June 11, 2012 12:00 PM

A few days before the anniversary of his son’s disappearance, Stan Patz was prepared to do what he has done for more than two decades: send a copy of Etan’s missing poster to Jose Ramos, the convicted pedophile long believed to be his son’s killer, typed with eight angry words-“What did you do to my little boy?” So when cops called to say they had a new suspect, Patz, who was with relatives in Boston, didn’t know what to think. “This is all news to me,” he told a friend.

And shocking news at that. On May 24, New York City police declared the mystery of Etan Patz-the 6-year-old whose case turned a national spotlight on the issue of missing kids and whose winsome, toothy visage was one of the first to appear on a milk carton-solved with the arrest of Pedro Hernandez. Hernandez, now 51, a former stock boy at a corner store in Etan’s SoHo neighborhood, confessed to choking him, putting him in a plastic bag and throwing it in a nearby Dumpster. “He said he had done a bad thing and killed a child,” N.Y.C. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a news conference.

But as much as the Patz family-and a generation of New Yorkers who can’t forget the crime-wants justice for Etan, many questions remain about the case. Hernandez’s lawyer claims the unemployed Puerto Rican-born construction worker, who had been living a quiet life in New Jersey until his arrest, has a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and no physical evidence has yet been revealed. According to relatives and police, over the years Hernandez had told his brother-in-law, members of a prayer group and a spiritual adviser that he’d killed a child in New York City, but he was never investigated despite the scores of cops who canvassed the neighborhood after Etan disappeared. Recalling a grittier SoHo-now a trendy hot spot-former resident Roberto Monticello, 49, remembered the then 18-year-old Hernandez as an unremarkable presence, except for one detail: When Monticello, then 16, and pals went looking for Etan, Hernandez didn’t join. “He stood there,” he says, “watching us.”

So far, the Patzes have refused to comment on the new developments. Ever since their son went missing during his first solo walk to the bus stop two blocks from their home, Stan, 70, a commercial photographer, and Julie, 69, a retired middle school administrator, refused to change their address or phone number in the hope that he’d come home. Raising their other children, Shira, now 42, and Ari, 35, away from the spotlight, somehow “they got on with their lives,” says author Lisa Cohen, who became close with them while working on her book After Etan. In 2001, in order to file a wrongful death suit against Ramos-who had dated a woman who walked Etan to school, one of his links to the case, and who will finish a 27-year sentence for other charges of child molestation in November-the Patzes petitioned to have Etan declared legally dead. “Stan has told me, ‘I think of Etan every day,’ ” says Cohen.

The Hernandez family is now equally shattered. On May 24 Hernandez’s wife, Rosemary, 51, an insurance underwriter, and his youngest daughter, Becky, an education student at a local college in her early 20s, wept to their pastor, Rev. George Bowen Jr. of Maranatha Christian Fellowship in Moorestown, N.J. “There’s no way they knew,” he says. Neighbors in Maple Shade, N.J., were just as stunned. “I just saw him cutting the lawn,” says Jeannie Cool, 50. “He smiled and waved.”

While prosecutors make their case (see box), all the Patzes can do is what they’ve always done: wait and hope. “Stan feels that one way to honor Etan and not forget him,” says Cohen, “is to not let go of the fact that no one has ever been brought to justice.”

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