NEW YORK (AP) — A man has implicated himself in the death of 6-year-old Etan Patz, whose disappearance 33 years ago on his way to school helped launch a missing children's movement that put kids' faces on milk cartons, police said Thursday.
Investigators were still trying to confirm details of the man's story. The development came just before the Friday anniversary of the boy's disappearance, when detectives traditionally receive a landslide of hoaxes and false leads related to the case.
"Let me caution you that there's still a lot of investigating to do," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
Pedro Hernandez was picked up late Wednesday in Camden, N.J., according to a law enforcement official, and was being questioned Thursday by the Manhattan district attorney's office, which is heading the probe by the FBI and police.
Hernandez worked at a bodega and lived in the same Manhattan neighborhood as Patz, and moved to New Jersey shortly after the boy disappeared, the official said. He has been tied to the case in the past, but it was unclear what brought them back to him this week.
"An individual now in custody has made statements to NYPD detectives implicating himself in the disappearance and death of Etan Patz 33 years ago," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement. Kelly said he expected to release additional details later Thursday.
Hernandez's emergence as a person of interest was not related to the search of a Manhattan basement in April, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
Both the person familiar with the probe and the official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the ongoing probe.
A woman who answered the door at Hernandez' Maple Shade, N.J., home confirmed he was in custody. Neighbors said he lived with a woman and a daughter who attends college.
"I can't believe something like that," said Dan Wollick, 71, who rents the other apartment in home. "This guy, he doesn't seem that way."
Wearing a backpack with elephants printed on it, 6-year-old Etan, a boy with sandy brown hair and a toothy grin, vanished May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood.
There was an exhaustive search by the police and a crush of media attention. The boy's photo was one of the first of a missing child on a milk carton. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed.
SoHo was not a neighborhood of swank boutiques and galleries as now, but of working-class New Yorkers rattled by the news.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment, down the street from the building that was examined in April. They have endured decades of false leads, and a lack of hard evidence.
The Patzes are among the residential holdouts in what has become a chic and artsy shopping district. At one point Thursday morning, the actress Meg Ryan — wearing dark glasses despite a drizzle — walked briskly past the scene, ignoring photographers who trailed her. The Patz family did not return a message requesting comment.
The April excavation of a Manhattan basement yielded no obvious human remains and little forensic evidence that would help solve the decades-long mystery of what happened to the boy.
"I hope this is the end of it," said Roz Radd, who lives a couple of blocks from the Patz family's home and knows Etan's mother casually from walking dogs in the neighborhood. "There's going to be hopefully closure to her, to know what happened to her son."
Etan's disappearance touched off a massive search that has ebbed and flowed over the years. It also ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
The case, still considered a missing persons investigation, has ebbed and flowed. In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced he was reinvestigating the case.
In the past, the focus was on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester, now serving time in Pennsylvania, who had been dating Etan's baby sitter at the time the boy disappeared. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos' former basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but nothing turned up.
Stan Patz had his son declared legally dead in 2001 so he could sue Ramos, who has never been charged criminally and denies harming the boy. A civil judge in 2004 found him to be responsible for Etan's death.
Recently, investigators questioned a 75-year-old Brooklyn resident, who in 1979 had a workspace in the basement that was excavated in April. The man, Othniel Miller, was not named a suspect and denied any involvement.
The handyman's lawyer, who has maintained his client was not involved in the crime, said there was no connection between Miller and Hernandez.
"There has been no law enforcement action taken or implicated against Mr. Miller as of yet. Mr. Miller is relieved by these developments, as he was not involved in any way with Etan Patz's disappearance," attorney Michael Farkas said.
Associated Press Writers Tom Hays, Karen Matthews and Geoff Mulvihill in Maple Shade, N.J., in contributed to this report.