NEW YORK — Six-year-old Etan Patz was supposed to be right outside riding his Big Wheel, but his mom, Julie, didn't see him on the street. She raced down the block, frantic, panic rising. Then he rounded the corner, and relief flooded over her. She scolded him for giving her a fright.
It was the next day, May 25, 1979, that Etan would vanish.
He was on his way to school, a dollar in hand, headed first to the corner store before the bus stop. It was the first time the sandy-haired boy was allowed to walk the short trip alone.
Julie Patz testified Monday at the murder trial of former store clerk Pedro Hernandez, accused of killing her son. She said she walked Etan down the stairs of their Manhattan loft that day and told him not to dally after school.
"That was the last time I saw him. I watched him walk one block away," 72-year-old Patz said. "I turned around and went back upstairs, and that was the last time."
Etan's best friend at the time, Chelsea Altman, testified that she had saved him a seat on the bus, but he didn't get on.
Etan's disappearance captivated the nation, and it ushered in a new era of child protectiveness and a series of reforms that changed how law enforcement handles missing children. His body has never been found.
Hernandez was a teenage shop worker in 1979 when police jotted down his name among those of many people they met during their feverish search.
But it wasn't until 2012 that Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, emerged as a suspect. The apparent breakthrough in the case was based on a tip and a videotaped confession that prosecutors say was foreshadowed by remarks he made to friends and relatives in the 1980s.
On Monday, Julie Patz recounted her time living in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood when her children were little. It was a very different place from the swank stretch of boutiques and eateries constantly crammed with tourists. It was gritty. Industrial. Some buildings had no power, others had no plumbing. But the artists and other creative types banded together to form a collective, she said.
The corner store was a safe zone for neighborhood children, a place parents told their kids to go in case of emergency. The owner, a relative of the suspect, was well known. And Etan was trusting, his mother said.
"Totally nonjudgmental about people," she said. "Everyone that he met once was his friend and was a nice person."
But while Etan craved independence and was eager to become a grown-up, Patz said, "at the same time, he was very fearful of being lost or left alone by himself."
Patz, practiced at telling her story to lawmakers, talk-show hosts and other families of missing children, was conversational and composed, but she cried when talking about how she felt in the hours after she learned Etan hadn't been at school.
"I don't remember a thing about that night and the next day, quite honestly," she said. She recalls only having "very rubbery legs," an upset stomach and difficulty walking, thinking and talking.
His defense hinges on convincing jurors that the confession is false, along with suggesting that the real killer may be a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was a prime suspect for years.
Etan became one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons. His parents helped advocate for legislation that created a nationwide law enforcement framework to address such cases, and the anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children's Day.
The trial is expected to last up to three months.
Associated Press writer Kiley Armstrong contributed to this report.