For almost fifty years, the identity of the ‘Boston Strangler’ has been shrouded in mystery. In 1965, a handyman and Army veteran named Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Strangler, but there has always been doubt that he was, in fact, the man who killed at least 11 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964.
However, new developments in DNA technology may finally provide an answer to the riddle, with investigators confident that DeSalvo will prove to be their man. On July 12, forensic teams exhumed DeSalvo’s remains in a bid to match his DNA with samples from 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, believed to be the Strangler’s last victim.
The Sullivan samples, taken from the victim’s body and from one of her blankets, have been available to Boston’s crime lab for several years, but it is only recently that DNA science has advanced enough to provide a detailed correlation between crime scene evidence and the chief suspect.
After testing showed that the samples had come from a white male, detectives were able to secure forensic evidence linking DeSalvo to the Sullivan murder by lifting a fingerprint from a water bottle discarded by his nephew. DNA testing of the print indicated a familial match which excludes 99.99% of other suspects, and authorities are confident that Albert DeSalvo’s remains will offer a precise match.
DeSalvo, imprisoned in 1964 for other sex crimes, was a noted braggart and although his confession contained many details privy to someone with an intimate knowledge of the murders, it also contained some glaring mistakes. In 1973, he recanted, and a few months later, was stabbed to death in a prison brawl. Other than DeSalvo’s lengthy statements to psychiatrists and lawyers and his record as a sex-offender, there was little or no evidence to connect him with the Strangler’s killings. Neither DeSalvo, nor anyone else, was ever charged with the murders.
According to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, this new evidence will only tie DeSalvo to the Sullivan killing, and doubts will remain about his role in 10 other murders believed to be the work of the Strangler. “Even among experts and law enforcement officials, there is disagreement to this day about whether they were in fact committed by the same person,” Conley said. One of those experts is Edward Brooke, Attorney General at the time of the slayings, who told reporters last year that “Even to this day, I can’t say with certainty that the person who ultimately was designated as the Boston Strangler was the Boston Strangler.”
One of the reasons for doubt is that there seems to be two phases to the Strangler’s reign of terror. The first six victims were all elderly women, while the later victims were young and attractive. Elaine Sharp, an attorney for DeSalvo’s family has expressed outrage at the Boston Police Department’s shadowing of relatives, and has denied that even a perfect DNA match will provide a definitive conclusion. She claims that other samples – taken from Sullivan’s exhumed body in 1999 – suggest that “somebody else was there,” and that the evidence is not “a hundred per cent solid.”
This has been refuted by Donald Hayes from the Boston PD crime lab, who says that the official samples have been “properly preserved”, whereas those used in a private investigation by the families of DeSalvo and Sullivan were “very questionable.”
For one of Sullivan’s relatives, forensic testing of Albert DeSalvo’s remains may provide closure to a case which has occupied much of his adult life. Casey Sherman is the author of a book about his aunt’s murder in which he pointed to several other suspects as the likely killer, and for several years he has worked with members of DeSalvo’s family to undermine the reliability of the confession. Now, however, he believes that the DNA evidence against DeSalvo is damning.
“I can only go where the evidence leads,” Sherman said in a press briefing he shared with law enforcement officials. He praised police for their “incredible persistence”, while also offering words of sympathy for the DeSalvo family, who now must face the very real possibility that one of their own was a sexual psychopath.
Meanwhile, the search will be renewed for evidence linking Albert DeSalvo to the other Boston Strangler killings. Authorities believe it is unlikely that any such evidence exists, but the Sullivan samples were misplaced for thirty years before being retrieved by Boston police. This new forensic evidence may put to rest any doubts about the murder of Mary Sullivan, but according to the letter of the law, there is still some way to go before Albert DeSalvo can be named unreservedly as the man responsible for one of America’s most notorious serial murders.