On Friday, a man who worked in the neighborhood at the time will be arraigned on murder charges.
Pedro Hernandez was 18 years old then. Today, he is 51, and police say he confessed to the crime.
It was exactly 33 years ago, May 25, 1979, also a Friday, when a boy walking to the school bus stop alone for the first time, no more than a single block, seemed to vanish into thin air.
Police began their investigation at the Patz family's Manhattan loft. They followed up on leads in Israel, Columbus, Ohio, even the Pennsylvania woods.
But on the eve of the 33rd anniversary, it was learned that the answer to the mystery may have been no farther than the corner store.
"He lured young Etan from the school bus stop ... with the promise of soda," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters. "He then led him into the basement of the bodega (grocery store), choked him there and disposed of the body by putting it in a plastic bag and placing it in the trash."
Hernandez, 51, worked at a neighborhood grocery store. The Patz family knew it well.
But it was another clue, a dead-end lead, that forced the truth out of hiding.
Last month, when investigators dug up the basement of a building down the street, stories of the mystery of Etan Patz were back in the news and triggered the conscience of someone who had been carrying a dark secret for too long.
It was a relative of Hernandez who called police.
"In the years following Etan's disappearance, Hernandez had told a family member and others that he had 'done a bad thing' and killed a child in New York," Kelly said.
On Wednesday, New York City police detectives came to a small New Jersey house. Within hours, they say, Hernandez had confessed, and then allowed police to follow as he retraced his steps at the scene of the crime.
Lisa Cohen has written the most authoritative book on the Etan Patz case, "After Etan: The Missing Child Case that Held America Captive."
Was the anniversary of his disappearance significant?
"I don't think it's unusual that things happen on this case on the anniversary or near the anniversary. I think it's a time when people remember," Cohen said.
Two years ago, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance reopened the case.
The New York Police Department and FBI worked with a list of the top 10 possible suspects. Hernandez wasn't on it.
For Etan Patz's parents, Stan and Julie Patz, it has been a long wait for answers.
What does Cohen think they're doing and thinking?
"This is just the latest in a very, very long line of big breaks in the case," Cohen said, "and I think they certainly are taking the wait-and-see approach."