyone if the wrong person is convicted,” he said.