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Man held over 1979 disappearance of New York schoolboy Etan Patz

The six-year-old’s disappearance while heading to school 33 years ago has never been solved.

One of the posters appealing for information about Etan Patz's disappearance in 1979.
One of the posters appealing for information about Etan Patz's disappearance in 1979.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer/PA

NEW YORK’S POLICE chief said today that a man has been detained after implicating himself in the disappearance of a young boy in 1979, an unsolved crime that changed American attitudes to parenting.

“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.

Further details were expected to be made public later today, he said.

The possible breakthrough came a day before the 33-year anniversary of the tragedy and follows a surprise decision in April to reactivate the cold case by searching the basement of a house in Manhattan’s SoHo district, near where six-year-old Patz was last seen, as he went to catch his school bus. It was the first time he’d made the trip on his own.

The search by teams of FBI and NYPD officers, conducted amid a huge media presence, ended with no announcements about any important discoveries, though debris from the excavation of the basement was removed for forensic analysis.

Patz’s disappearance shocked the United States, prompting parents nationwide to step back from previously relaxed attitudes about letting children venture out alone in the street.

He became the first missing child to have his face pictured on milk cartons with an appeal for information. The date of his disappearance, May 25, became known as National Missing Children’s Day.

According to the New York Post and New York Times, quoting unnamed sources, the man in custody was called Pedro Hernandez.

The Post’s report said the man had confessed to luring the boy with sweets, before stabbing him, cutting him up, and disposing of his remains in plastic bags. A report in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, quoting a high-ranking police official, said the man had admitted to strangling the boy.

The suspect, who had lived in Patz’s neighbourhood at the time, was arrested in neighbouring New Jersey and taken to New York for questioning, local media reported.

However, The New York Times quoted one law enforcement official saying that the man had not provided any new information. There have been false confessions in the past.

The original investigation gripped New York and the nation, with police searching around SoHo and plastering up “missing” posters showing the happy-faced boy with slightly gapped teeth and straight, sandy-colored hair.

The longtime main suspect, a convicted child abuser named Jose Ramos, was never charged. He denied involvement.

At the time of the search last month, attention turned to a carpenter who had used the basement, Othniel Miller.

Thrust in the media glare, Miller hired a lawyer, Michael Farkas, who said his client had no connection to the crime.

- (c) AFP, 2012

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