In a potential break in one of the United States' most baffling missing-children cases, a former convenience-store employee has told police that he suffocated six-year-old Etan Patz in 1979 and left the boy's body in a box in an alley, The Associated Press reported on Thursday.
If Pedro Hernandez's story checks out, it could solve the 33-year-old mystery of what happened to Etan, whose disappearance on his way to school helped give rise to the nation's missing-children movement and made him one of the first abducted youngsters to be pictured on a milk carton.
Investigators on Thursday cautioned they are still trying to confirm Hernandez's account and have little to go on other than his word. No body has been found and no charges have been filed, AP reported.
Hernandez, who is believed to be in his mid-60s, worked at a store in the neighborhood where Patz lived, authorities said.
He told investigators that he suffocated the boy, then put the body in a box, walked down a Manhattan street and dumped the box in an alley, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.
The development came a day before Friday's anniversary of Etan's disappearance, when detectives typically receive a landslide of hoaxes, false leads and possible sightings.
Hernandez, who moved to New Jersey shortly after the boy vanished, was picked up there late Wednesday and was being questioned Thursday at the Manhattan district attorney's office.
He had been tied to the case in the past, and investigators recently received a phone call with a new tip, according to the law enforcement official. No details on the tip were given.
Patz vanished without a trace on May 25, 1979, while walking alone to his bus stop for the first time, two blocks from his home in New York's busy SoHo neighborhood, which was a working-class part of the city back then but is now a chic area of boutiques and galleries.
Police conducted an exhaustive search. Thousands of fliers were plastered around the city, buildings canvassed, hundreds of people interviewed.
Etan's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out. They still live in the same apartment. They have endured decades of false leads and a lack of hard evidence.
Investigators excavated a Manhattan basement last month in hopes to receive clues about what happened to the boy, but the excavation yielded no obvious human remains and little forensic evidence.
The basement, once the workspace of a handyman, is down the street from where Etan's parents still live and along the route he would have walked to reach his school bus stop when he vanished.