This is a story which, as a New Yorker, has bothered me for a very long time. Thirty-three years ago, six year old Etan Patz left his home for school and never came back. He would go on to become the first child featured on a milk carton as having gone missing. Now, however, police think they have a break in the case.

A man in custody in Manhattan has confessed to strangling Etan Patz, the 6-year-old boy who vanished in SoHo on his way to school in 1979, wrapping his body in a bag and putting it in a box, a law enforcement official said on Thursday.

The man, Pedro Hernandez, told investigators that he left the box at a location in Manhattan, but when he returned several days later the box was no longer there, the official said. Investigators recently took Mr. Hernandez to that location. A second official also said that Mr. Hernandez told the authorities he had strangled the boy and discarded his body.

While it would be good for the family to finally have some closure on this, I worry that this may be yet another case of some nut-job trying to grab some attention by confessing to a crime. Doug Mataconis echos a similar concern.

The possibility remains, of course, that Hernandez is another John Mark Karr. Karr, you may recall, confessed in 2006 to murdering Jon Benet Ramsey and was the subject of a short, albeit intense, period of media coverage in a case that had already generated years of attention. It turned out that Karr was lying, though, something which authorities were able to determine rather quickly when his story simply didn’t match up to the known facts in the case. Hernandez could be doing the same thing, and police will no doubt be seeking to find some forensic evidence to back up his story, but he does appear to be someone who had connections to the neighborhood this apparent abduction took place in at the time it occurred. False confessions, though, do happen, so it would be foolish to say that this case is over just yet.

The police must have found some credibility in the story, however, since they’ve placed the suspect under arrest. I think the biggest disappointment for me in such a story is the fact that any fair criminal justice system has to rely on solid evidence for a conviction. And no matter our feelings in the matter, technology doesn’t lend itself to providing such iron clad proof in a case which went cold back when I was first serving in the military. (Yes… I’m that old.)

I want Etan’s killer found, even after all these years. But I also don’t want him/her to go free at the price of some deranged idiot going down for the crime because they’re several french fries short of a Happy Meal. This is one of those cases where the media and the courts may never be able to provide us with any satisfactory resolution.

Tags: crime police