Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., is the first person ever arrested in the heartbreaking crime that garnered national attention for more than three decades. The NYPD charged him with second degree murder, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said at a press conference on the eve of the anniversary of Patz's May 25, 1979 disappearance.
"Obviously we believe there's probable cause to go forward with this arrest," Kelly said. However there is no physical evidence tying Hernandez to the crime, Kelly said, and authorities don't expect to ever find Patz's body.
Patz vanished as he walked to the school bus stop for the first time by himself.
Kelly said Hernandez confessed to promising a soda to Patz to lure him into the basement of a West Broadway bodega where Hernandez worked. The bodega was open for business when he choked Patz to death in the basement and put the child's body into a plastic bag that he left on the street about a block away from the store, which now sells eyeglasses, Kelly said.
The police commissioner declined to discuss whether Hernandez had a history of mental illness, but a source said Hernandez told detectives that he was bipolar.
Kelly said the "specificity" of Hernandez's story, in addition to confiding to others that he had "done something bad and killed a child in New York City," convinced police he was telling the truth. Hernandez spoke to detectives for three-and-a-half hours and signed his confession, which was also videotaped, Kelly said.
Sources said that after he allegedly put Patz's body into a plastic bag, Hernandez then put the bag into a box the he left it in an alleyway nearby.
Kelly described Hernandez as "remorseful" during his confession.
"The detectives thought there was a feeling of relief on his part," Kelly said.
Hernandez did not give a motive for the killing, and had no known connection to the Patz family, Kelly said. It's not clear Hernandez knew Etan, Kelly said.
Hernandez's arrest marks a stunning new chapter in a case that gripped the city and nation, sparking the begining of national awareness of missing children.
Lt. Chris Zimmerman, the commanding officer of the NYPD's Missing Persons Squad, said he was "glad" to deliver news of Hernandez's arrest to Patz's parents, who still live in the neighborhood.
"Mr. Patz was taken aback, a little surprised, and overwhelmed to a degree," Zimmerman said. "I think after everything Mr. Patz has gone through, he handled it very well."
Hernandez, whose father was a local shopkeeper, worked as stock clerk in the bodega directly behind the bus stop where Patz waited on the morning of his disappearance. He stopped working at the bodega a month after Patz's disappearance. Hernandez lived in an apartment nearby at the time.
Hernandez, who has no criminal record, had told relatives as early as 1981 that he killed a child in New York, but never mentioned Patz by name, Kelly said.
When the case made headlines again in April as investigators dug up a SoHo basement where they suspected Patz's body could be buried, a tipster contacted authorities, Kelly said.
On Wednesday Hernandez told investigators, "I did it," sources told DNAinfo.com New York.
Zimmerman said Hernandez was "friendly to detectives" when they questioned him on Wednesday night.
Hernandez was never questioned and had never been considered a suspect in the case before this week, Kelly said.
Hernandez was 19 at the time of his alleged killing of Patz. He worked in construction until he suffered a back injury in 1993, then lived on Social Security Income disability payments, Kelly said.
Investigators believe Hernandez acted alone, Kelly said. Investigators said they were still looking into whether Hernandez sexually abused Patz.