Reasons to Believe Cops Found Etan Patz's Killer (and a Few Doubts)

New York is expected to arraign the first legitimate suspect in the 33-year-old disappearance of Etan Patz as early as Friday, but from the facts made public by both police and reporters, there's as much reason to doubt they've got the right man as to believe it.

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New York is expected to arraign the first legitimate suspect in the 33-year-old disappearance of Etan Patz as early as Friday, but from the facts made public by both police and reporters, there's as much reason to doubt they've got the right man as to believe it. Police are well into their victory lap, announcing they've brought the case home with the arrest of 51-year-old Pedro Hernandez, but as one unnamed law enforcement agent told The New York Times' Jim Dwyer, "If this was a baseball game, we would be in the first inning." Let's look at why we should and shouldn't believe they've got the right guy.

Reasons to Believe

He confessed. This is the biggest one. Few people fake being child murderers -- especially to cops. So when somebody says he is one, you tend to at least hear him out. "We have a written confession, a signed confession. We believe there is probable cause to go forward with this arrest," New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said on Thursday, according to Gothamist.

He tells a specific story. Specificity is the soul of narrative, they say, and Hernandez's confession contains specifics. He didn't simply say "I killed him, now lock me up." He said that while he was working as a stock boy at a bodega at 448 West Broadway (at right) at age 18, he used the promise of a soda pop to lure Etan from where he was waiting for the school bus and into the bodega's basement. Then he said he choked Etan to death, put his body in a bag, and carried it about a block away, "where he left it out in the open with trash," Kelly said, per The Times. "When he went back for it several days later it was gone," The Guardian adds.

The cops are buying it. The killer is the only person who knows all the facts in this case, but the cops know more than anybody else, having investigated the disappearance for 33 years. And they're saying very publicly that they believe Hernandez. The Times' Joseph Goldstein and William K. Rashbaum quoted New York Police Commisioner Ray Kelly, who spoke at a Thursday news conference: "He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part ... We believe that this is the individual responsible."

This is not the first time he's confessed. The Daily Beast notes that Hernandez had actually first confessed at the time of Etan's disapperance, but police didn't believe him. "Detectives interviewed Hernandez at that time, the source says, and he confessed to the crime. But the detectives deemed this first confession to be 'the raving of a lunatic,' in part because he told them that he had put the body in a box and stashed it someplace only for it to disappear." And who would believe a body could just disappear from plain sight without anybody noticing?

He told family members in the past. A tipster who put police on Hernandez's trail most recently said he had actually confided in family members for years. Agence France-Presse reports: "Following the media frenzy over last month's search of the basement, a tipster came forward, Kelly said, and told police that Hernandez had talked about killing a child ... He had 'told family and others that he had 'done a bad thing and killed a child in New York,' Kelly said."

Reasons to doubt

There's no body or motive. Without a body it's nearly impossible to conclude with 100 percent certainty that someone has died at all. NewsBeast reports Etan's body most likely got picked up by a sanitation truck, which would "make it all but impossible" to ever find his remains. "With the absence of a body or other physical evidence, a case against Hernandez would rest upon the confession and any statements he may have made to relatives and acquaintances." And Dwyer's source tells him Hernandez "doesn’t give any motivation in the statement ... The admission was totally unsolicited.”

Patz's parents think it was someone else. A convicted Pennsylvania pedophile told investigators in the late 1980s that he had lured Etan into his apartment but released him without harm, the Philadelphia Inquirer reminds us. The convict, Jose Ramos, was never charged with Etan's death, but he did lose a civil case the Patzes brought. Twice a year Stanley Patz, Etan's father, sends Ramos a missing poster with the phrase "What did you do to my little boy?" written on the back.

The timing couldn't be better. Friday marks the 33rd anniversary of Etan's disappearance, and the case was already in the news after police in April started digging up a SoHo basement they thought could hold Etan's body. Even though a tipster gave Hernandez up, he confessed willingly, which is not something people usually do unless they want to be known. The Guardian points out the history of false confessions: "It should be noted that police have been here before. The anniversary of Etan's death tends to draw out apparent confessions from troubled individuals, and an excavation of a SoHo basement last month prompted a wave of new publicity."

Cops haven't said why the're buying the confession. After 200 people tried to confess to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby in 1932, Dwyer explains, "the police made a practice of keeping secret a few facts about a crime, as a way of weeding out people who felt compelled to claim that they had done something they had not. Whether such details exist in the disappearance of Etan Patz is not known. Asked if Mr. Hernandez had volunteered any, Mr. Kelly did not answer directly. Because the boy disappeared without any known trace or witnesses, it may be that no such details are in the hands of the police," which would make verifying Hernandez's confession extremely difficult. One unnamed official told Dwyer: "He is lucid, he’s persuasive. But there is not a lot of corroborating information."

The pressure's on for police to close the case. "Given the emotion of the case and since the announcement of its reopening by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance in 2010, there is pressure for a result," The Guardian's Paul Harris reported. Dwyer noted that "The attitude among prosecutors was that while Mr. Hernandez had told a compelling story, there was absolutely no need to rush, and many good reasons to be cautious."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.