New DNA Tests Fail to Identify Boston Strangler
The identity of the notorious Boston Strangler was cast into doubt Thursday by new DNA evidence that fails to link the man who confessed to the string of 1960s rape-murders to the last victim.
A team of forensic scientists who exhumed the body of Mary Sullivan over a year ago revealed that tests on her clothing and remains found DNA from two individuals other than Sullivan.
Neither finding was a match for Albert DeSalvo, whose body was exhumed six weeks ago.
“It’s indicative, strongly indicative, of the fact that Albert DeSalvo was not the rape-murderer of Mary Sullivan,” said James Starrs, a George Washington University professor of law and forensic science, who headed the team.
But former Massachusetts prosecutor Julian Soshnick, who interviewed DeSalvo twice after he confessed to the killings in 1965, said the results don’t prove DeSalvo’s innocence in the Sullivan murder or any of the other killings.
“It doesn’t prove anything except that they found another person’s DNA on a part of Miss Sullivan’s body,” said Soshnick, who said the strangler didn’t sexually assault all of his victims.
The Boston Strangler struck between 1962 and 1964, killing 11 Boston-area women. Sullivan was killed Jan. 4, 1964, three days shy of her 20th birthday.
DeSalvo, a blue-collar worker with a wife and children, was never charged in the strangler killings. He confessed to those murders, and two others, while in pretrial detention for unrelated sex offenses, but later recanted.
Convicted of the unrelated assaults and sentenced to life, DeSalvo was stabbed to death at the maximum-security prison in Walpole, Mass., in 1973.
Those who question whether he was indeed the Boston Strangler point to a string of circumstances that raises doubts. Among them: There was never any physical evidence putting him at the crime scenes; he did not match witness descriptions of possible suspects, and he was never on investigators’ lists of more than 300 suspects.
But Soshnick said he specifically asked DeSalvo about the Sullivan case and seven or eight of the other murders, and DeSalvo knew details that “only the killer would know that were not known publicly.”
For instance, DeSalvo described accurate details about what type of ligatures were used and how they were tied, he said.
“I believe that Albert was the Boston Strangler,” Soshnick said.
Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Thomas Reilly, who began reinvestigating Sullivan’s murder last year at the request of the DeSalvo and Sullivan families, said in a statement that the new findings don’t resolve the question of whether DeSalvo killed Sullivan.
Reilly repeated a call for the DeSalvo family to provide a DNA sample from a family member so investigators can conduct further tests. The family has refused to do so until Reilly’s office turns over crime scene evidence, which Reilly has refused to do, citing an ongoing investigation.
Starrs, who said he is willing to cooperate with Massachusetts authorities, believes one of the new DNA findings is tied to Sullivan’s killer.
“We cannot tell you the $64,000 question as to whose it is,” said Starrs, who has participated in other historical inquests, including examinations into the deaths of explorer James Meriweather Lewis and Jesse James.
Starrs said he could not speak to the other Boston Strangler cases. However, Sullivan’s nephew, Casey Sherman, who has maintained for years that another man killed his aunt, is convinced DeSalvo isn’t the strangler.
“If he didn’t kill Mary Sullivan, yet he confessed to it in glaring detail, he didn’t kill any of these women,” Sherman said.
He said police had a prime suspect in Sullivan’s murder but dropped pursuit of the man after DeSalvo confessed. Sherman said the man is alive, and he urged police again to focus on him.
The DeSalvo and Sullivan families believe DeSalvo confessed because he hoped to make money from book and movie deals.