NEW YORK — The daughter of a man on trial for murder in the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz testified Monday about her father's unusual behavior in an effort to show that he is mentally ill.
Becky Hernandez, 25, speaking publicly for the first time about the case against her father, Pedro Hernandez, said she wasn't allowed out with friends as a youngster unless she had a written invitation and two weeks' notice — and her father held her hand crossing the street until she was 14.
The defense is trying to show Pedro Hernandez's 2012 confession to choking the boy is a delusion.
Becky Hernandez said her father would clean their Maple Shade, New Jersey, home profusely and cook dinner starting at 2 a.m. — the same food every night: chicken, rice and beans. He was hours early for everything and would not allow her to be home alone.
He would sleep for hours during the day, rarely socialized and insisted on sitting in the same church pew every Sunday.
She also said he saw dark figures and a lady in white. She'd come home to find him talking to himself. But they didn't call the doctors.
"We knew he wasn't well, and we didn't want to hurt his feelings," she said. "You know how children sometimes believe in something? That's the type of response we had. My mom always taught me that what he sees and what he believes is not what we have to see."
Hernandez said stress over her father's case prevented her from getting a master's degree.
"I was studying and every single time I had to take a test there was something related to my dad," she said, choking up. "I couldn't concentrate."
She began crying when asked if she loved her father despite his behavior.
"He's protective because he loves me," she said. "...It's the little things that show that he cares. And that's why I love him."
The defendant had no visible reaction as his daughter testified, but he smiled as she walked by during a break. Earlier, he turned around to wave and smile at his wife, who was sitting in the benches.
Pedro Hernandez made a stunning confession in 2012 to choking Etan in the basement of a convenience store where he worked, after police questioned him on a tip. Over the years, he told a prayer circle, a neighbor and his ex-wife that he had harmed a child in New York. At least five people testified about what he said during the trial.
Etan vanished on his way to school on May 25, 1979. His disappearance helped galvanize the modern-day missing children's movement; his picture was one of the first to appear on a milk carton. Over the years, the case bounced around between detectives and units and from local police to federal agents and back.
There's been no physical evidence. During his confession, Hernandez told detectives that he tossed the boy's bag up onto a freezer in the basement of the convenience store.
"If the freezer is still there, the book bag should be there," Hernandez told detectives. But the shop was closed and cleared out in the early 1980s, its contents tossed, and it's not clear whether police were present at the time.
No body was ever found.