NEW YORK — Thirty-three years to the day after 6-year-old Etan Patz vanished without a trace while walking to catch a school bus, a man accused of strangling him and dumping his body with the trash was arraigned on a murder charge on Friday in a locked hospital ward where he was being held as a suicide risk.
A lawyer for Pedro Hernandez, who was a teenage convenience store stock clerk at the time of the boy’s disappearance, told the judge that his client is mentally ill and has a history of hallucinations.
Hernandez, now 51, appeared in court on Friday evening via video camera from a conference room at Bellevue Hospital, where he was admitted earlier in the day after making comments about wanting to kill himself.
The legal proceeding lasted only around 4 minutes. Hernandez didn’t speak or enter a plea, but his court-appointed lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, told the judge that his client was bipolar and schizophrenic and has a “history of hallucinations, both visual and auditory.”
A judge ordered Hernandez held without bail and authorized a psychological examination to see if he is fit to stand trial.
Hernandez was expressionless during the hearing. He wore an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. A police officer stood behind him.
The prosecutor who appeared in court, Assistant District Attorney Armand Durastanti, said it was “33 years ago today that 6-year-old Etan Patz left his home on Prince Street to catch his school bus. He has not been seen or heard from since. It’s been 33 years, and justice has not been done in this case.”
Hernandez, a churchgoing father now living in Maple Shade, N.J., was arrested Thursday after making a surprise confession in a case that has bedeviled investigators and inspired dread in generations of New York City parents for three decades.
Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979, on his two-block walk to his bus stop in Manhattan. It was the first time his parents had let him walk the route by himself.
Next to the bus stop was a convenience store, where Hernandez, then 18, worked as a clerk. When police, acting on a tip, interviewed him this week, he said he lured Etan into the basement with a promise of a soda, choked him to death, then stuffed his body in a bag and left it with trash on the street a block away, police said.
Etan’s remains were never found, even after a massive search and a media campaign that made parents afraid to let their children out of their sight and sparked a movement to publicize the cases of missing youngsters. Etan was one of the first missing children to be pictured on a milk carton.
Hernandez’s confession put investigators in the unusual position of bringing the case to court before they had amassed any physical evidence or had time to fully corroborate his story or investigate his psychiatric condition.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said investigators were retracing garbage truck routes from the late 1970s and deciding whether to search landfills for the boy’s remains, a daunting prospect.
Crime scene investigators also arrived Friday morning at the building in Manhattan’s SoHo section that once held the bodega where Hernandez worked. Authorities were considering excavating the basement for evidence.
They were also looking into whether Hernandez has a history of mental illness or pedophilia.