Crime and Courts

Chief investigative reporter Jonathan Dienst on crime, corruption and terrorism.

Mother of Etan Patz Testifies at Murder Trial, Recounts Last Time She Saw Her Son Before 1979 Disappearance

The mother of a 6-year-old Manhattan boy who vanished on his way to school 35 years ago testified Monday that he was trusting but also scared of being lost or alone. 

Julie Patz recounted her time living in SoHo when her son, Etan, was little. Etan disappeared on May 25, 1979 — the first time he walked to school alone.

"That was the last time I saw him. I watched him walk one block away," Julie Patz testified at the murder trial of store clerk Pedro Hernandez, who's accused of killing Etan. "I turned around and went back upstairs and that was the last time."

The boy was "totally outgoing and trusting of everyone — totally nonjudgmental about people," his mother said. "Everyone that he met once was his friend and was a nice person."

But while Etan craved independence and was eager to become a grown-up, Patz said, "at the same time he was very fearful of being lost or left alone by himself."

Julie Patz cried when talking about how she felt in the hours after she learned Etan was missing.

"I don't remember a thing about that night and the next day, quite honestly," she said. She recalls only having "very rubbery legs," an upset stomach and difficulty walking, thinking and talking.

Hernandez was a teenage shop worker in 1979 when New York police jotted down his name among those of many people they met during their feverish search.

But it wasn't until 2012 that Hernandez emerged as a suspect. The apparent breakthrough in the case was based on a tip and a videotaped confession that prosecutors say was foreshadowed by remarks he made to friends and relatives in the 1980s.

His defense hinges on convincing jurors that the confession is false, along with suggesting that the real killer may be a convicted Pennsylvania child molester who was a prime suspect for years.

In considering evidence that reaches back to 1979, jurors will delve into a missing-child case that helped inject a new protectiveness into American parenting.

Etan became one of the first missing children featured on milk cartons. His parents helped advocate for legislation that created a nationwide law enforcement framework to address such cases, and the anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children's Day.

The trial is expected to last up to three months. In addition to Etan's mother, witnesses are expected to include psychologists, an inmate informant who knows Hernandez, and possibly other informants testifying against the earlier suspect.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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