Inmate charged in cold-case slaying

DNA on cigarette is link, police say

Zahia Salem was found slain in 1989 in her South End home. Zahia Salem was found slain in 1989 in her South End home.
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / August 4, 2011

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A South End man in prison on a 1991 rape conviction is now facing prosecution in the slaying of an 87-year-old woman more than two decades ago, tied to the case by DNA preserved from a cigarette butt found in the victim’s home.

The investigation represents the latest in a series of cold homicide cases that police say they have cracked by relying primarily on DNA evidence. Improvements in DNA technology and more federal funding have helped law enforcement make arrests in old cases.

The Boston Police Department has evaluated as many as 115 homicide cases in the past year, with four arrests so far. More cases could be opened.

“Having this technology, it’s huge,’’ said Boston police Sergeant Billy Doogan, head of the department’s three-officer cold-case unit. The department’s crime lab has four employees.

“Nothing is foolproof or a 100 percent fix for anything,’’ Doogan said. “However the advances in science are a huge boom for these older cases.’’

In the latest case, Charles Brook Jr., 66, was charged yesterday in Suffolk Superior Court with one count of first-degree murder in the strangling death of Zahia Salem in her home at 124 Union Park St. in the South End. Her body was discovered Nov. 30, 1989, lying on her couch and covered with a rug.

An autopsy revealed that Salem’s face had been beaten, that she had fractured ribs, and that she had been sexually assaulted. Because the statute of limitations for sexual assault had expired, Brook was not charged with that crime; the limit is 15 years. But he was indicted by a Suffolk County grand jury on the murder charge last month.

The key DNA evidence was found by investigators under the diminutive woman’s fingernails and on a cigarette butt in a saucer. That evidence was preserved.

In May, the crime lab analyzed the evidence from the cigarette butt and it matched a DNA sample that Brook was required to submit after his 1991 rape conviction. Several days later, Detectives Juan Torres and Robert Pieroway of the cold-case unit interviewed Brook at the Old Colony Correctional Center, where he was serving a 10- to 20-year sentence.

Brook denied being inside 124 Park St., but when he was shown a picture of Salem, he told the detectives he had met her at a Catholic thrift store and had helped her to her door because she was blind and needed assistance, according to Ursula Knight, Suffolk assistant district attorney.

Brook also denied touching Salem, but told the investigators that he did smoke. He said he returned to the thrift store the day after he met Salem to retrieve his bike and learned from a clerk that she had been strangled.

Yesterday, Brook remained in a hallway just outside the courtroom, out of the view of the victim’s family, seated in the first row. From the darkness of the hallway, he pleaded not guilty. Salem’s family left the courtroom and declined to comment.

Salem’s 1989 death notice said that she was a widow and a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

Brook’s attorney, Bruce Carroll, commenting later on the DNA evidence, said: “That doesn’t amount to a whole lot of evidence. Saliva or spit could stay there indefinitely and could have come from anywhere. We expect to be able to raise considerable doubt, well beyond reasonable doubt.’’

Brook was 44 when Salem was slain, and he is scheduled for release from prison next year. He faces a pretrial conference in court Sept. 20.

There are about 1,200 unsolved homicides in Boston dating back to the 1960s. Prior to that time, the documentation and evidence “drops off greatly,’’ Doogan said.

The recent cold cases the department has brought charges in include one dating back to 2004, in which a Dorchester man is accused of suffocating his girlfriend, Julaine Jules. Shabazz Augustine, 32, was arrested in June and pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges last month. Prosecutors say advances in DNA testing led them to charge Augustine.

Authorities recently used DNA from the jacket of homicide victim Richard Gleason to bring charges in May against Eugene Sutton, 46, of Dorchester. Sutton is accused of stabbing Gleason in 1989.

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.

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