(NEW YORK) — The former store clerk who confessed to the 1979 killing of Etan Patz was formally charged Friday with second degree murder of the little boy exactly 33 years to the day after he disappeared while on his way to school.
Pedro Hernandez, who despite a more than three decades-long investigation was never the target of police until this week, was arrested Wednesday at his home in New Jersey and promptly confessed to kidnapping and killing Patz.
New York City police hailed his arrest Thursday night, perhaps closing a case that has haunted New York for three decades. At 5:30 a.m. Friday morning, Hernandez was taken under guard to Bellevue Hospital where he was placed on suicide watch.
In a terse criminal complaint filed against Hernandez, prosecutors charge him with strangling Patz and placing him in a plastic bag, “thereby causing his death.”
Hernandez, 51, has been in police custody since Wednesday and may not have been taking his prescribed medication and appeared suicidal before he was taken to the hospital, criminal justice sources said.
Hernandez’s arraignment coincides with the May 25 anniversary of Patz’s disappearance and National Missing Persons Day, a holiday that spotlights missing children chosen in honor of Patz.
The search for Patz was one of the largest, longest-lasting and most heart-wrenching hunts for a missing child in the country’s recent history. His photo was among the first of a missing child to appear on a milk carton.
Hernandez confessed to police that as a 19-year-old bodega stock clerk he lured the boy into his shop’s basement with the promise of a soda. There, Hernandez told police, he strangled Patz and stuffed his body in a plastic bag that was thrown into trash elsewhere in the neighborhood. The body was never found.
Hernandez had admitted to family members and friends as early as 1981 that he “done a bad thing and killed a child in New York.”
Investigators reopened the long-dormant case in 2010 an in April excavated a basement apartment steps away from Patz’s home and the bodega where Hernandez says he killed the boy.
The new focus on the case led one of Hernadez’s family members or a friend to alert police that they suspected Hernandez’s involvement.
When confronted, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said Hernandez quickly confessed, even expressing “remorse” and “relief.”
Hernandez was taken into custody at his home in Maple Shade, N.J., on Wednesday morning where he lives with his wife and daughter. The apartment is rented by his wife, Rosemary Hernandez, who let her husband move in after he told her that he was dying of cancer.
“We never had a problem with him,” Hernandez’s brother-in-law, Jose Lopez, told KYW, a CBS station in Philadelphia. “There was never a problem. He was a normal person. Never gave any sign that he did something like that.”
Police have named other suspects in the past, but none had ever been arrested or charged.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire