It is a slaying without a body, a crime without physical evidence, and an abduction without eyewitnesses, even though it occurred in broad daylight in Manhattan.
But it was a different city and a different world in 1979, when 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared. It was a world that Etan’s mother, Julie Patz, described in vivid detail Monday as she testified in the murder trial of Pedro Hernandez, whose confession is the best bet prosecutors have as they try to close a case that sparked a national movement to improve tracking of missing children.
In today’s world, where true-crime TV shows like “Forensic Files” prove that decades-old crimes can be cracked with a drop of blood, a speck of saliva or a single hair, Etan’s case remains an anomaly. He said goodbye to his mother about 7:50 a.m. on May 25, 1979, walked up the street toward the bus stop in their SoHo neighborhood and was never seen again.
“There was nothing there. Almost nothing there in terms of residential facilities,” Julie Patz said as she described SoHo in the late 1970s as a largely industrial zone whose residents rented vast warehouse lofts on the cheap. Some people had no electricity. Neighbors would have “flushing parties” to celebrate when a resident got modern plumbing. There were no streetlights and so little traffic that you could barbecue in the middle of the street.
“It was definitely pioneer,” Patz said nostalgically of the former artists’ colony that today is one of the city’s most expensive and crowded tourist destinations and shopping areas.
Patz, a tiny woman with a gray ponytail, was upbeat and made occasional jokes as she recalled Etan’s friendly demeanor and yearning to be treated like a grown-up. But she wept while describing how a few minutes one particularly hectic morning had changed things forever. On that day, the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend, Patz was juggling more than usual at home, where she ran a day-care center for neighborhood kids.
Etan’s 8-year-old sister was dawdling, and the 2-year-old child of a family friend had spent the night, adding to the morning ruckus. So when Etan pressed his mother to let him walk alone to the school bus stop, she relented.
“I capitulated and said OK, you can walk to the school bus,” she testified, describing how she accompanied Etan downstairs to the sidewalk and watched him head up the street. He clutched a dollar in one hand and planned to stop at a corner bodega to buy a treat before getting on the bus.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., when Etan had not returned home, Patz called the home of Chelsea Christina Altman, who lived across the street and was Etan’s closest friend. Chelsea had saved a seat on the bus for Etan, but he never boarded and he was not in school, she told Patz.
Prosecutors say Hernandez, then an 18-year-old bodega employee, lured Etan down the 14 steps into the basement with promises of a soda and strangled him. They say Hernandez then put the 40-inch-tall, 50-pound boy into a box and left it in an alley in the desolate neighborhood for trash collectors.
Police were led to Hernandez in spring 2012 after relatives and friends of the defendant came forward to say they recalled him confessing decades earlier to having killed a boy in New York City. Hernandez, who left his job at the grocery shortly after Etan disappeared, confessed to killing him and disposing of his body, but defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said the confession was coerced during several hours of interrogation.
Fishbein has also said Hernandez suffers from a mental disorder that makes it difficult for him to distinguish reality from fiction, and is not intelligent enough to have committed a crime and kept it secret so many years.
“He’s inconsistent and he’s unreliable, yet he’s the only witness against himself,” Fishbein said of Hernandez during opening statements last week.
Hernandez, who wore a button-down shirt, tie and trousers in court, sat silently and stared straight ahead throughout Monday’s testimony. He did not appear to be moved by testimony of the witnesses or by the photographs of Etan displayed on a large screen for jurors.
Neither Patz nor Chelsea Altman, now 42, remembered Hernandez from the grocery store, a tiny, cramped shop with a “No Dogs” sign on the glass door and goods piled high against the windows. Both said that because of the store’s proximity to the school bus stop, it was a regular stopover for neighborhood kids looking to buy candy or soda.
It also was considered a safe place for them to wait out bad weather or to run to if they needed help.
“I loved the bodega,” Altman said. “Everyone was friendly there.”
After Etan’s disappearance, though, Patz said she noticed a change in the man prosecutors said owned the bodega. The man, Juan, was Hernandez’s brother-in-law. Patz said he no longer greeted her on the street and seemed to avert his eyes.
But she said that many people’s attitudes had changed.
“Our friends and neighbors didn’t know how to respond to us,” said Patz, who with her husband, Stanley, became active in efforts to improve the national response to finding missing children. The effort led to the placing of missing children’s pictures, including Etan’s, on milk cartons and to the designation of May 25 as National Missing Children’s Day.
Etan’s disappearance ended the day-care center that Patz had operated out of her home, and for weeks she said the loft that was usually filled with children playing and doing crafts turned into “police headquarters.”
Altman testified that she visited the Patz family in the days after Etan disappeared and found a different place than the fun-filled haven of toys and games she had known.
“The house was in a state of grief,” Altman said.