NEW YORK, N.Y. - A law enforcement official said Thursday that a man has told police that he suffocated Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy whose disappearance on his way to school in 1979 helped give rise to the missing-children's movement that put youngsters' faces on milk cartons.
Pedro Hernandez was picked up late Wednesday in New Jersey, according to a law enforcement official, and was being questioned Thursday by the Manhattan district attorney's office.
Hernandez worked at convenience store in the neighbourhood where Patz lived, and moved to New Jersey shortly after the boy disappeared 33 years ago, according to a second law enforcement official. He has been tied to the case in the past, and investigators recently received a phone call that tipped them off to him, the officials said.
Hernandez said he suffocated the boy, then put the body in a box, walked down the street and left the box in an alley, the first official said. No body or box has been recovered, and Hernandez has not been charged.
Investigators said they were still trying to confirm details of the man's story. The development came just before the Friday anniversary of Etan's disappearance, when detectives typically receive a landslide of hoaxes and false leads.
"Let me caution you that there's still a lot of investigating to do," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
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. The excavation of the basement yielded no obvious human remains, authorities said.
Both the person familiar with the probe and the officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the case.
A woman who answered the door at Hernandez's 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, Etan, a boy with sandy brown hair and a toothy grin, vanished on May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's busy SoHo neighbourhood.
Police conducted an exhaustive search amid a crush of media attention. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed.
SoHo was not a neighbourhood 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.
They did not return a message requesting comment.
"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 neighbourhood. "There's going to be hopefully closure to her, to know what happened to her son."
The investigation has ebbed and flowed over the years. It also ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
In the past, the focus was on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester, now in prison in Pennsylvania. He had been dating Etan's baby sitter at the time the boy disappeared. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos' former basement in 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 after Ramos failed to respond to the family's lawsuit.
Recently, investigators questioned a 75-year-old Brooklyn handyman who in 1979 had a workspace in the basement that was excavated last month. The man, Othniel Miller, was not named as a suspect and denied any involvement.
Miller's lawyer 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 Jennifer Peltz, Karen Matthews and Geoff Mulvihill in Maple Shade, N.J., in contributed to this report.