NEW YORK — Thirty-five years after a 6-year-old boy disappeared in Manhattan, ushering in an era of protectiveness for America's children, trial began Friday for a mentally ill man with a low IQ who confessed to his murder and kidnapping.
Etan Patz (AY'-tahn PAYTS') was a "tiny man with a big heart" whose life was snuffed out by a worker in the corner candy store on the first day he was allowed to walk alone to catch his bus to school, a prosecutor said.
"You will see and hear his chilling confession," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors. "What you will see is someone who very keenly controls the information that he puts out."
The defense of Pedro Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, depends on convincing jurors his confession was false.
"He has visions. He hears voices," defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said. "He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not."
Etan was last seen alive walking to the bus stop in 1979. His body has never been found, and memories can falter with the passage of time. But the prosecutor told jurors that Hernandez, a teenager at the time of the crime, implicated himself long before police questioned him:
— Hernandez's brother-in-law Jose Lopez learned that Hernandez, without naming the boy, had told his prayer group in the 1980s that he had killed a child.
— Hernandez told one of those religious acquaintances that he had sexually abused a boy before killing him.
— Hernandez's ex-wife, years ago, said she found a cut-out photo of Etan in a little box where the man stored keepsakes; When she questioned him about it, he got angry at her for going through his things.
Lopez tried to alert authorities for years, the prosecutor said, calling America's Most Wanted, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the NYPD's missing-persons squad. No one got back to him until 2012, when he called again after seeing news of a failed effort to dig for clues in a store basement in the neighborhood.
Etan's disappearance prompted changes in how police and parents think of missing children. His face became one of the first to appear on milk cartons. His parents advocated for legislation that created a nationwide law-enforcement framework to address such cases. The day of his disappearance is now National Missing Children's Day.
But as the seven-man, five-woman jury was chosen from a pool of about 700 people, some of the prospects wondered if memories can be reliable after so many years.
The prosecutor seemed to acknowledge this by evoking a scene from "a Stone Age where the internet didn't exist," and where even in New York City, children "played outside until their mothers called them home at dinner time."
"A time when hippies, not hipsters, graced the streets of downtown Manhattan. This is the moment we're about to step back into, and into a crime that changed the face of this city forever, a cautionary tale and a defining moment, a loss of innocence," Illuzzi-Orbon said.
The corner where Hernandez worked was a magnet for local children, who considered it a treasure chest for buying candy and soda, with friendly employees who would let them wait there for the school bus on rainy days, she said.
"It's ironic and particularly tragic that this was the place that turned out to be the most dangerous for a child . for it was at this bodega that Etan met his murderer, Pedro Hernandez," she said.
In videos of the hours-long confessions, Hernandez says he offered Etan a soda to entice him into the basement, and then choked him and dumped him, still alive, into a box with some curbside trash.
"Something just took over me, and I was just choking him," Hernandez told investigators. "He just kind of stood there, and I just felt bad, what I did."
Fishbein said this confession was dreamed up after hours of police questioning, by a man with a history of hallucinations. He also questioned how Hernandez could carry a box with a 50-pound body up stairs and over a block and a half to the garbage container. "It's filled with impossibilities and improbabilities," Fishbein said
Everyone wants the case to be resolved, but "resolution only comes if you demand proof beyond a reasonable doubt, keeping the burden of proof where it is," Fishbein said. "There will be no resolution for anyone if the wrong person is convicted in this case."
Hernandez's lawyers also plan to point to longtime suspect Jose Ramos, a Pennsylvania prisoner who dated a woman who sometimes cared for Etan. Ramos denied killing Etan, but authorities said he made incriminating statements when questioned in the 1980s, and a civil court found him liable for Etan's death in 2004 after he stopped cooperating.
Etan's father, Stan Patz, watched quietly from the courtroom. Ethan's mother, Julie Patz, couldn't bear attending, but is expected to testify. The judge is state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley, and the trial is expected to last up to three months.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @jennpeltz.