- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - The 1979 disappearance of Etan Patz helped catalyze a national missing-children’s movement. Six-year-old Etan was one of the first vanished children whose case was publicized in what became a high-profile way: on milk cartons. His disappearance also helped usher in an age of parental anxiety. Opening statements were made Friday in the murder and kidnapping trial of Pedro Hernandez, who confessed in 2012 but says his admissions were false.

Here’s a brief explanation of Etan’s disappearance and the ensuing murder case:

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A YOUNG BOY VANISHES, AND A MOVEMENT BEGINS

Etan Patz was walking to his Manhattan school bus stop alone for the first time on May 25, 1979, when he disappeared, igniting an exhaustive search and helping to make missing children a national cause in the United States. The anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day. His parents helped press for new laws that established a national hotline and made it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about missing children. The movement grew after the kidnapping and killing of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in 1981 in Florida. Frightened parents soon stopped letting children walk alone to school and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.

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AN INVESTIGATION SPANS CONTINENTS AND DECADES

Etan’s body has never been found, but his family had him legally declared dead in 2001. The investigation stretched across decades and at one point reached Israel. Police got a tip in 2012 and arrested Pedro Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, New Jersey. He worked at a convenience store in Etan’s neighborhood but had never been a suspect. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty. In his recorded confessions, Hernandez tranquilly recounts offering soda to entice Etan into the convenience store basement and choking him. He says he put the still-living boy into a plastic bag and left it on a street.

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A LONG-AWAITED DAY IN COURT

Prosecutors’ case centers on Hernandez’s confessions, plus statements authorities say he made to people in the 1980s about having harmed a child in New York. The prosecution team hasn’t alluded to any physical evidence against Hernandez. Hernandez’s defense maintains his confessions are the false imaginings of a man with mental illness and a very low IQ. Prosecutors call the confessions credible. Hernandez has taken anti-psychotic medication for years and has been diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder, which includes the characteristics of social isolation and odd beliefs.

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THE DEFENSE POINTS TO ANOTHER SUSPECT

The defense also wants jurors to consider longtime suspect Jose Ramos, a convicted Pennsylvania child molester. A civil court declared Ramos responsible for Etan’s death after he rebuffed questioning, but he was never criminally charged and has denied involvement. Ramos has refused to testify at Hernandez’s trial, but some evidence about the investigation into Ramos will be allowed.

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