Family finds answers despite mistrial in missing-boy case

2015-05-09 22:25
Stan Patz (AP)

Stan Patz (AP)

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New York - The father of Etan Patz believed for decades he knew who killed his 6-year-old son on the way to school in 1979, and it wasn't the man whose trial he was about to endure.

But after hearing every word of nearly three months of testimony, Stan Patz became sure that Pedro Hernandez kidnapped and killed Etan - even if the trial ended in a hung jury.

The result left one of the nation's most wrenching missing-children cases still unresolved. The judge declared a mistrial on Friday after jurors said for a third time that they were hopelessly deadlocked - 11-1 in favour of conviction.

Hernandez was a teenage stock clerk at a Manhattan convenience store near where Etan vanished on May 25 1979. Etan would become one of the first missing children ever pictured on milk cartons in hope of generating clues to their disappearance.

The case's impact is reflected every May 25 - National Missing Children's Day, the anniversary of his disappearance.

"The family of Etan Patz has waited 36 years for an explanation as to what happened to our sweet little boy," Stan Patz said after the mistrial was declared. After hearing prosecutors' case against Hernandez, who gave what his defence called a false confession to police in 2012, Patz said, "I'm convinced. ... It makes sense, from beginning to end."

Patz's new certainty marked another twist in his family's painful trajectory in trying to get answers and justice.

'Missing' poster

The investigation stretched across decades and continents. For years, Patz and many others blamed Jose Ramos, a convicted paedophile acquainted with a woman who sometimes walked Etan home from school. Patz was so sure he mailed a copy of Etan's missing poster to Ramos in prison each year, asking: "What did you do to my little boy?"

Prosecutors have asked the judge to set a new court date next month, but haven't specifically said whether they will again try the case.

After Ramos emerged as a suspect in the 1980s, was convicted of sexually assaulting boys in Pennsylvania and told federal authorities about interacting with a child he was all but sure was Etan on the day he vanished, Stan Patz plunged into efforts to hold Ramos accountable. Ramos has denied involvement in Etan's death.

Patz filed a suit that led to a finding that Ramos was responsible, by default, after he stopped co-operating with questioning. Manhattan prosecutors concluded there wasn't enough evidence to charge Ramos criminally, but current District Attorney Cyrus R Vance jnr pledged to re-examine the case after meeting with Patz while campaigning in 2009.

Then a 2012 tip led to Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, who had worked at a shop by Etan's school bus stop. Police learned that he'd told people years before on three separate occasions that he'd killed a child in New York. Then he confessed to police he'd choked Etan and left his body - never found - in a box in an alley.

Patz said he asked Vance early on to persuade him that he had a better case against Hernandez than Ramos. Vance assured him he'd be convinced by the trial, Patz said.

And he was, although considerable evidence about authorities' investigation into Ramos also was aired in the courtroom.

It was clear how firmly some considered Ramos to be responsible for Etan's death from the testimony of Stuart GraBois, the former federal prosecutor who investigated the case for years and counts Stan Patz among his closest friends. GraBois testified for the defence.

No facts

While Stan Patz lauded GraBois efforts in the investigation, he said they led to the wrong guy in Ramos.

"It became apparent that all we had was suspicion. We had no facts," Patz said.

Meanwhile, Patz said he found Hernandez's confessions chillingly powerful. And he viewed the defence's false-confession argument — which centred on mental illness and a very low IQ — as "psychobabble".

"He is a guilty man who has been conscience-stricken, due to his deeds, and haunted by demons ever since that day," he said.

But Hernandez' defence portrayed him as a suggestible man confused about what was real and imaginary, haunted by hallucinations and worn down by more than six hours of police questioning.

"Nothing that occurs in the course of this trial," defence lawyer Harvey Fishbein said when Hernandez was indicted, "will answer what actually happened to Etan Patz".

Eleven jurors ultimately felt it did, voting to convict Hernandez. The lone dissenter said he felt Hernandez' mental health was a major factor and the evidence too circumstantial to convict.

Stan Patz isn't shaken by the fact that the jury didn't see the case as he did.

Jurors deliberated for 18 days, he noted, but "I've had 35 years to think about this."

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