When police dug up a SoHo basement last month in a fruitless search for the remains of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old boy who disappeared in 1979, Lucy Suarez saw the news on TV and wished that the family of the missing child would finally get some peace.
"My sister and I prayed about it. We prayed and we said, 'Let justice be done,'" Suarez said. "Never did we think it was going to be done with our family."
On Friday, her older brother was charged with Patz's murder.
Police said Pedro Hernandez, a 51-year-old churchgoing father described by some friends as quiet and timid, had given an emotional confession earlier in the week to luring the little boy away from his school bus stop with a promise of a soft drink, and then strangling him in the basement of a convenience store where he had been working as a stock clerk.
The admission surprised investigators, who had been confounded by the disappearance for three decades and never considered Hernandez a suspect until this month. Just weeks ago, they had focused their attention on another man, and even ripped up a basement he had once used as a workshop in the hope of finding clues.
Suarez said her family is reeling, too, despite having had concerns for years that her brother had once done something bad to a child.
Hernandez, now living in Maple Shade, N.J., was 18 when Patz vanished. When he moved to New Jersey not long after the disappearance, he said something to relatives about having hurt a child back in New York.
Suarez said her brother never spoke to her directly about what had happened, and the family's knowledge of the incident was vague.
"He didn't say, 'I killed somebody,'" she said. "My conclusion was that it was a hit and run, or he hit someone with a bike. Nothing like a murder."
Suarez said she was shocked to find out about his arrest early Thursday, but another of the suspect's sisters, Norma Hernandez, said at least some relatives had heard something far more horrifying about what he had done.
In the 1980s, she said, Pedro had confessed to a church prayer group that he had killed a boy. Norma Hernandez said she didn't have firsthand knowledge of this confession, and didn't learn about it until later. If she had known, she said, she would have turned her brother in.
"Even if it is my own child I will go to the police station and say, 'You'd better check them out,'" she said. "I'd consider the mother and her child and her wondering what happened to her child."
The people who heard him confess "should've said something even if it wasn't true," she said.
A defense lawyer told a judge Friday that Hernandez suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and had a history of hallucinations. Suarez said she knew her brother had been taking psychiatric medications, but said she didn't think he had been debilitated by mental illness, and wasn't aware that he had been hallucinating.
A man who knew Hernandez as a teenager told NBC 4 New York Hernandez was "strange" and "reserved," and didn't like to make eye contact.
"You always felt that he had pent-up anger," said Roberto Monticello, who lived in the SoHo neighborhood where Hernandez worked at a corner bodega.
Monticello recalled Hernandez would watch the massive searches for the boy after he went missing in 1979, but never participated.
"We'd look in the ground to see if anything had been moved," he said of the neighborhood searches. "We were looking for a tomb, basically."
Hernandez's sister said she had never thought him to be capable of murder.
"My brother was not a monster like that. I don't know him like that," she said. Suarez said she was still holding out hope that her brother's confession might be false, prompted by a delusion, fueled by the media attention to the case.
"If he did do it, God will have justice," she said. Suarez said she would continue to pray for the boy's parents, Stanley and Julie Patz. "I would like to have a chance to meet them and apologize to them, whether my brother is guilty, or not."
Well-wishers left flowers, candles and dolls Saturday outside the New York City building that once housed the bodega where police said Etan died.
Patz's parents, who still live two blocks from the spot where he vanished, had a note on their door Saturday saying they weren't commenting about the case.
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