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Was Albert DeSalvo Really the Boston Strangler?
by Susan Kelly (An updated edition of THE BOSTON STRANGLERS was published in October 2013)
On July 11, 2013, Suffolk (Massachusetts) County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley held a press conference to announce that recent DNA testing indicated that Albert DeSalvo, the long-dead self-styled Boston Strangler, was present at 44A Charles Street in Boston, the scene of the January 4, 1964 murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan. The authorities used DNA collected from DeSalvo's nephew--without his knowledge--to make the match; the crime scene DNA was obtained from an apparently semen-stained blanket on which Sullivan's body lay.
DeSalvo's remains were exhumed on July 12, and, on Friday, July 19, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, and Conley released a joint statement saying that testing did indeed verify beyond any reasonable doubt that DeSalvo's DNA had been found at the Sullivan crime scene.
So...does this new physical evidence prove that DeSalvo murdered Sullivan? Has a 49-year-old crime been solved?
First, some back story. In 1995, I wrote a book entitled THE BOSTON STRANGLERS, published in hardcover by Birch Lane Press. It was updated and reprinted in paperback in 2002, and will be published again, with additional new material, this October by Kensington Books. In THE BOSTON STRANGLERS, I argue that DeSalvo most likely wasn't the serial killer he claimed to be, and that the eleven deaths that came to be attributed to a single Boston strangler were probably committed by other individuals motivated by their own pathologies. The information I used in the book came directly from the case files compiled by law enforcement (consisting of initial incident and investigation reports, forensic data, crime scene photos, suspect interviews, and autopsy protocols) and from extensive interviews I did with the surviving police investigators, surviving witnesses, DeSalvo's attorneys, and the forensic psychiatrist who examined him.
In January 1965, when DeSalvo began hinting he was the Strangler, he was incarcerated at Bridgewater State Hospital, a facility for the criminally insane. He told his then-lawyer, Jon Asgeirsson, that he had gagged Mary Sullivan, put a sweater over her head, had intercourse with her, and left a knife on the bed. None of this, according to the police reports, was true. Nor, according to forensic tests done in 1964, did the white stains on the blanket contain spermatozoa.
During the initial investigation into the Sullivan murder, a very good suspect emerged, one who was acquainted with the three young women who lived at 44A Charles Street. He had access to their apartment; he was the boyfriend of one of the roommates. On January 2, he was introduced to Mary, who had moved into the apartment the previous day.
In December 1964, eleven months after the Sullivan murder, this person was administered a polygraph test. These were its results:
"Based on the examinations conducted, it is the considered opinion of this examiner that [name of suspect]:
1. Is not telling the truth concerning the extent of his knowledge and/or involvement in the death of MARY SULLIVAN.
2. Cannot be eliminated from this investigation. It would be no surprise to this investigator if [name of suspect] turns out to be the person who caused SULLIVAN'S death.
Note: The charts were examined by other examiners...who confirmed the findings as outlined in the report."
The suspect in question wasn't Albert DeSalvo--whose name never arose during the investigations of any of the murders, despite the fact that he had a record from 1961 as a sex offender. In one of the goofier cons ever devised, he'd introduce himself to Boston-area young women as "Mr. Johnson," a representative of the Black and White Modeling Agency (no such outfit existed), and ask to take their measurements. Having done so, he'd depart, telling his victims that someone from the agency would be "in touch." Arrested in Cambridge on March 17, 1961 on a breaking and entering charge, he cheerfully volunteered to the police an account of his activities as a phony modeling scout, which earned him the nickname of The Measuring Man. He injured none of his victims beyond taking their measurements. Some of them said they found him rather appealing. One Cambridge detective told me that it looked as if they were running the Miss Universe pageant at the front desk.
The investigation into the Strangler murders was taken over by the Massachusetts Attorney General's office on January 17, 1964. In the summer of 1965, Assistant Attorney General John Bottomly took Desalvo's confession. So rife was it with errors that even Bottomly claimed to put not much credence in it. In one instance, DeSalvo claimed to have thrown the knife he used to murder the victim into a swamp; the police found it in her kitchen. In another, he claimed to have slain a woman in her apartment at a time when she not only wasn't at home, she was sitting in a local park with a friend. He reiterated as fact incorrect information taken from newspaper articles. DeSalvo did get some details of the crime scenes right--but Bottomly helpfully showed him assorted crime scene photos prior to asking him about the crimes when the narrative Albert was spinning began to flag. THE BOSTON STRANGLERS provides a full account of all the discrepancies.
DeSalvo was never charged with any of the murders; there was no physical evidence (at the time) nor any eyewitness testimony to support charges against him. (There were also excellent suspects in all of the murders.) DeSalvo's confession was useless. No further murders attributed to the Strangler occurred in the wake of Sullivan's death. Ten months after that, however, DeSalvo was arrested in Cambridge and, at his two arraignments in the Third District Court on November 3 and 6, 1964, charged with breaking and entering in the daytime and "unnatural acts," meaning oral sex performed upon the victims. For these crimes, he earned himself the sobriquet of The Green Man; he had worn a green work uniform while committing them. The victims were four Boston-area women, all of whom endured horrific experiences but emerged from them with no permanent injury. And so DeSalvo ended up being ordered by the judge to Bridgewater, where he met and became friendly with several inmates who were suspects in the Strangler murders.
DeSalvo's trial on the felony charges began in January 1967 and ended with a conviction. He was sentenced to life in prison, largely because his lawyer argued that he was the Boston Strangler, a ploy to get DeSalvo sent to a mental institution. It was a ploy that backfired rather badly. DeSalvo was stabbed to death in the infirmary of Walpole State Prison (now MCI-Cedar Junction) in November 1973. No one was ever charged with his murder. The Strangler murders themselves remained officially unsolved. And there the matter rested for over two decades.
On July 9, 1999, a front-page story in The Boston Globe reported that the Boston Police Department had announced it was searching for DNA evidence to establish whether Albert DeSalvo had actually committed any of the murders that had terrorized eastern Massachusetts over thirty years before. The probe had actually begun in the summer of 1998, when the BPD's Cold Case Squad examined 14 boxes of evidence taken from the scenes of the crimes. "The Strangler case is one of the most notorious in the country," said Captain Timothy Murray to the Globe. As of July 9, 1999, the police had been unable to locate some of the physical evidence known to have preserved. Among these items were semen samples taken from some of the victims as well as the knife used to stab DeSalvo.
By November 1999, however, the Cold Case Squad had lost enthusiasm for the project. A BPD spokesman for the Boston Herald that "There is no biological evidence (from the women) that could give us a suspect. Things (evidence) get contaminated if you leave them out in the air."
On May 11, 2000, the relatives of Mary Sullivan and Albert DeSalvo, represented by attorneys Elaine Whitfield Sharp and Daniel Sharp, held a press conference in Boston to announce their intent to reopen the Sullivan homicide case. The goal, as Elaine Sharp explained to the media, was to exonerate Albert DeSalvo and, ideally, establish the identity of Mary's killer if, as they believed, it wasn't DeSalvo.
On May 12, 2000, the Boston Police Department issued the following statement: "Due to the passage of time, the deterioration of the evidence, and the likelihood that successful testing cannot be performed on the evidence which remains in Boston Police custody, the Boston Police Department has declined to participate in further investigation into the Boston Strangler case."
In October 2000 the Sullivan family had Mary's remains exhumed and re-autopsied. Sixty-eight samples of hair, tissue, and possible semen were removed from the body. DeSalvo had said he'd struck Mary over the head; the pathologist found no trauma to her skull. DeSalvo had also claimed he'd strangled Mary manually. If he had, her hyoid bone would have been fractured. It was not--a fact that had been established in the first autopsy done in 1964.
On February 29, 2001, then Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly announced that DNA evidence testing done in the Sullivan case had been "non-productive."
On October 26, 2001, DeSalvo's corpse was exhumed. Present were Albert's brother Richard and his wife Rosalie, their son Timothy, and Elaine Sharp. So was I. The casket containing DeSalvo's remains was transported to York College of Pennsylvania, where an autopsy would be performed by Dr. Michael Baden, who had also re-autopsied Mary Sullivan. Professor James Starrs of George Washington University, who had initially contacted Elaine Sharp about the possibility of exhuming DeSalvo and testing the remains, had arranged for a team of experts to assist: among them an anthropologist, medical examiners, forensic specialists, an odontologist, an entomologist, a radiologist, videographers, and a second pathologist. The autopsy took eight hours. I watched from another room.
On December 6, 2001, James Starrs held a press conference in Washington, D.C. With Starrs were Michael Baden and George Washington University Professor David Foran, who had done the testing of the nuclear DNA retrieved from DeSalvo's remains and the samples taken from Sullivan's body. Baden outlined the discrepancies in Albert DeSalvo's confession to the murder of Mary Sullivan. Foran's test results showed the presence of two different DNA samples, one taken from Mary's pubic area and the other from the underwear put on her in the funeral home. Neither matched the DNA of Albert DeSalvo.
It has been established that DeSalvo was in Mary Sullivan's apartment--or that his DNA was found on the blanket. But has it been established that he was there at the time of her death? Does it prove he killed her? I'm not at all sure. There are still many indications otherwise.
In the first place, the presence of DNA at a crime scene, while very persuasive evidence, does not necessarily prove culpability. Recall that the foreign DNA found on Sullivan's body did not match DeSalvo's DNA, which is unique to an individual. And the young women who lived at 44A Charles Street had, according contemporary police reports, a large number of male visitors during the days and evenings between January 1 and January 3, all of whom left traces of themselves on the premises. (As I type this, I'm depositing my DNA on the keyboard.) Yet--except for the original prime suspect--those young men are not considered likely perpetrators. It's possible DeSalvo was intimate in some way with Mary Sullivan. He might have ejaculated onto the blanket (though the absence of sperm on the blanket is problematic); he masturbated to climax in the presence of a victim during one of the Green Man felonies. He also didn't kill any of those women.
Which raises another point: The murder of Mary Sullivan was an unusually cruel and sadistic one--a broomstick had been shoved into her vagina, and a greeting card, clearly left there to taunt whoever discovered Mary's body, propped up against her foot. Does a serial killer vicious enough to do such a thing then return to sexually assaulting women (fondling them and kissing their breasts and pubic areas) but otherwise leaving them unharmed? But that was DeSalvo's M.O. in the summer and fall of 1964, months after the Sullivan murder, when he was committing the Green Man offenses.
He even agreed with one of his Green Man victims that his mother would be ashamed of him if she could see what he was doing.
Were the stranglings even serial killings? I have argued extensively in THE BOSTON STRANGLERS that they were not. The crimes don't fit the pattern of what we now know to be characteristic of serial killings. (The term didn't even exist in 1964.)Serial killers pick a victim type and an M.O. and stick to both. Not so in the strangling cases. Here, the victims were young, old, and middle-aged. One was African-American. The methods of killing were disparate; one was stabbed to death. Some of the murders were sadistic, or ritualistic, and others weren't. One victim looked as if she'd been tucked sweetly into bed by a lover--which in fact she probably had been, after he'd disposed of the inconvenient (because he was married) woman she was. And, in any case, there were, as I have said, excellent suspects in all the murders. The person who told the Cambridge police he murdered Beverly Samans in May 1963 provided a much more accurate confession to the murder than did DeSalvo. (This man escaped prosecution through a judicial glitch, and later died in a diving accident.) Another woman was most likely killed by her married boss, whom she was pressuring for a commitment because he'd impregnated her. This man, eager to deflect police scrutiny, tried to blame the murder on his own son. To their credit, the police dismissed this accusation as the vile nonsense it was.
So why did DeSalvo confess to being the Strangler if he wasn't? Three reasons: His lawyer had convinced him that when (not if) he was convicted of the Green Man charges, he'd be sentenced to life in prison. If he confessed to being a crazed serial strangler, however, he might be lucky enough to end up in a somewhat nicer mental institution. And doctors from all over the world would come to observe him.
DeSalvo was also motivated by money; he had been told that he could make a great sum from the sale of his life story, money that could be used to support his wife and two children while he was spending life behind bars.
His third reason for confessing was less selfless--he was a hopeless braggart who desperately wanted to be famous, even if it was for being a monster. He once boasted to forensic psychiatrist Ames Robey that he'd bedded (or chaired, or tabled, or floored, or couched, or kitchen-countered) 2000 women. Robey in 1992 told me that he recalled wondering how DeSalvo had found the time.
And, of course, DeSalvo really liked the idea of being the object of study for doctors from around the world, receiving them in the suite he was led to believe he'd be accorded at Johns Hopkins.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts says that it no longer has biological evidence in any of the cases except Sullivan's, and so will not try to establish a link between DeSalvo and the murders that preceded Mary's.
It's puzzling that the authorities chose to obtain surreptitiously DNA from Albert DeSalvo's nephew Timothy when Richard DeSalvo, Albert's brother, had repeatedly offered to provide them with samples. It's equally puzzling that they chose not to take Albert's DNA from the knife used to kill him, given that the weapon has been in police custody all this time.
So was DeSalvo--by anyone's reckoning a bad man--the murderer of Mary Sullivan and ten other women? Let me end by asking this: How could a criminal so inept as to be busted twice (before and after the Strangler murders) for daytime breaking and entering be clever enough to mastermind and commit eleven serial killings and get away with them not only scot-free but totally unsuspected of them before he decided to "confess"?
Copyright 2013 by Susan Kelly. All rights reserved.
Susan Kelly is the author of the non-fiction book The Boston Stranglers and of the novels The Gemini Man, The Summertime Soldiers, Trail of the Dragon, Until Proven Innocent, And Soon I'll Come to Kill You, and Out of the Darkness. The Gemini Man was nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Novel. Her articles on a variety of subjects have been published in The Writer, the African American Review, Folklore, and the Japanese edition of Penthouse. She has been a consultant to the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council, and taught report writing at the Cambridge (Ma) Police Academy. She has also taught at the Harvard Business School, Tufts University, and Hampshire College. Her website is: www.susankellywriter.com.
A new edition of The Boston Stranglers will be published by Kensington Books in October 2013.