Almost four decades after first-grader Etan Patz set out for school and ended up at the heart of one of America's most influential missing-child cases, a former store clerk convicted of killing him was sentenced on Tuesday to at least 25 years in prison.
Pedro Hernandez's sentencing was the culmination of a long quest to hold someone criminally accountable in a case that affected police practices, parenting and the nation's consciousness of missing children.
"The defendant kept a terrible secret for 33 years, and caused the Patz family indescribable anguish," Judge Maxwell Wiley said before issuing the sentence.
Patz's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, were in the courtroom, along with several jurors from Hernandez's first trial. Julie Patz wiped away tears as prosecutors asked the judge for the maximum sentence.
"It's sad to be known as the city where a child can't walk for a soda without getting dumped in the garbage," Assistant District Attorney Joel Seidemann said.
"It speaks volumes about the depravity of that individual, that he would wrap his arms around Etan's neck and go forward with a dastardly deed," he said.
Stan Patz also addressed Hernandez in a brief but powerful statement.
"After all these years, we finally know what dark secret you had locked in your heart. You threw him in the garbage. I will never forgive you. You are the monster in your nightmares. The god you pray to will never forgive you. And you will join your father in hell," he said.
Pedro Hernandez didn't speak during the sentencing Tuesday and didn't look at the Patzes.
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein said no one in the courtroom should feel good about what happened in the case. He said his client was reluctant to stand up in court and speak.
"He had two things he wanted me to say," Fishbein said of Hernandez. "He wants me to express deep sympathy he has for the Patz family but also to make clear he's an innocent man."
Hernandez was a teenager working at a convenience shop in Patz's Manhattan neighborhood when the boy vanished in 1979, on the first day he was allowed to walk alone to his school bus stop.
Hernandez, who's from Maple Shade, New Jersey, confessed to choking Patz. But his lawyers have said he's mentally ill and his confession was false. They've vowed to appeal his conviction.
Patz was among the first missing children pictured on milk cartons. His case contributed to an era of fear among American families, making anxious parents more protective of kids who many once allowed to roam and play unsupervised in their neighborhoods.
His own parents' advocacy helped to establish a national missing-children hotline and to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information about such cases. The May 25 anniversary of his disappearance is now National Missing Children's Day.
From the start, the 6-year-old's case spurred a huge manhunt and an enduring, far-flung investigation. But no trace of him has ever been found. A civil court declared him dead in 2001.
Hernandez, now 56 years old, didn't become a suspect until police got a tip in 2012 that he had made remarks many years before about killing a child in New York.
Hernandez then confessed to police, saying he'd lured Patz into the store's basement by promising a soda, then choked him because "something just took over" him. He said he put Patz, still alive, in a box and left it with curbside trash.
"I'm being honest. I feel bad what I did," Hernandez said in a recorded statement.
His lawyers say he confessed falsely because of a mental illness that makes him confuse reality with imagination. He also has a very low IQ.
The defense also pointed to another suspect, a convicted child molester whom some investigators and prosecutors pursued for years. That man made incriminating statements to authorities years ago about Patz but denied killing him and has since insisted he wasn't involved in the boy's disappearance. He was never charged.
Hernandez's February conviction came in a retrial. His first trial ended in a jury deadlock in 2015.