Editors note: This story is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on July 9, 1999.
More than 35 years after a serial killer held this city in his sinister grip, police have embarked on a secretive effort to answer one of the most enduring questions in the annals of national crime: Was Albert DeSalvo really the Boston Strangler?
Witnesses have died and memories have faded. No matter. Police acknowledged this week that they are hoping to push the limits of DNA science to link DeSalvo to the killings or, as many expect, exonerate him.
The investigation was launched a couple of years ago by a tenacious Boston police captain named Timothy Murray and aided by a new police laboratory that includes some of the most advanced crime-solving equipment known. Police say they are willing to exhume DeSalvo’s body if they find DNA samples they need to match.
“The Strangler case is one of the most notorious in the country,” Murray said yesterday. “If we can solve this, it might spark other cities to use DNA to solve old crimes. There’s no statute of limitations on murder.”
From the summer of 1962 to the early winter of 1964, the city and its suburbs were terrified of a serial killer known variously as the Phantom Fiend and the Boston Strangler—a murderer who often left flamboyant, looping bows around the women he killed.
Gun stores sold out. Local dog pounds saw a run on even their smallest mutts. Locksmiths were summoned from morning to night and women set up telephone trees to monitor each others’ safety. The streets were empty after dark.
The terror finally came to an end when DeSalvo, a handsome, smooth-talking laborer, confessed to 13 killings while he was being held on a series of rape charges in 1965 at the Center for the Treatment of Sexually Dangerous Persons at Bridgewater. He was never charged with the crimes or linked to them by physical evidence. Rather, he was sentenced to life in prison for an unrelated series of rapes, and was murdered in Walpole by another inmate in November 1973.
There were many doubters, including DeSalvo’s relatives and family members of some of the victims. One family even called Murray recently to voice suspicions that the real murderer was someone else, someone they named. Police were among the most skeptical of DeSalvo’s claims of guilt, but were prevented from questioning him by the attorney general’s office, which directed the investigation.
All along, many thought DeSalvo incapable of murder, prone to braggadocio and in search of fame. Some psychiatrists believed that the stranglings were not the work of a single killer. Serial killers, they said, carefully choose victims with the same characteristics. In Boston, the slain women differed markedly in age, with the first six in their 50s and 60s, and the later ones in their 20s and 30s.
At the time of DeSalvo’s confession, some investigators said he knew details of the crimes that only the killer could know. But, further fueling the doubters, a 1995 book by author Susan Kelly showed that DeSalvo could have gleaned all his intimate knowledge of the crime scenes from voluminous newspaper accounts. Alternately, Kelly wrote, he could have learned about the slayings through contact with the real killer in Bridgewater. He then recited the details to investigators and his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, with the help of what was believed to be a photographic memory.
“There was much debate over whether there was one killer or multiple killers and whether copy-catting was going on,” said Murray. “People may have been disguising murders.”
As head of the department’s Cold Case Squad, Murray has rattled cemeteries and sliced through history in search of murder suspects, winning convictions against killers who committed crimes dating back to the 1960s. Families, he said, never rest easy until a killer is caught or known.
For the last 18 months, police have faced myriad frustrations in their efforts to reassemble the massive evidence in the Strangler investigation. They know that potential DNA samples exist. Case logs, for example, describe swabbings of sperm samples found on the mouth and chest of the last victim, as well as on other victims, but detectives have not been able to locate any of it. They also believe the blood-covered knife used to kill DeSalvo has probably been preserved, but haven’t been able to find it. Finding the knife would provide a potentially clean DNA sample and allow them to avoid exhuming the body.
“We have been searching things out, but we don’t have everything we need at this point,” said Joseph Varlaro, a civilian criminalist in the laboratory. He described the assembled evidence and log books as being like “reading a book with every other page missing.”
Using DNA testing, scientists can analyze bodily fluids, tissue, or bone and develop a genetic fingerprint that narrows a person’s identity to one in many, many millions. The technology, developed in the 1980s, was made famous in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial and has become common practice in courts across the nation.
Varlaro and Don Hayes, the director of the lab, located a semen stain on an old blanket found near one of the victims. But when they tested it for DNA, the sample had degraded to the point of being useless, Varlaro said.
“We are on a quest for semen,” he said. “We do have reason to believe these were crimes of a sexual nature.”
Investigators say they have to develop DNA evidence from at least two of the killings to prove or disprove that DeSalvo was a serial killer. If he is exonerated, they acknowledge, it raises the chilling possibility that one or possibly many more killers got away with murder in the frenzy of the original investigation.
One pitfall to the current effort: Murray and his partner, Lieutenant Stephen Murphy, have both been promoted out of what had been the Cold Case Squad, reassigned so that they are no longer directing the Strangler case.
As the other investigators regroup, Murray says it’s now up to the department higher-ups to determine the weight they will give the case.
“You approach it with an open mind,” he said. “You don’t come in with a preconceived notion that DeSalvo was the killer or not the killer.”