Etan Patz coverage, refracted through a law-enforcement turf squabble

A poster calling for information on Etan Patz's disappearance. ()
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Over the long holiday weekend, local coverage was dominated by the confession of Pedro Hernandez, a former Soho bodega stock-boy who claimed to police that he killed six-year-old Etan Patz in the basement of his store 33 years ago.

But on Sunday, the two local tabloids were telling very different stories.

The New York Post's headline said "ETAN SECRET CLUE," touting an article in which sources tell the Post that Hernandez knew details in connection with the crime that only the killer would have known.

It's hard to evaluate the claim: Usually these sorts of details, if they're truly the exclusive knowledge of the killer, should relate to forensic evidence from the body or the crime scene. The police have neither.

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Nor do the Post sources reveal, for obvious reasons, what that "SECRET CLUE" might be. But:

[Sources] said the closely held details likely relate to Patz’s body—scars, birth marks, moles or other identifying characteristics—items he wore or had when he disappeared or knowledge the killer gleaned about Patz’s family before the killing.

                 

Whether or not that turns out to be true, and whether those details are of any assistance in prosecuting Hernandez, who was arraigned on Friday and later entered a plea of "not guilty" on a charge of second-degree murder, one thing is for sure: The article addressed growing skepticism in the rest of the media about the Hernandez confession, and criticism of police handling both of the new confession and the original investigation, in light of the fact that Hernandez was never put in the frame in the first place.

On that, the Post has this to say:

Kelly was said to be furious with the way the investigation into Hernandez was initially handled.

“He’s upset and wants to know: Had this guy ever been interviewed?” said one source. “Kelly is pissed. The heat is on.”

But the Daily News, overall, gave much more weight to criticism of the Kelly operation. The headline was "ETAN: FBI'S DOUBT," on a front page that was, like the Post's, was illustrated with photos of both Hernandez and Patz.

Also attributing its news to "sources," the News reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has at times been involved in the investigation, believes the police and the district attorney moved too quickly to an arrest:

“The bosses are very skeptical,” said a police source who is in close contact with the FBI. “They don’t believe him. He’s got mental problems and there’s no other evidence. They think we moved too fast.”

And:

FBI investigators who reviewed Hernandez’s confession told The News inconsistencies in his story undermine his credibility.

But we never get a description of those inconsistencies. 

Another party in all this:

Some in the Manhattan district attorney’s office advocated a search for proof before Hernandez was arrested Wednesday at his New Jersey home, police sources said.

It's difficult not to read these differing accounts as anything but another expression of the turf war between the F.B.I. and the NYPD (with occasional cameo appearances by the district attorney's office; Cy Vance was after all the guy who campaigned on reopening the case). And now, we know which angles on that turf war will be exploited by the tabloids. It's a neat symbiosis: With law enforcement sources at odds, each picks up one side and gets its own angle on the story.

The Times, by contrast, hasn't quite lined itself up with either the F.B.I., the NYPD or the district attorney's office.

They came out of the gate pretty early questioning the NYPD's handling of the publicity of the affair, with a Jim Dwyer opinion column Thursday headlined "Publicity First, Evidence Later in Patz Arrest." Since then, the tone of the Times coverage has been cautious.

"It is unclear whether investigators have been able to corroborate the account Mr. Hernandez has provided," read a report in the Times after Kelly's announcement of Hernandez's arrest. "Without any trace of human remains or other forensic evidence, any possible prosecution of him would face significant evidentiary hurdles."

A Friday piece by Michael Wilson was headlined, "In Patz Investigation, a Confession Is Not the Final Word," and a straight news piece co-bylined by William Rashbaum and Kia Gregory carried quotes (low down in the article) from skeptics including one former F.B.I. agent who worked on the case, an anonymous "investigator" who has also worked the case in the past, and a current "official." 

The next day, the value of the confession itself was called into question after Hernandez's lawyer, Harvey Fishbein, told the court that his client had been treated for mental illness:

Mr. Hernandez’s psychiatric condition could weigh on the credibility of his three-and-a-half-hour confession. Far less certain is whether Mr. Hernandez’s lifelong mental state would become a building block in any possible insanity defense that would hinge on his mental state in May 1979, when Etan, who was 6 years old, disappeared on his way to school.

Both tabloids have run a mix of stories and columns on the controversies surrounding the Hernandez confession, so it's not really a question of either paper having sympathy for one side or the other. But what they're selling on the front pages is tied to their best sources, and right now that appears to be the F.B.I. for the News and the NYPD in the Post.