By Murray Weiss DNAinfo Columnist / Criminal Justice Editor
The most startling new detail is that Hernandez supposedly kept a photo of the missing SoHo boy, who went missing on May 25, 1979, hidden among his personal belongings for years, law enforcement sources told “On The Inside.”
Hernandez’s first wife discovered the photo in the mid-1980s, sources said. She said it appeared to have been cut out of one of Etan’s famous missing persons posters seen all over the city. His face also was the first to appear on the side of milk cartons.
“What is this?” she asked Hernandez, according to the law enforcement sources.
"You better put that away,” he barked back. And he said she should never touch it again.
Although the cops have no hope of finding the picture, sources said they believe the woman's recollection could be used as evidence before a grand jury.
Testimony that Hernandez kept a hidden photo of Etan would add to evidence against him that includes: Hernandez's confession to police back in May, similar admissions to others over the years and his writing “I killed him” on a picture of Etan that was shown to him by police on the day he was arrested.
Another strong element in the case was Hernandez’s sudden move from SoHo just weeks after Etan disappeared — incredibly, without ever being questioned by the NYPD, the sources revealed.
Since his arrest this year, detectives have poured through a mountain of NYPD reports and found that Hernandez's name surfaced early after Etan went missing.
They found him mentioned only once, on paperwork that stated that he and his boss, the owner of a bodega in the neighborhood, were at work the day Etan disappeared, sources said.
Back then, Hernandez was 18-years-old and worked near the Thompson and Prince streets intersection where Etan vanished. There's no evidence that police ever interviewed him or the owners of the bodega, police said.
“Nobody ever did it," a law enforcement source said. "He wasn’t ever talked to and split town. And the owner, he is dead now and can’t be spoken to.”
Operating on the slim chance that an interview with Hernandez was conducted, but never memorialized on paper, detectives reached out to current and retired detectives who worked on the Patz case back in the day. None recalled Hernandez.
Computers and piles of belongings cops seized from Hernandez’s New Jersey home have turned up no additional evidence, sources said.
After weeks of psychological evaluation at Bellevue Hospital, Hernandez, who has a long history of schizophrenia and hallucinations (some believe he deluded himself into believing he killed Etan), provided no additional information about his alleged motive to kill Etan. When he was arrested in May, all he said was he had an “urge” when he allegedly encountered Etan.
Yet despite the lack of a smoking gun, NYPD detectives remain “absolutely convinced” that Hernandez is responsible for the murder, a crime that forever changed the way America looked at missing children cases, sources told “On The Inside.”
For decades, investigators tried to pin the blame on a “prime suspect,” convicted pedophile Jose Ramos who was dating Etan’s babysitter when the child vanished.
Ramos, who is completing a long prison stretch in Pennsylvania for abusing several children, admitted to being with a blond boy — but not Etan— on the day Etan disappeared.
He also has a history of threatening to kill people and was once overheard in prison crying, “Etan, I did not mean to hurt you. I loved you,” according to a source.
In 2004, a Manhattan Civil Court judge determined that Ramos was legally responsible for Etan’s murder.
So how could the NYPD detectives now be certain that Ramos is not the killer?
“For a long time people thought the world was flat,” a source opined.
The Patz case took a stunning turn in May when the NYPD received a tip from a relative of Hernandez. It was around the time the FBI and NYPD were conducting a highly publicized dig for evidence in a SoHo basement hoping for a break in the case.
The tipster claimed Hernandez had frequently spoken over the years, saying that he “had done a bad thing and killed a child in New York.” The informant speculated that Hernandez might have been referring to Etan.
Perhaps even more importantly, Hernandez suddenly and inexplicably moved out of SoHo and back with his family just weeks after Etan disappeared, behaving extremely nervous and paranoid at the time, according to sources.
As a result, the NYPD sent a cadre of detectives from the Missing Persons Squad and Major Case Squads — including several with years of previous experience in the Bronx Homicide Task Force — to New Jersey to talk with Hernandez. He quickly confessed to killing Etan.
Hernandez told detectives he lured Etan into the bodega's basement with an offer of soda and, acting on an “urge,” quickly strangled the boy, sources said.
He said he then placed Etan’s school backpack on top of the basement freezer before he slid the boy's lifeless body into a black garbage bag. He did not cut up the body or place it in the freezer, as has been reported in other news outlets, sources said.
He then said he put the body into a large cardboard produce box — the kind with holes on all four sides — and then carried it around the block where he left it with other trash, sources said.
He never said what he did with the boy's backpack, but detectives assume he tossed that out as well.
Hernandez was recently moved to Rikers Island after his stint at Bellevue.
His next court appearance is in October.