Case solved? For the family of Etan Patz and their neighbors, last week’s highly publicized announcement of a confession in the three-decade old murder of the boy has so far failed to lay ghosts to rest.
To Stan and Julie Patz, whose son Etan vanished on May 25, 1979 when he was six, the breakthrough in New York’s most notorious cold case could turn out to be a stunning opportunity for closure.
But on Wednesday, the couple was barricaded in their SoHo home, angrily fending off tabloid journalists, while neighbors wondered openly whether the terrible crime had truly been cracked.
“We don’t know for sure,” said Maria Czapla, 57, as she walked her golden retriever Sophie outside the Patz’s loft apartment.
“It’s hard to tell,” the Polish immigrant said sadly. “All the neighborhood is sorry for this.”
The mood was different a week ago, when city police Commissioner Ray Kelly went live on television to deliver the news of the arrest of Pedro Hernandez.
The New Jersey man, who worked in a nearby grocery store at the time of Patz’s disappearance 33 years ago, had confessed to strangling the boy, then hiding his body in the garbage.
But the emergence of Hernandez brought a new twist to the Etan Patz riddle.
There was now a confessed killer, but no body, or physical evidence that the boy died. Police have given no indication they even have physical evidence tying Hernandez to the murder.
That leaves the case resting on a three-hour confession. However, according to the man’s lawyer, Hernandez suffers from schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and hallucinations.
For Etan Patz’s parents, who chose to stay in their old third floor apartment after their son vanished a couple blocks away, the aftermath of the Hernandez confession has done little to end their torment.
Every move they make is captured by tabloid and news agency photographers. Journalists vainly ask for comments and the Patzs apparently have nothing they can say — except to beg that they be left alone.
“I just wish this could be over,” Julie Patz was quoted as saying Wednesday by the Daily News, when confronted by reporters.
Stan Patz’s response was to paste a note at the grey entrance to his building, telling “the media people” they have made “a difficult situation even worse.”
A rough area in the 1970s, SoHo is now one of the trendiest, most upscale neighborhoods in New York, where tourists and high-end shoppers flit from boutique to boutique.
Opposite the Patz’s front door is the Fragments jewelry shop. The grocery where Hernandez says he snuffed out Etan Patz became a J.F.Rey designer eyewear store.
But for New Yorkers, neither that commercial gloss, nor Hernandez’s confession, can mask the unease created by this tragedy.
“It feels really strange that they solved the case,” Natalie Gehrels, who works on brand designs in a nearby studio, said. “It just seems like a simple answer that leaves a lot of question marks.”
Sascha Beicken, a sales manager at a clothing store, said the developments had been “quite overwhelming.”
“It’s definitely one of the most difficult stories in New York history,” he said. “What I hope is that justice is served and that the parents can know the story. I don’t think they’ll ever feel whole again, but at least they can feel some relief, turn the page.”
If Hernandez pleads guilty, a judge would simply have to be sure he was mentally competent, then pass sentence.
But if Hernandez fights the charges, prosecutors will still hope to get a conviction based on the confession, former New York County district attorney Michael Scotto told AFP.
“There have been other cases where people disappeared and someone confessed to a murder and even if there wasn’t a body… the disappearance was sufficient,” he said. “If there’s evidence that a crime was committed and somebody confesses to it, that’s sufficient.”
“The mental capacity is obviously going to be an issue,” Scotto added. “The jury has to believe it. They have to believe he told the police what he told them.”