Back before Manhattan’s SoHo district was posh, the neighborhood south of Houston street was a working-class area populated by calloused workers, poor artists and young dreamers. And on May 25, 1979, a six-year old boy named Etan Patz was allowed by his parents to catch the bus to school by himself. His parents never saw him again.
The case became the archetypal urban nightmare for American parents. A desperate Stan Patz plastered his son’s photo all over the neighborhood, and then the city. Etan became the “milk carton kid,” symbolizing missing children all over the country. A judge later found that a convicted molester was the child’s killer—but that alleged perpetrator was by then already dead. Etan’s body has never been found.
And then this year, Pablo Hernandez, 51, said he was the murderer. Hernandez worked in a bodega in SoHo that Etan passed by daily. Wracked by guilt, Hernandez told the New York Police Department that he used a can of soda to lure the child inside, strangled him to death and later disposed of the body in the store’s garbage. Hernandez has been charged with second-degree murder. But without a body or much evidence otherwise, prosecutors must now figure out how they will convict him simply based on his confession alone. To further complicate the case, Hernandez’s lawyer has already indicated that his client has a history of mental illness.