Detectives are often inundated with hoaxes, false leads and possible sightings around the anniversary. 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 at the convenience store for about a month and lived nearby, wasn’t questioned at the outset, Kelly said. Days after Etan vanished, Hernandez left that job and moved to New Jersey, where he had relatives, the commissioner said.
Hernandez worked in construction until he suffered a back injury in 1993 and has since received disability payments, Kelly said. He said Hernandez, who has a teenage daughter, had no criminal record.
But he told a relative and others, as far back as 1981, that he had “done something bad” and killed an unnamed child in New York City, according to Kelly. Police learned that only recently, when a tipster — not a relative — pointed police to Hernandez, after a search of a basement near Patz’ home last month hurtled the case back into the news, Kelly said.
Police took him into custody Wednesday night, and after several hours of questioning, he provided a signed confession, Kelly said.
“He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part,” the commissioner said.
Earlier leads had arisen and stalled, at one point taking investigators as far as Israel to track reported sightings of Etan.
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.
A civil judge found him to be responsible for the boy’s disappearance and presumed death, largely because he refused to answer some questions under oath, but he was never criminally charged. He might be able to get the civil judgment reviewed now.
A few weeks ago, investigators excavated a basement down the street from the Patz apartment but found no human remains. They questioned a 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.
Finally, on Thursday, police told Patz’ parents they had honed in on Hernandez.
“Mr. Patz was taken aback, a little surprised, and I would say overwhelmed, to a degree,” Lt. Christopher Zimmerman said. “ ... He was a little surprised, but I think after everything Mr. Patz has gone through, he handled it very well.”
Associated Press writers Deepti Hajela, Tom Hays and Karen Matthews in New York and Geoff Mulvihill in Maple Shade, N.J., contributed to this report.
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