History In The Headlines

CSI Boston: DNA Provides New Clues in Strangler Case, 50 Years Later

By Barbara Maranzani
On Thursday, Boston police announced that new DNA evidence links Albert DeSalvo, long believed to have been responsible for nearly a dozen murders in the Boston area in the 1960s, to the death of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan. DeSalvo, who confessed to the crimes but later recanted his statements to police, was never convicted of the gruesome murders, but authorities remain convinced that he was indeed the Boston Strangler.
Albert DeSalvo in police custody.

Albert DeSalvo in police custody.

The infamous killing spree began in June 1962 with the death of 55-year-old Anna Slesers in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Within 20 months, 11 Boston-area women, ranging in age from 19 to 85, were dead, nearly all of them sexually assaulted before they were killed. The salacious crimes made headlines around the world, but Boston-area authorities were seemingly unable to crack the case. In October 1964, 33-year-old Massachusetts native Albert DeSalvo was arrested for a series of rapes in the Boston area. Police did not consider him a suspect in the Strangler murders, and were shocked when he confessed to the crimes (to a fellow inmate) shortly after being charged with the unrelated sexual assaults. During interrogation, police noted minor inconsistencies in DeSalvo’s depictions of the murders, but were impressed with his knowledge of crucial details, which had not been made available to the public. However, in an era with limited forensic analysis techniques, the lack of any physical evidence tying DeSalvo to the crime scene prevented them from formally charging him with the murders.

DeSalvo may not have been convicted of the Strangler murders, but he did spend his final days behind bars. Despite efforts by his defense attorney, F. Lee Bailey, to have DeSalvo acquitted on an insanity plea, prosecutors obtained convictions for the sexual assaults and a series of armed robberies. Months after his conviction, DeSalvo briefly escaped from prison, triggering a statewide manhunt that led to his recapture. Returned to confinement at Massachusetts’s maximum-security prison in Walpole, DeSalvo recanted his confession in the Strangler case before his death under mysterious circumstances–his killer was never identified–in the prison’s hospital ward in November 1973.

Authorities were unable to use science to solve the crimes in the 1960s, but their collection of evidence on the scene of at least one of the Strangler murders proved crucial to the latest twist in the case. On January 4, 1964, the body of Mary Sullivan, the 11th and final victim attributed to the Boston Strangler, was discovered in her Boston apartment. The 19-year-old Sullivan, who had moved to the area from Cape Cod less than a week earlier, had been sexually assaulted and strangled. As part of their crime scene investigation, police collected semen found on a blanket, which, along with other biological samples, was placed in storage and kept in police custody for nearly five decades—the only remaining physical evidence from the Strangler’s crime spree.

The advancement of science and the ability to collect nuclear DNA from the samples gave authorities the chance to finally solve one of America’s deadliest crime sprees. After extracting the DNA, investigators set out to obtain a sample from a member of the DeSalvo family to determine a “familial match.” Police trailed DeSalvo’s nephew, Tim, to his job at a construction site, where they confiscated a water bottle that he drank from and then threw away. The DNA from the water bottle was a 99.9 percent match with the DNA from the Sullivan crime scene, and the link persuaded a Massachusetts judge to order DeSalvo’s body exhumed for further testing, which will likely occur later this month.

Nearly 50 years after the murders that terrorized the city, some remain skeptical of DeSalvo’s involvement, citing the lack of physical evidence and arguing the possibility that more than one person was responsible for the murders. Among the doubters are DeSalvo’s own family members, who also released a statement on Thursday criticizing the police surveillance that led to this latest discovery. Despite their belief that the new evidence conclusively links DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan, prosecutors stress that there is no similar evidentiary matches to the 10 other Boston Strangler victims.

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Categories: Boston, Crime, Science