A man in custody who has implicated himself in the death of 6-year-old Etan Patz has been tied to the case in the past, a law enforcement official said Thursday. The boy's disappearance 33 years ago on his way to school helped launch a missing children's movement that put kids' faces on milk cartons.
The man was picked up late Wednesday in Camden, N.J., and was being questioned Thursday by the Manhattan district attorney's office, which is heading the probe by the FBI and police.
The man'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.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the man made statements implicating himself in the boy's disappearance, and expected to provide further details Thursday.
At the time of the boy's disappearance, the man in custody lived in the same Manhattan neighborhood as Patz. He had been known to detectives for years, but it was unclear what brought them back to him this week. Investigators were still going over details of his story.
The development came one day before the anniversary of the boy's disappearance, when detectives traditionally receive a landslide of hoaxes and false leads related to the case.
Wearing a backpack, the boy with sandy hair and a toothy grin vanished May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his school bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's SoHo neighborhood.
There was an exhaustive search by the police and a crush of media attention. The boy's photo was one of the first of a missing child on a milk carton. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed.
SoHo was not a neighborhood 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.
The Patzes are among the residential holdouts in what has become a chic and artsy shopping district. At one point Thursday morning, the actress Meg Ryan — wearing dark glasses despite a drizzle — walked briskly past the scene, ignoring photographers who trailed her.
The April excavation of a Manhattan basement yielded no obvious human remains and little forensic evidence that would help solve the decades-long mystery of what happened to the boy.
The Patz family did not immediately 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 neighborhood. "There's going to be hopefully closure to her, to know what happened to her son."
Etan's disappearance touched off a massive search that has ebbed and flowed over the years. It also ushered in an era of anxiety about leaving children unsupervised.
In 2010, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced he was reinvestigating the case.
In the past, the case seemed to have been largely focused on Jose Ramos, a convicted child molester, now serving time in Pennsylvania, who had been dating Etan's baby sitter at the time the boy disappeared. In 2000, authorities dug up Ramos' former basement on the Lower East Side of 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.
More recently, the focus had shifted to a 75-year-old Brooklyn resident, though he was not named a suspect and denied any involvement. In 1979, he was a handyman who had a workspace in the basement where the April excavation occurred.