02/24/2015 03:21 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2015

Man accused of New York murder denied it, then confessed -police

By Natasja Sheriff

NEW YORK, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The man accused of killing New York boy Etan Patz three decades ago denied any involvement just hours before making a videotaped confession in the high-profile case, a detective testified on Tuesday.

Pedro Hernandez had been under police questioning in the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Patz for more than five hours when he denied any role, New York Police Detective David Ramirez testified at Hernandez' trial in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

Less than two hours later, Hernandez confessed to killing the boy, saying he lured him into a Manhattan deli where he worked with a promise of a soda, strangled him, stuffed him in a bag and dumped him in an alley, police say.

Hernandez' defense attorneys say the confession, made in 2012, was coerced and that he is mentally ill and suffers hallucinations.

Patz vanished as he walked alone for the first time to a school bus stop in his Manhattan neighborhood on May 25, 1979. His disappearance sparked a national movement to find missing children, with his picture one of the first to appear on milk cartons.

Hernandez was questioned and arrested in 2012 after police got a tip that he had confessed to the crime to a church prayer group in New Jersey, where he was living.

In court on Tuesday, Hernandez' defense attorney Harvey Fishbein asked the detective if the suspect had "expressed that he had nothing to do with the disappearance of Etan Patz."

"Yes," the detective said.

According to Ramirez, Hernandez complained that the detectives repeatedly asked him the same question about whether he had seen children at the deli where he worked in 1979.

The deli was in the same Manhattan neighborhood as the Patz family's apartment.

Patz has never been found. He was declared dead in 2001.

Hernandez, 54, faces charges of kidnapping and murder. His defense attorneys say the blame belongs to another man, Jose Antonio Ramos, who for many years was a prime suspect in the case. Ramos is a convicted child molester in prison in Pennsylvania.

Defense attorneys say they have evidence that neighbors of Ramos positively identified Patz as a boy seen in the Manhattan apartment building with Ramos at the time of the boy's disappearance.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Andrew Hay)