A lawyer for a man who police say confessed to choking a six-year old boy to death in a landmark 1979 missing child case said his client was mentally ill and had a history of hallucinations.
Pedro Hernandez, 51, appeared in court via a video link last night, charged with the second-degree murder of Etan Patz. He did not enter a plea and was remanded in custody.
Hernandez was filmed in a conference room at Bellevue Hospital, New York City, where he was admitted after making comments about wanting to kill himself.
Court-appointed lawyer Harvey Fishbein told the judge Hernandez was bipolar and schizophrenic.
A judge ordered Hernandez to undergo a psychological examination.
Hernandez was arrested on Thursday after telling police he strangled Etan in 1979, when he was an 18-year-old stock boy at a convenience store where Etan waited for his school bus.
Etan disappeared 33 years ago on May 25 1979, on his two-block walk to his bus stop in Manhattan, in a case that made New York parents afraid to let their children out of their sight and sparked a movement to publicise the cases of missing youngsters.
He was one of the first missing children to be pictured on a milk carton.
Hernandez, who emerged as a suspect just days ago after police received a tip-off, told investigators that he lured the boy into the store, then led him to the basement, choked him and put his body in a bag with some rubbish about a street away, police said.
Authorities never found a body and Hernandez’s confession put investigators in the unusual position of bringing the case to court before they had amassed any physical evidence or had time to fully corroborate his story or investigate his psychiatric condition.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said investigators were retracing dustcart routes from the late 1970s and deciding whether to search landfill sites for the boy’s remains.
Crime scene investigators also arrived yesterday at the building in Manhattan’s SoHo section that once held the bodega where Hernandez worked. Authorities were considering excavating the basement for evidence.
They were also looking into whether Hernandez had a history of mental illness or paedophilia.
Legal experts said that even though police have a confession, they will have to work hard to make certain Hernandez is not delusional, or simply making the story up.
“There’s always a concern whether or not someone is falsely confessing,” said former prosecutor Paul DerOhannesian.
Mr Fishbein asked reporters to respect the privacy of some of Hernandez’s relatives, including his wife and daughter.
“It’s a tough day. The family is very upset. Please give them some space,” he said.
Etan’s father, Stanley Patz, avoided journalists gathered outside the family’s Manhattan apartment, the same one the family was living in when his son vanished.
Former SoHo resident Roberto Monticello, a film-maker who was a teenager when Etan disappeared, said he remembered Hernandez as civil, but reserved and “pent-up”.
“You always got the sense that if you crossed him really bad, he would hurt you,” Mr Monticello said, although he added that he never saw him hit anyone.
Mr Monticello said Hernandez was also one of the few teenagers in the neighbourhood who did not join in the all-out search for Etan, which consumed SoHo and the city for months.
“He was always around, but he never helped. He never participated,” Mr Monticello said.
Hernandez, who moved to New Jersey shortly after Etan’s disappearance, suffered a back injury that has kept him on disability benefits for years, according to police.
The Rev George Bowen, pastor at Hernandez’s church in Moorestown, New Jersey, said he attended services regularly.
“I would judge him to be shy and maybe timid. He never got involved in anything,” Mr Bowen said.
He said Hernandez’s wife Rosemary and daughter Becky a college student, came to see him on Thursday morning after he was taken into police custody.
“They were just crying their eyes out,” Mr Bowen said. “They were broken up. They were wrecked. It was horrible. They didn’t know what they were going to do.”
New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly said Hernandez gave a detailed confession that led police to believe they had the right man.
He also said Hernandez told a relative and others as far back as 1981 that he had “done something bad” and killed a child in New York.