- Associated Press - Thursday, May 24, 2012

NEW YORK — In a break in one of the nation’s most baffling missing-children cases, former convenience-store employee Pedro Hernandez has told police that he suffocated 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 and left the boy’s body in a box in an alley, law enforcement officials said Thursday.

The focus on Hernandez came after other leads arose and stalled, at one point taking investigators as far as Israel tracking reported sightings of the boy.

For most of the past decade, the investigation focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester now in prison in Pennsylvania. He had been dating Etan’s baby sitter. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos’ former basement in lower Manhattan, but nothing turned up.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced in 2010 that his office was renewing the investigation into the case. A few weeks ago, investigators excavated another basement, down the street from the Patz apartment. The search found no human remains.


Investigators questioned a 75-year-old handyman who had a workspace in the cellar in 1979. But he was not named as a suspect and denied any involvement in the boy’s disappearance.

Hernandez, who moved to New Jersey shortly after the boy vanished, was picked up there late Wednesday and was questioned Thursday at the Manhattan district attorney’s office.

He had been tied to the case in the past, and investigators recently received a phone call with a new tip, according to the law enforcement official. The official gave no details on the tip.

Neighbors in Maple Shade, N.J., said Hernandez lived with his wife and a daughter who attends college.

Sandy-haired Etan vanished while walking alone to his bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York’s busy SoHo neighborhood, which was a working-class part of the city back then but is now a chic area of boutiques and galleries.

Police conducted an exhaustive search. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed and hundreds of people interviewed about a disappearance that ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.

Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment.

They did not return a call for comment Thursday.