We take no position on the guilt or innocence of Pedro Hernandez, the man police say confessed to killing a six-year old boy, Etan Patz, in New York in 1979.

Among the many things that make the case interesting from a professional point of view is the way it illustrates the irreplaceable value of public-record research and in-depth interviews. We’ve written often on this theme, for instance in our piece “What Greg Smith and Goldman Sachs Tell Us About Investigations,” and “Talk Isn’t Cheap Even When Offline.”

When Hernandez was arrested at his suburban home in southern New Jersey on May 24, shocked neighbors in this New York Times story described him as a quiet family man. We all know neighbors that appear the way Hernandez did to the people who lived near him for years: the only remarkable thing about them is how seldom they come out of the house. Hernandez was no shut-in, but he appeared to live very quietly. The world is filled with people who fit this description.

But today’s New York Times produces a very different picture of Hernandez, a life filled with
“Tumult and family mistrust.” There were restraining orders, major mood swings, estrangement from children, according to the more recent report.

The difference in the two profiles? One was based on interviews of the most obvious people to talk to – neighbors. The second was more difficult to pull off, because it involved searching through public records and talking to Hernandez relatives and other acquaintances from long ago or who may live far away.

Relatives and old friends are not always easy to interview. You have to find them first and then get them to want to talk to you. And public records research involves far more than sitting down at a computer and typing “Pedro Hernandez” into Google. You have to know which places to search on-site, since most public records are not on line.

This is not to blame the reporters at the Times. They picked the low-hanging fruit first – neighbors – and reported the results. But then when they had the time – and it always takes time – they were able to do the kind of investigating that was called for. The results need not be different every time, but you never know unless you put in the work.