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Suspect awaits arraignment in '79 Etan Patz case

By Larry Neumeister

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 25 2012 1:16 p.m. MDT

New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly speaks during a news conference Thursday, May 24, 2012, in New York. Pedro Hernandez has implicated himself in the death of 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose disappearance 33 years ago on his way to school helped launch a missing children's movement that put kids' faces on milk cartons.

Frank Franklin II, Associated Press

NEW YORK — The man accused of murdering 6-year-old Etan Patz underwent a psychological examination as he awaited arraignment Friday, exactly 33 years after the boy vanished without a trace in one of New York City's most traumatic missing-child cases.

After decades of dead-end leads and false hopes among investigators, Pedro Hernandez, a former convenience-store stock clerk, was arrested Thursday in the 1979 slaying.

Etan disappeared on a two-block walk to his school bus stop in Manhattan in a case that helped give rise to the national movement to publicize and find missing and abducted children. The boy was one of the first missing children to appear on a milk carton.

Hernandez, who was 18 at the time, told investigators this week that he lured the little boy into the shop with the promise of a soda, then led him to the basement, choked him to death and put his body in a bag with some trash about a block away. Authorities never found a body.

Hernandez, now 51 and living in Maple Shade, N.J., was scheduled to appear in court for the first time later Friday — a date now recognized as National Missing Children's Day.

The first court proceedings were set to unfold even as investigators were still working to corroborate what they said was an emotional, surprise confession by Hernandez, who emerged as a suspect in the decades-old case just days ago.

Police said Hernandez was taken to a secure wing at Bellevue Hospital early Friday to get medication for an existing health problem. While he was there, psychologists questioned him about his mental state, then cleared him to return to a regular holding area.

Police would not disclose the existing condition.

His court-appointed lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, had no comment as he arrived at the courthouse, saying he hadn't met with his client yet.

He asked reporters to be respectful of some of Hernandez's relatives assembled at the courthouse, including his wife, daughter and another man, who huddled together on a wooden bench, turning away interview requests for more than an hour.

"It's a tough day. The family is upset. Please give them some space," Fishbein said.

Crime-scene investigators arrived Friday morning at the building in Manhattan's fashionable SoHo section that once held the bodega where Hernandez worked.

People who lived in the neighborhood in the late 1970s described the place as a neighborhood institution, and one of the few places to buy groceries in a part of the city that was then grimy, industrial and only just emerging as a haven for artists.

Former Soho resident Roberto Monticello, a filmmaker who was a teenager when Patz disappeared, said he remembered Hernandez as civil but reserved and "pent-up."

"You always got the sense that if you crossed him really bad, he would hurt you," Monticello said, although he added that he never saw him hit anyone.

Monticello said Hernandez was also one of the few teenagers in the neighborhood who didn't join in the all-out search for Etan, which consumed SoHo and the city for months.

"He was always around, but he never helped. He never participated," Monticello said.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Friday that investigators had yet to determine any motive for the slaying, but authorities said they have a detailed, signed confession, as well as accounts of incriminating remarks Hernandez made to others.

Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979, after his parents, Stan and Julie Patz, allowed him to walk to his school bus stop for the first time. The stop was adjacent to the bodega. The boy never made it onto the bus.

Hernandez wasn't initially questioned like other workers at the bodega and moved to New Jersey not long after the killing, Kelly said.

But the commissioner said Hernandez had told a relative and others, as far back as 1981, that he had "done something bad" and killed a child in New York City.

He emerged as a suspect after a tipster contacted police, following news reports about a fruitless search for the boy's remains last month in a basement near the Patz home.

Associated Press reporter Julie Walker contributed to this report.

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