Police say store clerk confessed to luring and killing 6-year-old in '79.
NEW YORK - Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced Thursday the arrest of a man in one the nation's most gripping missing-child cases: that of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who vanished off a Manhattan street in 1979 on his way to school.
The arrest of Pedro Hernandez -- who police said confessed to luring Etan to the basement of a bodega where he worked with the promise of a soda, and then choking him to death -- marked an extraordinary moment in a case that ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised. The announcement also came on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of Etan's disappearance.
Hernandez told police that after he killed Etan, he stuffed his body into a bag and put took the bag about a block and a half away where he left it out in the open amid trash, Kelly said. "It's unlikely, very unlikely" that Etan's remains would be recovered, Kelly said.
"He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part," Kelly said during a news conference. "We believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime."
Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was charged with second-degree murder. He was questioned by police for more than three hours Wednesday, and taken to the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., whose prosecutors are overseeing the inquiry by New York police detectives and agents from the FBI.
He gave police a signed confession, Kelly said. Asked what about his confession had led detectives to find him credible, Kelly said, "The fact that he had told this story to others in the past, and the specificity of what he said in the confession." Kelly said he did not know what the motive might have been.
Kelly said he expected the Vance to present Hernandez for arraignment on Friday. Under the law, prosecutors will have to bring Hernandez before a grand jury within six days of the arrest and present sufficient evidence to persuade them to vote for an indictment, or hold a preliminary hearing, an extremely rare occurrence.
And it was unclear what evidence, beyond Hernandez's confession, the prosecutors have in hand. Kelly acknowledged that there was no physical evidence implicating Hernandez, though he said the investigation was continuing.
Hernandez, then 18, had worked as a stock clerk at the store -- a popular neighborhood fixture -- for about a month and lived nearby. He wasn't questioned at the time, Kelly said, though others in the shop were. But Hernandez told relatives, as far back as 1981, that he had "done something bad" and killed an unnamed child in New York City, Kelly said.
After a search of a basement near Patz's home last month hurtled the case back into the news, a tipster pointed police to Hernandez. Kelly said the person said that Hernandez had said he had done a bad thing.
Hernandez left his job days after Etan disappeared and moved to New Jersey, where he had relatives, Kelly said. Neighbors said Hernandez lived with his wife and a daughter who attends college.
The news of the arrest was the latest chapter in a wrenching story that has tormented the city since Etan's disappearance 33 years ago in a far grittier neighborhood than today's SoHo, now lined with upscale boutiques and trendy restaurants.
The focus on Hernandez came after other leads arose and stalled, at one point taking investigators as far as Israel tracking reported sightings of the boy. The police have long focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who had been dating Etan's baby-sitter. Ramos remains imprisoned for molesting a boy in Pennsylvania but has denied killing Etan.
Vance said in 2010 that he would reopen the case, which focused national attention 30 years ago on the problem of missing children and began a new era marked by children's faces on milk cartons and made-for-television dramas about kidnapped children. President Ronald Reagan declared the day of Etan's disappearance as National Missing Children's Day.
Sandy-haired Etan vanished while walking alone to his bus stop just two blocks from his home; it was the first time that his parents had allowed him to go to the stop by himself.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, still live in the same apartment, reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. Lt. Christopher Zimmerman said he'd spoken to them. He said: "Mr. Patz was taken aback, a little surprised, and I would say overwhelmed to a degree."
The Associated Press and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.