By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey man was in custody on Thursday in the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz from his New York City neighborhood, a case that drew national attention to the plight of missing children, authorities said.
A law enforcement source told Reuters the suspect is Pedro Hernandez of New Jersey. Police in Camden, New Jersey, say he was picked up there on Wednesday night while visiting relatives.
The break in the case came one month after the FBI and New York City Police conducted a four-day excavation of a basement on the block in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood where Patz lived and was last seen. At the time, police said no obvious human remains were found and it remained a missing person case.
"An individual now in custody has made statements to NYPD detectives implicating himself in the disappearance and death of Etan Patz 33 years ago," New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a statement.
Kelly said police would provide more information later in the day.
The New York Times, citing an unidentified law enforcement official, reported Hernandez confessed during a videotaped interview with police to strangling Patz, wrapping his body in a bag and putting it in a box. He said he left the box in Manhattan but it was gone when he revisited that spot at a later date. He recently led investigators to the location.
The Times said Hernandez worked in a corner grocery store near the Patz home. He has since moved to the Camden area, and police were interviewing his relatives to see what he told them, if anything, about Patz. The Times said Hernandez has been a suspect in the past and it was not clear what sparked a renewed interest in him.
Investigators remain skeptical about Hernandez's story, said authorities familiar with the case.
Although the boy was formally declared dead in 2001, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance re-opened the case in 2010 and investigators tore apart the basement in April looking for clothing and human remains after a cadaver-sniffing dog sensed something at the site.
On May 25, 1979, Patz's parents allowed the boy to make his first unaccompanied trip to the bus stop two blocks away. They never saw him again.
Patz was one of the first missing children in the United States to have his photograph printed on milk cartons, and his case helped fuel an intense national outreach campaign for missing children in the 1980s.
Long targeted as a suspect in the case was Jose Antonio Ramos, a friend of Patz's babysitter who was later convicted of child molestation in a separate case in Pennsylvania. He is due to be released from prison in November.
In a 2004 civil suit Patz's parents brought against Ramos, a New York judge found him responsible for the boy's death, a charge he denied.
Patz family members last month asked the media to respect their privacy as the days-long dig was under way just 100 yards from the home where they still live.
Authorities tore through the floor of a workshop used by a handyman, Othniel Miller, now 75, who had paid the boy to help him with chores. Miller was questioned by police but was not charged with a crime.
On Thursday, dozens of reporters and camera crew milled outside the Patz apartment above a trendy street of high-end boutiques and restaurants. No one answered the door to the apartment.
"I just hope they get some resolution after all these years. It's just a horrific thing," said Carla Seal-Wanner, 58, an animator and mother of three who moved to the neighborhood in the early 1980s. "It was very much still in people's minds. Of course, it always was lurking as the history of the neighborhood."
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan, Basil Katz, Joseph Ax, Chris Francescani and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen)