6-year-old Etan Patz vanished in New York City in 1979, and his case and the trials of his suspected killer have gripped many people
On May 25, 1979, a misty summer morning in New York City, 6-year-old Etan Patz begged his mother, Julie, to let him walk the few blocks to school alone. She relented, and the last time she saw him alive he was walking away from her.
Etan’s mysterious disappearance struck fear both in his New York City neighborhood and the country as a whole, as the little boy became a leading face for the search for missing children everywhere.
In February, decades after he became the first-ever “milk carton kid,” a jury finally convicted Etan’s killer though his body was never found.
Here are five things you need to know about the case.
Julie learned her son had vanished when she became concerned that he never arrived home from school that May day in 1979. But Etan never showed up to school in the first place.
His parents immediately involved the police, though their investigation was stymied by the delay and other factors including the drizzly weather, which made it harder for police dogs to track Etan’s scent. There was no crime scene to examine, no witnesses and no tangible evidence of a murder or kidnapping.
Still the police searched, and the Patz family turned their SoHo apartment into a base for the many people involved. Hundreds of officers combed the streets and helicopters swept overhead. Leads poured in. But there was no break: Etan was never discovered.
2. The Disappearance Sparked Nationwide Concern — and a National Movement
Etan’s abduction is widely credited as one of the first missing-child cases to consume the country for months on end, helping lead to additional resources for families everywhere. Etan was the first missing child put on milk cartons, and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has said his case was a catalyst for its creation.
New York City resident Amanda Stern recounted that period in an article for The New York Times, writing, “What did it mean to disappear? If [Etan] could, so could my brother, my mother, my sister, me.”
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25, the anniversary of Etan’s disappearance, National Missing Children’s Day. That same year, the film Without a Trace was released, based on a fictionalized account of Etan’s case, starring Kate Nelligan and Judd Hirsch.
Four years into the investigation, authorities told PEOPLE they were “reexamining every aspect.” Etan’s mother, Julie, said, “We have a new arrangement with the police.
“When something is all over, then they tell us. It’s easier to live with. We have to let go of some of it, or we’ll go stark raving mad.”
In 2012, one day before another anniversary in Etan’s disappearance, N.Y.C police announced they had a suspect in custody — and it wasn’t the convicted pedophile who had long been under scrutiny.
Police said Pablo Hernandez, a former stock boy at a corner store in Etan’s neighborhood, confessed to choking him, putting him in a plastic bag and throwing his body in a nearby dumpster. What’s more, authorities said Hernandez had for years been admitting to his crimes to various people in his life.
Hernandez’ brother-in-law approached police in 2012, leading to his arrest.
During the 2015 murder trial, prosecutors largely relied on the suspect’s own statements because of how much time had passed since the abduction. Eleven jurors believed he was guilty — but there was one holdout.
“Ultimately I couldn’t find enough evidence that was not circumstantial to convict,” juror Adam Sirois told reporters after the verdict.
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
Alia Dahhan, the jury forewoman, told PEOPLE at the time, “It is a really sad story and we worked really hard and long hours to bring justice to the family and unfortunately it didn’t happen.”
Etan’s father, Stan, said he just wanted the whole ordeal over.
“I looked forward to the first trial because I thought that would be the end of it,” he said. “It provided answers for me and I thought it would be the end of interviews, crazy phone calls, people showing up with their crazy theories. We really want to get this thing behind us.”
A mistrial was declared in 2015 and Hernandez was retried more than a year later. On Tuesday, he was convicted of Etan’s kidnapping and murder.
4. Killer’s Defense Claimed He Wasn’t Credible and Pointed to Someone Else
Hernandez’s defense has long argued his statements to police are not believable.
During closing arguments at his second murder trial, Hernandez’ attorneys said he is “an odd, limited and vulnerable man” — but not a killer.
Rather, the defense argued, Hernandez has an IQ of 67, has taken anti-psychotic medication for years and allegedly experiences hallucinations. Soon after his arrest, doctors diagnosed Hernandez with schizotypal personality disorder, which is characterized by severe social anxiety and paranoia.
During his first trial, a psychiatrist who is an expert in determining the reliability of confessions testified that relying on Hernandez’s statements would be “profoundly unsafe” without corroborating physical evidence.
Hernandez’s attorney has also suggested that another man, convicted child molester Jose Ramos, is responsible. Though Ramos faced suspicion for years in the case, he has never been charged and has denied involvement. He remains behind bars in Pennsylvania in another case.
Soon after the news of Hernandez’s arrest in 2012 jump-started Etan’s case, a family friend of his parents told PEOPLE how they had tried to focus on raising their other children away from the spotlight. “They got on with their lives,” Lisa Cohen said.
Even so, “Stan has told me, ‘I think of Etan every day,’ ” Cohen said.
Decades earlier, Stan spoke to PEOPLE about the family’s ongoing ordeal.
“People get raped or murdered, and those crimes, as horrible as they are, at least are contained in time,” Stan said at the time. “In this crime there was a beginning, but there is no end. We are faced with a very real question: Is our son dead or alive? Etan’s problem could have ended two years ago — but ours persists.”
Julie said in 1981 that they were resolved to face the uncertain future. “We keep going because if our son is alive, then he needs a family to come back to.”
In a statement after Hernandez was convicted, the Manhattan district attorney said, “Etan’s legacy will endure through his family’s long history of advocacy on behalf of missing children. However, it is my hope that today’s verdict provides the Patz family with the closure they so desperately need.”
• With CHRIS HARRIS, KRISTEN MASCIA, CHRISTINE PELISEK and RICHARD K. REIN