05/24/2012 at 08:50 PM EDT
After more than three decades, one of the country's biggest missing persons cases has finally been solved, say police.
Pedro Hernandez, a former corner store worker, was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder after he confessed to strangling
6-year-old Etan Patz and disposing of his body in 1979, police said Thursday.
"He was remorseful, and I think the detectives thought that it was a feeling of relief on his part," New York police Commissioner Ray Kelly told a news conference.
The announcement comes one day before the 33rd anniversary of the disappearance of the boy who would become the nation's first "milk carton child." The case sparked the movement to raise awareness of missing kids.
Etan vanished on his way
to a New York bus stop, triggering a massive manhunt involving hundreds of law enforcement personnel and bloodhounds, but no sign of him had ever been detected.
The case returned to the headlines last month when authorities re-launched the search
, tearing out drywall and shelves from the basement of a commercial building near the bus stop.
Kelly said a recent tip led investigators to Hernandez, 51, a Maple Shade, N.J., resident with a teen-age daughter.
"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," says Kelly.
On Wednesday night, Hernandez was questioned in New Jersey and then voluntarily returned with detectives to New York, says Kelly.
"He brought them to the scene of the crime, which is now a store that sells eye glasses," says the commissioner. "Hernandez described to the detectives how he lured young Etan from the school bus stop at West Broadway and Prince Street with the promise of a soda. He then led him into the basement of the (store), choked him there, and disposed of the body by putting it into a plastic bag, and placing it into the trash."
At the time, Hernandez was a 19-year-old stock clerk in the business and lived in an apartment nearby, says Kelly.
Kelly said investigators arrested Hernandez based on "the fact that he had told his story in the past, and the specificity of what he said in the confession."