Once kids’ safe zone, shop gets new focus in Patz case trial
NEW YORK (AP) — With a prized dollar in hand and a treat in mind, Etan Patz headed toward the corner store that the neighborhood kids knew as a safe haven, a place their parents told them to go in case of emergency.
But within that comfort zone lurked a killer, prosecutors say, and it became the scene of one of the nation’s most notorious crimes against children when teenage stock clerk Pedro Hernandez lured 6-year-old Etan to the basement and choked him in 1979.
The long-gone store has suddenly come into sharp focus in his murder trial, after decades of being just another one of hundreds of locations tied to the long, fruitless search for the boy.
“It’s ironic and particularly tragic that this was the place that turned out to be the most dangerous for a child,” Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzi-Orbon said during opening statements.
Etan vanished while walking to his school bus stop right by the store, where his mother said he planned to buy a soda. His disappearance helped spur a national movement to find missing children, and he was among the first ever depicted on milk cartons.
Now a boutique where bracelets cost upward of $300 in a chic neighborhood, the store — to New Yorkers, a bodega — was then a cramped oasis of household necessities in an area of ramshackle warehouses and vacant lots. Its narrow aisles were crammed with soda, beer, candy and household supplies. Sometimes a live rooster perched on the counter, residents recalled.
It was a homegrown precursor of today’s official “safe places” and “safe havens,” establishments that various organizations designate as willing to help children who feel they’re in danger. One group, the National Safe Place Network, licenses youth agencies to oversee some 20,000 “safe place” sites in businesses, fire stations and even public buses around the country.
While its roots are in helping runaways and homeless youths, “it can also be for that kid who is being followed by a stranger or a creepy person,” communications coordinator Hillary Ladig said.
Like those locales, the bodega at 448 West Broadway was a spot where kids felt comfortable popping in and parents felt comfortable letting them do it — “a friendly place,” recalled Chelsea Altman, who was Etan’s best friend.
Just a day before Etan disappeared, another neighborhood mom found the lunch box he’d forgotten at the school bus stop and dropped it off at the store, asking counter worker Juan Santana to mind it until he could pick it up.
Santana was a guy everyone in the neighborhood knew. But no one knew that his brother-in-law, Hernandez, would become the suspect in Etan’s death more than three decades later, after giving a confession his defense now says was fiction produced by mental illness.
Hernandez, 54, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, has pleaded not guilty to murder and kidnapping.
Santana, who isn’t a suspect, has become a confounding witness during testimony this week. Many of his answers didn’t match others’ remembrances, and Illuzi-Orbon even warned jurors that Santana — who got Hernandez his $200-a-week job at the bodega — was worried about protecting himself and would not be cooperative.
Santana, 66, testified that he remembered Etan picking up the lunch box the day before his disappearance, but he doesn’t recall whether Hernandez ever spoke to him.
And Santana said he didn’t remember whether Hernandez was allowed alone into the store basement, where Hernandez said in videotaped confessions that he lured Etan by promising a soda, then choked him. In the confessions, Hernandez said he put the boy, still alive, in a bag, boxed it and left it with curbside trash.
Etan’s body has never been found. No one has testified, at least so far, that they saw Hernandez with the boy.
Some records from the lengthy investigation are missing, and it’s not clear why the shop never emerged as a prime spot until Hernandez’ surprising 2012 confession. While records show police went to the store among many places during their search for Etan, a detective testified earlier this week that he couldn’t remember the space being searched.
The owners have died. So has the lead detective.
And when the bodega closed in the early 1980s, a cleaning company came and stripped away everything.
COLLEEN LONG, JENNIFER PELTZ
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