Boston Strangler Breaking News

July 22, 2013

Between June 14, 1962, and January 5, 1964, eleven Boston-area women—ages 19 to 85—were victims of a serial killer or killers. The cases were linked by similar elements of modus operandi: each victim was attacked in her apartment (except for one murdered in a hotel room); each had been sexually attacked; each was strangled with an article of clothing (although one had also been repeatedly stabbed); and each, with a single exception, was Caucasian.

After ten months a man suspected of being a serial rapist called the “Green Man” (after the color of his work clothes) was arrested and interrogated. He subsequently confessed, and later, while in a hospital for psychiatric observation, he also confessed to the Boston stranglings, even adding two to the total. His name was Albert DeSalvo. He was sentenced to life in prison for the crimes of the Green Man, although he was never formally charged as the Boston Strangler. (In 1968 he was played by Tony Curtis in the Hollywood movie, The Boston Strangler, and in 1973 a fellow inmate stabbed DeSalvo to death in Walpole Prison.)

Not everyone readily accepted DeSalvo’s confession. Some detectives preferred a different suspect—a man fingered by “psychic” Peter Hurkos, “the man with the radar brain.” Unfortunately, Hurkos—a man who told discredited stories of having been a Dutch Underground “hero” in World War II and who was later arrested for impersonating an FBI agent—had been either mistaken or useless in numerous other cases. (See my Wonder-Workers! [1991] and Psychic Sleuths [1994] which held DeSalvo to be the actual Boston Strangler.)

Writer Susan Kelly, in her The Boston Stranglers, (1995, 2002) postulated multiple killers. Pointing to discrepancies between DeSalvo’s confession and facts in the cases, she observed there was no physical evidence to link him to even a single murder. Then again, according to The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers (2000), a journalist reported DeSalvo had been paid “to take a fall” for the “real” Boston Strangler—or so a since-deceased Mafia hit man claimed.

Matters were complicated in the early 2000s when my friend James E. Starrs, the distinguished forensic investigator, headed a team that discovered DNA from two individuals on the exhumed body of the eleventh victim, 19-year-old Mary Sullivan. It belonged neither to her nor to Albert DeSalvo. This further fed speculation that the Strangler might have actually been Stranglers. (See James E. Starrs with Katherine Ramsland, A Voice for the Dead: A Forensic Investigator’s Pursuit of the Truth in the Grave, 2005.).

Now, however, new DNA tests for the first time link DeSalvo to the scene of the rape and murder of Sullivan. Boston police shadowed DeSalvo’s nephew and collected a water bottle he discarded. DNA traces on the bottle provided a “familial match” to DNA from the crime scene, excluding 99.9 percent of suspects. Officials then exhumed DeSalvo’s remains, and made an exact match with his DNA. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley was quoted by Reuters as stating: “This leaves no doubt that Albert DeSalvo was responsible for the brutal murder of Mary Sullivan, and most likely that he was responsible for the horrific murders of the other women he confessed to killing.”