NEW YORK — Almost four decades after first-grader Etan Patz set out for school and ended up at the heart of one of America’s most influential missing-child cases, a former store clerk convicted of killing him was sentenced on Tuesday to at least 25 years in prison.
In a few angry words, Etan’s father condemned the convicted man, Pedro Hernandez, as his sentencing culminated a case that affected police practices, parenting and the nation’s consciousness of missing children.
“Pedro Hernandez, after all these years, we finally know what dark secret you had locked in your heart,” Stan Patz said. “I will never forgive you. The god you pray to will never forgive you. You are the monster in your nightmares.”
Patz’s wife, Julie Patz, wiped tears from her eyes as she stood beside him.
Hernandez, 56, didn’t look at them, speak or react as he got the maximum allowable sentence: 25 years to life in prison, meaning he won’t be eligible for parole until he has served the 25 years.
The lead defense lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, told the court Hernandez wanted to express deep sympathy to the Patzes but also to say “he’s an innocent man and he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Etan Patz.”
Hernandez was a teenager working at a convenience shop in Etan’s Manhattan neighborhood when the boy vanished in 1979, on the first day he was allowed to walk alone to his school bus stop.
Hernandez, who’s from Maple Shade, New Jersey, confessed to choking Etan. But his lawyers have said he’s mentally ill and his confession was false, and they are vowing to appeal his conviction.
In a sign of the case’s impact on the law enforcement officials and everyday people enmeshed in it, the courtroom audience Tuesday included Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., police officers who worked on the case over the years and a half-dozen former jurors.
Etan was among the first missing children pictured on milk cartons. His case contributed to an era of fear among American families, making anxious parents more protective of kids who many once allowed to roam and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.
His parents’ advocacy helped to establish a national missing-children hotline and to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about such cases. The May 25 anniversary of his disappearance became National Missing Children’s Day.
Still, “I don’t think we ever believed that we could come to this point — that we would ever actually find out what happened to our child,” Stan Patz said after the sentencing. “There were so many false leads, so many blind alleys. So many years went by.”
From the start, the 6-year-old’s case spurred a huge manhunt and an enduring, far-flung investigation. But no trace of him has ever been found. A civil court declared him dead in 2001.
Hernandez didn’t become a suspect until police got a 2012 tip that he had made remarks many years before about having killed a child in New York.
Hernandez then confessed to police, saying he’d lured Etan into the store’s basement by promising a soda, then choked him because “something just took over me.” He said he put Etan, still alive, in a box and left it with curbside trash.
“I’m being honest. I feel bad what I did,” Hernandez said in a recorded statement.
His lawyers say he confessed falsely because of a mental illness that makes him confuse reality with imagination. He also has a very low IQ.
The defense also pointed to another suspect, a convicted child molester whom some investigators and prosecutors — and even Etan’s parents — pursued for years. That man made incriminating statements to authorities years ago about Etan but denied killing him and has since insisted he wasn’t involved in the boy’s disappearance. He was never charged.
Hernandez’s February conviction came in a retrial. His first trial ended in a jury deadlock in 2015.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley said on Tuesday he’d found prosecutors’ case against Hernandez compelling. Hernandez, he said, “kept a terrible secret for 33 years.”