Pedro Hernandez, 51, of Maple Shade, N.J., was indicted by a New York City grand jury. He was arrested earlier this year, and investigators say he confessed. The indictment was made public Wednesday.
Hernandez is due back in court on Thursday. The district attorney’s office had no immediate comment.
Etan’s disappearance led to an intensive search and spawned a movement to publicize cases of missing children. His photo was among the first put on milk cartons, and his case turned May 25 into National Missing Children’s Day.
The boy’s body has never been found. Etan’s parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have been reluctant to move or even change their phone number in case their son tried to reach out.
Etan was declared legally dead by his father more than a decade ago so he could sue convicted child molester Jose Ramos in the boy’s death.
Ramos, now 69, had been dating the boy’s baby sitter in 1979 and was considered a suspect. He was later convicted of molesting two different children and is in a Pennsylvania prison.
But investigators began focusing on Hernandez this year after a tipster called police about comments by Hernandez’s sister that she heard secondhand he told a church prayer group in the 1980s that he killed a child in New York City.
Hernandez, now a married father, was a teenage stock clerk at a convenience store when Etan disappeared on his way to school on May 25, 1979. Police say Hernandez told investigators he lured the boy into the convenience store with the promise of a soda.
He allegedly said he led the child to the basement, choked him and left his body in a bag of trash about a block away. The convenience store is now an eyeglass shop, and city records pinpointing where garbage was dumped don’t go back that far.
Defense attorney Harvey Fishbein has described Hernandez as bipolar and schizophrenic, with a history of hallucinations. The diagnosis could become the basis of psychiatric defense claiming that Hernandez agreed to speak to police without understanding his rights, and that the purported confession was a sick fantasy.