A former convenience store worker confessed to luring Etan Patz, 6, from a school bus stop in 1979 and choking him to death in a basement, police said Thursday, ending a three-decades-long investigation into one of the nation's most baffling missing-children cases.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was arrested on a murder charge after he told police he promised the boy a soda, took him to the basement of the convenience store where he worked and killed him there, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.
Hernandez told police he put Etan's body in some trash about a block from the store, Kelly said, where it's possible it was picked up by sanitation crews. No body has been recovered, and Kelly said it's possible the remains would never be found.
Hernandez was questioned by police for more than three hours after he was picked up in New Jersey on Wednesday, and gave police a signed confession, Kelly said. His motive was not yet clear.
"He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part" to confess, Kelly said. "We believe that this is the individual responsible for the crime."
Detectives are often barraged with hoaxes, false leads and possible sightings around the anniversary of Etan's disappearance, which is today.
But Kelly said they had probable cause to believe Hernandez's story was true, because of specific details he gave to police.
Hernandez, who had worked as a stock clerk at the store for about a month and lived nearby, wasn't questioned at the outset, Kelly said. But he later told relatives, as far back as 1981, that he had "done something bad" and killed an unnamed child in New York City, he said.
After a search of a basement near Patz's home last month hurtled the case back into the news, a tipster pointed police to Hernandez. Kelly said the person wasn't a relative, but knew that Hernandez had said he had done a bad thing, he said.
Hernandez was known to police as being a worker at the convenience store -- a popular fixture in the neighborhood -- but was never questioned, though other people in the shop were.
He left his job days after Etan disappeared and moved to New Jersey, where he had relatives, Kelly said. Hernandez later worked in construction but has been collecting disability payments since a 1993 back injury, police said. He is married with a teenage daughter, he said.
The focus on Hernandez came after other leads arose and stalled. For most of the past decade, the investigation focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester now in prison in Pennsylvania. He had been dating Etan's baby sitter. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos' former basement in lower Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
. A few weeks ago, investigators excavated another basement, down the street from the Patz apartment. The search found no human remains. Investigators questioned a 75-year-old handyman who had a workspace in the cellar in 1979. But he was not named as a suspect and denied any involvement in the boy's disappearance.
Neighbors expressed surprise Thursday night at the arrest.
"I knew the guy. He was not a problem. His family was great people," said Dan Wollick, 71, who rents an apartment in Hernandez's home. "He didn't bother anybody."
Etan vanished while walking alone to his bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's busy SoHo neighborhood, which was a working-class part of the city back then but is now a chic area of boutiques and galleries.
Police conducted an exhaustive search. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed and hundreds of people interviewed about a disappearance that ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
The anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children's Day by presidential proclamation in 1983 and Etan's face was one of the first to appear on milk cartons.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment.
They did not return a call to comment Thursday.
Lt. Christopher Zimmerman of the Missing Persons Squad said he had spoken to Etan's parents.
"Mr. Patz was taken aback, a little surprised, and I would say overwhelmed to a degree," he said. "He had a few specific questions. He was a little surprised, but I think after everything Mr. Patz has gone through, he handled it very well."