Thirty-five years after the disappearance of a 6-year-old boy in Manhattan ushered in an era of protectiveness for America's children, trial began Friday for a mentally ill man with a low IQ who confessed to his murder and kidnapping.
Etan Patz was a "tiny man with a big heart" whose life was snuffed out by a worker in the corner candy store on the first day he was allowed to walk alone to catch his bus to school, a prosecutor said.
"You will see and hear his chilling confession," Manhattan Assistant Dist. Atty. Joan Illuzzi-Orbon told jurors. "What you will see is someone who very keenly controls the information that he puts out."
The defense of Pedro Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, N.J., depends on convincing jurors his confession was false.
"He has visions. He hears voices," defense lawyer Harvey Fishbein said. "He cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not."
Etan was last seen walking to the bus stop in 1979. His body has never been found, and memories can falter with the passage of time. But the prosecutor told jurors that Hernandez, a teenager at the time of the crime, implicated himself long before police questioned him:
— Hernandez, without naming the boy, had told friends, relatives and his prayer group in the 1980s that he had killed a child.
— Hernandez told one of those religious acquaintances that he had sexually abused a boy before killing him.
— Hernandez's ex-wife, years ago, said she found a cut-out photo of Etan in a little box where the man stored keepsakes.
Hernandez's brother-in-law Jose Lopez tried to alert authorities for years, the prosecutor said, calling "America's Most Wanted," the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the NYPD's missing-persons squad.
No one got back to him until 2012, when he called again after seeing news of a failed effort to dig for clues in a neighborhood basement.
Etan's disappearance prompted changes in how police and parents think of missing children. His face became one of the first to appear on milk cartons. His parents advocated for legislation that created a nationwide law-enforcement framework to address such cases.
The day of his disappearance is now National Missing Children's Day.
The prosecutor seemed to acknowledge the difficulty of trying after so many years have elapsed by evoking a scene from "a Stone Age where the Internet didn't exist," and where even in New York City, children "played outside until their mothers called them home at dinnertime."
"This is the moment we're about to step back into, and into a crime that changed the face of this city forever, a cautionary tale and a defining moment, a loss of innocence," Illuzzi-Orbon said.
In videos of the hours-long confessions, Hernandez says he offered Etan a soda to entice him into the basement, and then choked him and dumped him, still alive, into a box with some curbside trash.
"Something just took over me, and I was just choking him," Hernandez told investigators. "He just kind of stood there, and I just felt bad, what I did."
Fishbein said this confession was dreamed up after hours of police questioning, by a man with a history of hallucinations and an IQ in the lowest 2% of the population.
He also questioned how Hernandez could carry a box with a 50-pound body up stairs and over a block and a half to the garbage pile.
"It's filled with impossibilities and improbabilities," Fishbein said; no DNA, fingerprint evidence or eyewitnesses connect Hernandez to Etan's disappearance — just his own words.
Etan's father, Stan Patz, watched quietly from the courtroom. Etan's mother, Julie Patz, did not attend but is expected to testify.