Neighbors say suspect in Patz killing lived a quiet life with his family

Story highlights

NEW: Pedro Hernandez is charged with murder in the case of Etan Patz

Police say that Hernandez confessed to the crime

He lived in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood and led a quiet life, his neighbors say

"They were pretty good people, but you never know," a neighbor says

New York CNN —  

The two-story tan house on East Linwood Avenue is unremarkable for suburban Maple Shade, just outside Camden, New Jersey. The man who lived there with his wife and teenage daughter blended in, too.

He had friends and family over for barbecues on Memorial Day and other holidays. His neighbors described him as quiet and smiling.

But Pedro Hernandez, 51, was apparently living with the knowledge of a terrible act for 33 years.

Police believe the confession Hernandez made and signed: that he lured 6-year-old Etan Patz, who vanished near his Manhattan home on May 25, 1979, to a store with the promise of a soda, choked him and placed his body in the trash about a block and a half away.

Hernandez was charged Friday, one day after his arrest, with second-degree murder in the boy’s killing.

And with that and everything else that happened to Hernandez this week, life on quiet East Linwood Avenue became the focus of an entire nation.

The Patz case was never officially closed. No one had been criminally charged. The little boy from Prince Street in the Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo gripped the national psyche and launched a novel campaign for missing children that splashed their faces on milk cartons.

“He did the right thing, you know, to confess,” Hernandez’s brother-in-law Jose Lopez told CNN affiliate KYW. “Get this thing over with for the people out there and the family over here.”

Hernandez’s neighbors were shocked to learn the news. It took their breath away.

Dan Wollick said he knew Hernandez to be quiet and God-fearing. He belonged to a Pentecostal church, according to The New York Times.

“If this guy as they say, confessed to it, for 33 years he’s been living in his own personal hell,” Wollick said.

He said Hernandez always made sure to say hello. The family never bothered anyone on the street.

“They were pretty good people, but you never know,” he said.

Chuck Diehn, a retired Philadelphia police officer, told the New York Daily News that the most sinister thing about Hernandez was his incessant smoking.

Living next door to him “was like living next to no one,” Diehn said. “All he ever did was sit in that (lawn) chair and smoke cigarettes.”

Hernandez was only 19 in 1979. He had been working for a month as a stock clerk at a bodega at 448 W. Broadway that is now an optical store.

Hernandez left his New Jersey home voluntarily Wednesday and took detectives back to the scene of his alleged crime, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. He described to them what he had done to Etan.

In the years that followed, Hernandez told a family member and others that he had “done a bad thing” and killed a child in New York.

Kelly said an individual tipped police off after the Patz case made headlines again last month, when authorities renewed their search for Etan’s remains and excavated a SoHo basement. No “obvious” human remains were found.

Kelly described Hernandez as remorseful.

“The detectives thought it was a feeling of relief on his part,” he said.

Hernandez has no prior criminal record. He was arraigned Friday, via video feed, from Bellevue Hospital, where he had been taken for medical evaluation and later placed on suicide watch.

His defense lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, told the judge during the arraignment that his client has a “long psychiatric history” – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and hallucinations. Judge Matthew Sciarrino ordered Hernandez be held without bail and granted the defense’s request that the suspect undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

CNN’s Susan Candiotti and Moni Basu contributed to this report.