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After Murder Suspect’s Arrest, a Look at the Legacy of Etan Patz

May 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For three decades, the question hung over the New York City Police Department: What happened to Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who disappeared 33 years ago? This week, police arrested Pedro Hernandez, charging him with murdering Patz. Ray Suarez and guests discuss the case and its impact on how we now search for missing kids.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, an update on a missing child case that remains unsolved after more than 30 years. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: For three decades, the question hung over the New York City Police Department: What happened to Etan Patz? The 6-year-old boy disappeared as he walked two blocks to his school bus stop in Manhattan 33 years ago today.

The case set in motion a massive search effort and galvanized a movement. Etan Patz became one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons and billboards.

ERNIE ALLEN, CEO, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: Etan’s case was a case that changed America. Millions of parents sat at home and thought, there but for the grace of God goes my child.

RAY SUAREZ: His parents, Stan and Julie Patz, endured years of false leads, but clung to hope that Etan might still be alive.

STAN PATZ, father of Etan Patz: The thought in the backs of our minds was always that we should be here for him.

RAY SUAREZ: The couple never moved from their SoHo apartment or changed their phone number, in case their son ever tried to contact them.

Etan was finally declared legally dead in 2001. Then, in 2010, police reopened the case. Last month, pursuing a possible lead, they dug up the basement in an apartment building near the Patzes’ address. They found nothing, but the publicity prompted a new tip.

And last night, police arrested Pedro Hernandez, seen in these photos from “Inside Edition.”

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Hernandez was clerking in a convenience store, a bodega, in the Patzes’ neighborhood in 1979.

RAYMOND KELLY, New York City Police commissioner: He lured young Etan from the school bus stop at West Broadway and Prince Street with the promise of a soda. He then led him into the basement of the bodega, choked him there and disposed of the body by putting it into a plastic bag and placing it into the trash.

RAY SUAREZ: Authorities have no physical evidence, but Kelly said they got a signed, detailed confession from Hernandez, now 51 years old. He’d been living in southern New Jersey for years, since shortly after Etan Patz vanished.

Hernandez was held and examined overnight in New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

And late today, we learned that Hernandez was charged with one count of second-degree murder.

For more on the case and its impact on the way we search for missing children, we’re joined by Ernie Allen, president and CEO the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Lisa Cohen, author of the book “After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive.”

Lisa, over the last day, a New York City detectives said of Pedro Hernandez: “He’s lucid, he’s persuasive, but there’s not a lot of corroborating information.”

Have police given any indication how they could know Pedro Hernandez is telling the truth?

LISA COHEN, author, “After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive”: Well, they haven’t publicly talked about anything more than the fact that he is — he was emotional when he told the story, and the fact that he didn’t come forward, you know, some false — people who confess falsely, sometimes, they are looking for attention and they come forward.

He was actually brought to the attention of the authorities by a relative of — I believe it was a brother-in-law. And they questioned him, and, at that point, he confessed.

Having said that, no, I think that’s a huge question is what exactly we’re going to see to corroborate the fact that he killed Etan Patz. And it’s always a tough thing when a case is this old, and there is no body.

RAY SUAREZ: Had Hernandez ever been a suspect previously?

LISA COHEN: I believe that in the very first days of the investigation, when they were canvassing everyone in the neighborhood, he was — his name appeared on what they called a DD-5 — it’s a detective note– and along with two or three other people, in the sense that they were questioned, do — you see the boy, do you have anything to do with it, and the very cursory sort of, no, didn’t know anything about him.

And that, is all that I know about any kind of contact that he has ever had with authorities. I had never heard of him before Thursday.

RAY SUAREZ: It was just recently announced that the case was going to be reopened. There was the much publicized drilling open of a nearby workshop floor not far from the Patzes’ apartment. Did the case start to get a lot more play and is that what generated this new tip?

LISA COHEN: Well, that is — my understanding is that on seeing all the publicity, the brother-in-law or the relative then contacted police. but — and that’s a very common thing.

I mean, the thing is, when — when some new development happens in a case and it gets a lot of publicity, sometimes, you know, authorities aren’t happy about all the publicity, but it’s a tradeoff. And what you sometimes then get is people coming forward with new information.

The problem is what you also sometimes get are people coming forward seeking attention who will make things up. So you have to be very careful that you have got the right, you have got the first and not the second.

RAY SUAREZ: Ernie Allen, take us back to 1979. How was the legal and investigative state of play different when a child was missing?

ERNIE ALLEN: Ray, there was basically no system in 1979. You couldn’t enter missing child information into the FBI’s national crime computer.

Most police departments had mandatory waiting periods. This was a nation of 18,000 different police departments that didn’t talk to each other. Etan’s case changed America and the way America searches for missing children.

RAY SUAREZ: How so?

ERNIE ALLEN: Well, because of Etan and Adam Walsh and a few other high-profile cases, Congress passed the Missing Children’s Act in 1982, making it possible to put missing child information into the FBI’s national crime computer.

In 1984 , the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was created to build a coordinated national response. We began to bring technology to this. There are 50 state missing children clearinghouses nationwide. It is a very different place.

And, as a result, today in America, more missing children come home safely than ever before. And much of that is attributable to the legacy of Etan Patz.

RAY SUAREZ: Today is the 33rd anniversary, as we mentioned, of his disappearance, but it’s also National Missing Children’s Day. How did that happen?

ERNIE ALLEN: Well, in 1983, as there was a series of high-profile troubling cases started by Etan, Adam Walsh in Florida, the missing and murdered children of Atlanta, Johnny Gosch, the Des Moines, Iowa, paperboy, Kevin Collins in San Francisco, President Ronald Reagan decided to declare the first National Missing Children’s Day.

And the date he chose was May 25, commemorating the date that Etan had disappeared four years earlier. Today, this is the 30th National Missing Children’s Day. And it’s not just an American observation. May 25 is observed as Missing Children’s Day around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Lisa Cohen, the Etan Patz case stayed alive in New York for many years after the boy disappeared.

You could see his face on cash registers, in store windows, computer-generated graphics showing how he would have aged as a teenager and a young adult. Was this largely due to the fact that the parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were willing to remain in the public eye in a way that perhaps other crime victim families are not?

LISA COHEN: That may have been part of it.

I would submit that there were a number of things that made this a story that people could not walk away from. I mean, the narrative alone that this was the first time this little boy walked to the bus stop on his own, he was — that he was so young, that he was 6, that he was beautiful, he was a white — he was a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy.

And his father was a professional photographer. So he — there were pictures to send out to the world that were by far more compelling, more beautifully lit. He jumped off the page because his father was an artist.

And so all of those things, coupled with the fact that the story really never ended, there was no finality to it, so it was an ongoing story of public interest.

RAY SUAREZ: The family focused its attention on another man, though, didn’t it? Didn’t — wasn’t a man named Jose Ramos eventually found in a civil action to be held responsible for Etan’s death?

LISA COHEN: That’s correct. That’s right.

He was a prime suspect for many years. And he had — he knew a woman who had worked for the Patzes. He said to authorities that he had taken a boy who looked — he was 90 percent sure was Etan to his apartment the day Etan went missing and tried to have sex with him. And then he said he let him go.

But — so there were there were some compelling reasons to think that he was a — a really a legitimate suspect in the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Is — are you surprised that this is the way that this has all ended, Ernie Allen?

ERNIE ALLEN: Well, I’m a little surprised.

But I think the most encouraging thing about it is that the New York Police Department continued to investigate the disappearance of Etan Patz and pursued this. Digging up this basement last month, I think, sent a loud, clear message to searching parents and to law enforcement around this country that just because it’s been a month or a year or 33 years, the search goes on.

Our hope is that this finally provides the Patz family some answers and some justice.

RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, by video camera, Pedro Hernandez will be arraigned from his hospital bed at Bellevue Hospital.

Ernie Allen, Lisa Cohen, thank you both.

ERNIE ALLEN: Thank you.