Hysteria and Confessions: Finding the Paper Trail in the Etan Patz Murder Trials

By Lindsey Kortyka

On May 25, 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in SoHo. Despite a decades-long search, police have never found a body or DNA evidence in the case. In the 1980s, Patz’s photo appeared on milk cartons throughout the country, one of the first times that the method became popular to locate missing children.

The case helped to inspire a national movement that culminated in the establishment of a system to track missing children. The Missing Children Act, 1982, created an FBI database for missing children. In 1984, the New York Center for Exploited and Missing Children opened its doors and has helped to recover more than 218,000 missing children in the last 30 years.

In 2012, NYC police announced they had a suspect in the Patz case. Shocking many who still followed it, the suspect wasn’t the man whom police had been eyeing for some time — Jose Ramos, a convicted pedophile, who had dated a woman who often walked Patz home from the bus stop in the weeks before his disappearance. Instead, it was Pedro Hernandez, a former stock boy at a bodega in SoHo on Patz’s route to school, who confessed to luring him into the bodega basement, choking him and throwing his body in a dumpster. Hernandez had told the story to a number of people, including his brother-in-law, who alerted the police.

After a seven and a half hour interrogation, Hernandez confessed to the crime. Hernandez’s lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, argued that the confession should be thrown out because the police did not read him Miranda warnings, and Hernandez has an IQ of 70.

According to the Innocence Project — which provides assistance to people the group believes to be wrongly convicted convicted — false confessions are incredibly common. After DNA evidence became a law enforcement tool, 1 in 4 of those exonerated had falsely confessed. Mental capacity and length of the interrogation can increase the likelihood of a false confession. My research will hopefully reveal what really happened in this strange case.

After a hung jury in the initial trial with one lone hold-out juror in 2012, a jury convicted Hernandez on February 14, 2017 in his second trial. Sentencing was set for February 28. However, Judge Maxwell Wiley, the judge in the second trial, has allowed the defense to investigate possible jury tampering. After the conviction, jurors who spoke to the press indicated they may have been affected by the presence of some of the jury members from the first trial.

I intend to focus my story on the second trial. Still, I wanted to find out some of the characters in the original story to better shape my understanding of the second trial. So, I went to the Columbia University’s microform collection of newspapers from the day Etan disappeared in May 1979.

I had never used microform before, so I asked the staff to help me find the New York Times for that date. I didn’t have to make an appointment, but I did have to be a student or faculty of the school. It took me about an hour to find some stories that related to the Patz disappearance.

I looked through New York Times Articles from May 25,through May 31, 1979. In the 1970s, the papers printed more personal information than they do now about crime victims. So, the Patz’s home address and phone number are listed. Because I am looking for witnesses in the case to tell the story, I will likely pay a visit to the Patz home. I will try the phone number, too, though it has probably been changed. The news articles also list names of two police officers who investigated the disappearance. I hope to be able to track them down.

Finally, the articles gave me an idea about the social climate of the times. While this wasn’t front page news, people were genuinely shocked that Patz disappeared. Until that time, parents felt comfortable letting children walk to the bus stop alone.

While I thought this was worth the trip, there are definitely a number of questions I need to answer. While there are a large number of witnesses and actors in this case, there is also a lot of publicity. I am hoping to be able to find a unique angle with some good witness interviews. I think that the newspaper has given me a good start, because people who are involved in the case currently may be swamped by press — but maybe the people listed in the original are unknowns.

Next, I need a transcript of the second trial. Initially, I thought the case transcript was available online, but it wasn’t. I went to the court reporter’s office on Centre Street in Manhattan to request the transcript. It was the wrong office. An employee gave me a phone number and another address — which I couldn’t find. I phoned, got disconnected three or four times, and finally spoke to a clerk who gave me the name and phone number of the actual court reporter, Claudine Davidson. I’ve called daily, with no luck, so I’ll go to her office. Once I can pore over the transcript, I can begin to understand — or question — how Hernandez was convicted of a murder with no body.