SOHO — A man being questioned in connection with the 1979 disappearance and death of 6-year-old Etan Patz told police "I did it," NYPD sources said Thursday.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, was picked up in Camden, N.J., on Wednesday, the sources said. Hernandez, the son of a SoHo shopkeeper, was working in a local bodega at the time Patz disappeared, they added.
He admitted to being involved and told police he strangled the boy and left him in a box.
Chillingly, he added, "There is no body. You're not going to find it," the sources said.
"An individual now in custody has made statements to NYPD detectives implicating himself in the disappearance and death of Etan Patz 33 years ago," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said in a statement issued from London, where he was meeting to discuss safety at the summer's Olympics.
"We expect to provide further details later today."
The sources said investigative leads gathered recently led them to speak to Hernandez, who has no prior arrest record. He was questioned in Camden, and brought to New York City later Wednesday, the sources said.
They said Hernandez has mentioned killing a child to relatives several times since Patz disappeared, though the boy's name was not thought to have been mentioned.
At Hernandez's apartment in Maple Shade, N.J., a neighbor described him as a "very quiet" man who didn't drink or smoke and seemed to be very religious, attending church every Sunday.
"He's going to need a lot of religion now, if he did it," said 71-year-old Dan Wollick.
Hernandez and his wife had lived there about four or five years with a teenage daughter, Wollick said. "I wouldn't expect it all," he said of the news.
Another neighbor, retired police officer Chuck Biehn, said he saw uniformed cops and men in suits knock on Hernandez's door at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, then lead Pedro Hernandez to a waiting car. Hernandez wasn't handcuffed, and "didn't put up a fight," Biehn said.
A short while later, investigators took Hernandez's wife and daughter away, Biehn said.
Reporters swarmed the Hernandez house on Thursday after news of his involvement in the case broke. A woman inside did not answer the door.
About 2:30 p.m. a woman identified by neighbors as Hernandez's wife Rosemary and his teenage daughter emerged from the house. Neither woman made any comments to reporters. Hernandez's daughter carried a box with her.
Patz vanished on May 25, 1979, while walking to a bus stop alone near his Prince Street home in SoHo. Friday is the 33rd anniversary of the disappearance.
Last month, more than 40 police and FBI investigators spent five days digging in a basement at 127 Prince St. in a renewed probe into Patz's disappearance and death.
For several years, the main suspect in the case has been Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester who had a relationship with Patz's babysitter. He is in prison in Pennsylvania for a conviction in an unrelated case.
Ramos has never been charged criminally in the Patz case and has always denied involvement. But, in 2004, a civil judge found him responsible for the boy's death.
The police sources said, if Hernandez's story turns out to be true, he would replace Ramos as their prime suspect.
Sources said the man's name has come up previously in the investigation. Police are planning to question him further, though the sources said they have no hard evidence to support his confession.
Roz Radd, who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years, said, "Hopefully this is closure for what's happened.
"I hope [the police are] sure before they release anything. It's hard to get your hopes up to be let down again."
The Patz family's hopes have been dashed several times over the years.
Their pain was summed up by a source who said several people had called or turned up at the family home over the years claiming to be the boy.
Mayor Bloomberg, speaking at an unrelated press conference Thursday, said, "I can't imagine what they've gone through and I certainly hope that we are one step closer to bringing them some measure of relief."
Patz's disappearance filled front pages in the city and across the nation 33 years ago. Four years after he vanished, President Ronald Reagan declared May 25 National Missing Children's Day, and Patz's photo was among the first to be placed on a milk carton.
The campaign to find Patz, however, has not turned up any trace of his body or led to any convictions. The boy was declared dead in 2001.
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office officially reopened the investigation in 2010. The NYPD and FBI revisited neighbors and suspects, and the interviews ultimately led to the 15-by-30-foot basement at 127 Prince St., less than one block from the Patz family's apartment at the corner of Prince Street and West Broadway.
Othniel Miller, 75, ran a woodworking shop there at the time of Patz's disappearance. He was one of the last people to see Patz alive May 25, sources said, and he was known to dote on the boy, often giving him $1 bills. Investigators swept the basement with a cadaver dog, and used saws and drills to cut through the drywall. But ultimately, the search was suspended after five days.