NEW YORK — Pedro Hernandez, a former store clerk who told police that he murdered the 6-year-old Etan Patz as the boy headed to school in 1979, was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison Tuesday, bringing to a close a missing-child case that bedeviled investigators for decades and forever changed the way American parents protected their children.
It took two trials, both of which lasted five months, for prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s office to persuade a jury to convict Hernandez of kidnapping and murder. His first trial ended two years ago in a hung jury after one juror held out for acquittal.
The case against Hernandez, 56, turned almost entirely on videotaped confessions he made to police and a prosecutor, statements that his lawyers argued were fictions invented by a mentally ill man of diminished intellectual capacity who was under intense pressure from detectives. Etan’s body has never been found and no scientific evidence linked Hernandez to the crime.
But in February the jury ultimately found Hernandez’s statements compelling and determined that his account meshed with the facts surrounding Etan’s disappearance.
Etan vanished on May 25, 1979, while walking to a school bus stop near his parent’s loft in SoHo. It was the first time Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, had allowed the first-grader to go to the bus stop on his own. He was carrying a tote bag full of Matchbox cars and a dollar to buy a drink. He never made it to school.
The case sent a wave of fear through the city and reverberated with parents across the country who had to rethink where or whether to let their children venture out alone. New Yorkers from that era still remember the search: police helicopters hovering over lower Manhattan, volunteers shouting Etan’s name in the street, the ubiquitous posters with an image of the sandy-haired boy.
As the years dragged on without an arrest, the Patz family worked with parents of other missing children in the United States to raise awareness about child abductions. (Etan was one of the first missing children to be pictured on a milk carton.)
Their efforts led to changes in the way law-enforcement authorities track such cases. The date of his disappearance, May 25, was designated by President Ronald Reagan as National Missing Children’s Day, and his case helped prompt the creation, in 1984, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Hernandez’s conviction was a major victory for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who reopened the long-dormant case in 2010 at the request of the Patz family, a decision that created a wave of publicity that eventually led to Hernandez’s arrest. Vance also chose to prosecute Hernandez a second time after the mistrial.
“Etan was never forgotten,” Vance said Tuesday in an interview before Hernandez’s sentencing. “We refused to let him disappear into history because we were committed to taking another hard look at this case, and that hard look paid off.”
For nearly two decades, the prime suspect had been Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile who in 1979 dated a woman who worked for the Patz family.
In 1988, Ramos told a federal prosecutor that on the day Etan disappeared, he had encountered a little boy he thought was Etan in Washington Square Park. He said he had taken the boy to his apartment, molested him and then left him at a subway station.
But Ramos never confessed to murdering Etan and later retracted his statement. Prosecutors in Manhattan re-examined the evidence against Ramos, but found it was too flimsy to bring charges, even though the Patz family won a wrongful-death suit they filed against him.
Hernandez, a disabled factory worker living in a small New Jersey town near Philadelphia, did not become a suspect until May 2012, when his brother-in-law called police to share his suspicion that he could be responsible. The brother-in-law had seen news reports that police were digging up a basement in SoHo as part of the renewed investigation, searching for Etan’s body.
In 1979, Hernandez was a high-school dropout working as a clerk in the bodega at West Broadway and Prince Street, near Etan’s bus stop.
After a long day of interrogation in May 2012, he told detectives in a videotaped interview that he had met Etan outside the bodega and lured him into the basement with the promise of soda. There, he said, he choked the boy. He later repeated the story to a prosecutor during a longer interview, which was also recorded.
“I just couldn’t let go,” Hernandez said in one interview. “I felt like something just took over me.”
Hernandez said he put Etan inside a plastic bag and then inside a box and left him a block away in an alleyway with some trash. He claimed the child was still alive when he abandoned him. He also denied that he had sexually abused Etan.
Hernandez’s lawyers, Harvey Fishbein and Alice L. Fontier, presented evidence that he had a low IQ as well as schizotypal personality disorder, which caused him to mingle fact and fiction. His daughter testified that he sometimes hallucinated about demons and an angelic woman dressed in white.
Fishbein told the jury that Hernandez’s weak personality cracked under questioning from the detectives: He convinced himself he was guilty.
The prosecution team, Joan Illuzzi, Joel J. Seidemann and James Vinocur, introduced witnesses who said that Hernandez had made a similar confession to people at a prayer retreat shortly after Etan disappeared. In addition, his former wife and a childhood friend testified that Hernandez had told them in the early 1980s that he had killed a boy in New York City, though he gave different details.
In the end, the jurors accepted Hernandez’s words as credible. One juror said Hernandez might have a personality disorder, but none of the experts who testified had convinced the juror that the disorder could make a person confess to something he had invented.
“We think he could tell right from wrong,” the juror, Michael Castellon, said. “He could tell fantasy from reality.”