Suspect in Etan Patz killing pleads ‘not guilty’

Holly Bailey

NEW YORK—The man charged with killing 6-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 pleaded not guilty on Wednesday—despite confessing to police to murdering the boy shortly after he was arrested in the case earlier this year.

Pedro Hernandez, 51, appeared in court dressed in a gray sweatsuit, where he quietly entered a plea of "not guilty" to charges that he killed Etan, the subject of one of the city's most high-profile unsolved cases.

The child vanished while walking home from school three decades ago in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood—a disappearance that gripped the nation and essentially founded the missing children's movement. Etan was the first missing child to be pictured on the side of a milk carton.

The case went cold for decades—until April, when detectives, acting on a tip, began digging up a basement near the Patz family's home in Soho, where his parents still live. They found nothing, but a few weeks later they received another tip from Hernandez's relatives suggesting he may have been involved in Etan's disappearance. Hernandez, who had worked in Soho around the time of the boy's disappearance, was picked up at home in Camden, N.J., and eventually arrested by New York City police.

Hernandez confessed to the crime, telling police he had lured Patz to the basement of a bodega where he worked at the time and choked the child to death. He then allegedly left the child's body in a trash bag on the street nearby with other garbage.

But Harvey Fishbein, Hernandez's attorney, has suggested his client's confession was false—driven by what he described as Hernandez's history of mental problems, including hallucinations. Fishbein told reporters last month he would seek to have Hernandez's confession thrown out of the case with the help of experts who could testify about false confessions.

Fishbein has said his client would not pursue an insanity defense—largely because he insists Hernandez did not commit the crime.