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The perfect story

It seemed Sebastian Junger was destined to write about the 1963 murder of Bessie Goldberg

By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / April 5, 2006
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CAMBRIDGE -- It's difficult to communicate, to those who have only read about it, the atmosphere of fear that gripped Boston during the rampage of the Boston Strangler. From 1962 to 1964, 13 women were strangled in their homes, possibly by the same killer. There was never a sign of forced entry.

A horrifying crime from that time forms the background of Sebastian Junger's new book, ''A Death in Belmont," due in stores April 18. On March 11, 1963, Bessie Goldberg, 63, was strangled and raped in her home on a quiet street in Belmont, Junger's hometown. A man who had been sent to the house that day on a cleaning job was convicted of the murder. Meanwhile, Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler, was working alone on a remodeling project at the Junger home on Cedar Road.

At first, one expects this to be a book about how Roy Smith was innocent of the crime and how Albert DeSalvo was the actual killer. Indeed, the outraged daughter of Goldberg reacts to it that way; she denounced the book in an interview for this story. But ''A Death in Belmont" is nothing so simple. It's about one horrid crime, about Massachusetts and Mississippi, a legendary reign of terror, and the meaning of proof and possibility. Junger calls it ''a book about ambiguity."

At 44, Junger is square-jawed and solidly built, with short hair, an intent gaze, and a voice like a diesel engine on low idle. It has been nine years since his first book, ''The Perfect Storm," became a runaway bestseller and then a movie starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. On a long-term reporting contract with Vanity Fair magazine, he has covered civil strife in Liberia and Sierra Leone, published a book of his journalism, and gone on three tours in Afghanistan, including a stint embedded with US forces for a piece in the current issue.

''The thing I'm most proud of in my job, my life, is my foreign reporting," he said in a recent interview during a Boston visit. ''If I had to pick between writing books and foreign reporting, I wouldn't hesitate -- I'd be overseas." He is married, keeps homes in New York and Truro, and has his pick of globe-trotting assignments.

So why write a book about a long-ago murder in his hometown?

''It's a story that has been told in my family ever since I could remember," Junger said. ''It was neat and simple. A nice old lady was brutally murdered in Belmont, and a black man went to prison for it. And nobody knew that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler and was working at our house the same day, and could he have done it? While I couldn't say I always knew I would write this story, it has always interested me."

Junger went to Concord Academy and Wesleyan University. After college, he said, ''I wasted about 10 years. I lived in D.C. and worked in a bar. I read a lot, and spent a few years writing short stories. You can't make a living doing that, and even if you do, does short fiction change the world? I kept edging toward journalism."

By the early 1990s, Junger was living in Gloucester, where he had a landscaping job taking down large trees. ''My journalism interest was taking shape," he said. ''I cut my leg pretty badly, and it got me thinking about dangerous work."

In October of 1991, the so-called No-Name Storm hit the New England coast, with hurricane-force winds and 25-foot waves offshore, sinking the Gloucester fishing boat Andrea Gale and drowning its six-man crew. A rare convergence of atmospheric conditions had created the event that some meteorologists called ''the perfect storm."

The storm gave Junger an idea for a book. ''I kept doing tree work right up until the book came out," he said. Published in 1997, it proved to be as big as its namesake: There are more than 4 million copies in print.

On March 11, 1963, Roy Smith, 35, a black man from Mississippi with a drinking habit and a prison record, went to the Huntington Avenue office of the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security looking for temporary work. Though the employment office clerk smelled alcohol on his breath, Smith was given a house-cleaning job on Scott Road in Belmont, the home of Bessie and Israel Goldberg. He went there by bus just before 1 p.m. and left sometime after 3 p.m. (Smith said 3:45; witnesses said they saw him on the street about 3:05.)

Telephoning from work, Israel Goldberg talked to his wife at 2:20 p.m. When he arrived home at about 3:50, he found her strangled. On the counter was Roy Smith's assignment slip.

That night, Smith was arrested. There was no physical evidence, such as blood or bruises, linking him to the crime, and he denied it heatedly during a 12-hour police interrogation. There was semen on his clothes, but its age could not be determined. ''My home is in Mississippi," he told police. ''There is no way in the world I take no white woman because I love my neck, you understand?" He did not deny he had been at the Goldberg home. There was no evidence anyone else had been there, and Israel Goldberg, who had called police only minutes after he was seen arriving home from work, was not a suspect.

On the day of the murder, and for several weeks beforehand, a rugged man named Albert DeSalvo was part of a crew constructing an addition to the Junger home. Nothing major about him seemed amiss, though Ellen Junger, Sebastian's mother, was sometimes uncomfortable around him. When the job was done, a photo was taken, reproduced in the book. It shows Ellen Junger with baby Sebastian on her lap. Standing behind them is Albert DeSalvo.

The day of the murder, a baby sitter frantically telephoned Ellen Junger. ''Lock the doors!" she said, ''The strangler just killed a woman in Belmont!" DeSalvo, who had been working alone for part of the afternoon, was on a ladder in the new addition, painting trim, when Ellen Junger, who had been out, told him the news. She recalled later that he shook his head and said it was terrible, and continued working.

Represented by a young lawyer named Beryl W. Cohen, later a state legislator, Roy Smith was convicted of the murder of Bessie Goldberg, but acquitted of rape, on Nov. 23, the day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and sentenced to life in prison. He was not suspected of the other stranglings because he had been in jail at the time they were committed. A model prisoner, he was granted commutation of his sentence in 1976 but died of lung cancer before he could be released.

In 1964, DeSalvo was arrested and charged with sexual assaults unrelated to the stranglings. While in custody he confessed to being the Boston Strangler. He described 13 of the crimes in detail, though not the murder of Bessie Goldberg. After the confessions, two detectives visited the Junger home to ask about DeSalvo's presence there, and drove to the Goldberg neighborhood, 1.2 miles away, to make further inquiries. But no evidence emerged linking DeSalvo with that murder.

Represented by famed defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, DeSalvo pleaded innocent, on grounds of insanity, to sexual assault. He was not charged with the stranglings because the confessions had been made under a grant of immunity and were not admissible as evidence. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Later, he recanted his confessions, which many had strongly doubted anyway. In 1973 he was stabbed to death in prison. His killer was never identified.

Whatever the truth about DeSalvo, fascination with his involvement in the killings has never ended. Tony Curtis played him in the 1968 film ''The Boston Strangler," and a new made-for-video movie with the same title, starring Mauro Lannini as DeSalvo, was released last month.

Junger's book infuriates Leah Scheuerman of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the only child of Bessie and Israel Goldberg. She was 24 in 1963 and hasn't spoken publicly about her mother's death until now. In 2003, she said, Junger interviewed her several times for the book, but she became uneasy, and ''last year I told him he couldn't use any information I gave him." Junger does not quote her directly. When she read an uncorrected reader's edition of ''A Death in Belmont," she decided to speak out.

''The book is inaccurate," Scheuerman said by telephone. ''You're supposed to get the feeling that Smith was railroaded because he was black and didn't get a fair trial." Junger ''leads you to believe that maybe it's possible Albert DeSalvo killed my mother. If all the facts are known, it's virtually impossible. There is overwhelming circumstantial evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that Roy Smith killed my mother."

Scheuerman said, ''I have a wound with a scab that will never heal, and Sebastian Junger has ripped off the scab. My father was destroyed by my mother's death. It's bad enough that she was murdered, but Sebastian Junger will make millions on a tragedy that was absolutely settled."

Scheuerman disputes Junger's statement in the book that Smith did not lie during his interrogation. He fails to show, she said, that Smith lied about the times he arrived and left the Goldberg home, lied when he said he had not touched the wall mirror, lied in saying he had left the home in good order though it was found to be in disarray. The book has this sentence about Smith's reaction to the verdict: ''Leah Goldberg thought he looked utterly impassive, as though he expected this and didn't much care." Scheuerman says she was not in court for the verdict, but was home watching TV coverage of the Kennedy assassination. Junger said the line came from an interview with Scheuerman but concedes that she must have been referring to an earlier time in court.

Junger acknowledges that not all the testimony and evidence against Smith is included in the 267-page book and does not deny there may be errors on details. ''The trial transcript is 3,000 pages," he said. ''Some selection had to go on. You had to understand the essence of the state's case against Smith." As for Scheuerman's reaction, he said, ''She really suffered, and she merits being heard."

Forty-two years later, the prosecutors in Commonwealth vs. Roy Smith have little doubt. Ruth I. Abrams of Boston, retired justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, was part of the prosecution team. ''I'd stake my life on the fact that he was guilty," Abrams said.

Retired judge Richard S. Kelley of Braintree, who argued the case for the prosecution, has a more nuanced reaction to the book, which he has read. For Scheuerman, he said, the book ''opens a wound." ''As for my part in it," he said, ''I felt it was factually done. I agree with Mrs. Goldberg's daughter that from the evidence we had and presented, I have no question that Roy Smith was guilty. On the other hand, it was a circumstantial case, and one can't reject the fact that there is always a possibility that unusual circumstances occurred."

Did Roy Smith kill Bessie Goldberg? Or did Albert DeSalvo?

''A Death in Belmont" does not pin down the answers. In the interview, Junger said, ''DeSalvo is a long shot but was enough of a possibility at the time for investigators to take it seriously." As for Smith, he said, ''I'm not convinced that Roy Smith was innocent, but I think he is probably innocent."

The book leaves it all open. ''I can't know what happened," Junger said. ''I'm not God. There's no DNA. I'm just the writer; I had to let the readers come to their own decisions. I felt that by the end of the book I had a relationship with the readers where they were sort of my equal. That I was saying, 'Don't look to me for answers. You know as much as I do. What do you think?' "

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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