Albert H. DeSalvo’s body will be exhumed to allow for new forensic testing that may conclusively prove DeSalvo murdered Mary Sullivan in her Boston apartment in 1964, the last killing attributed to the Boston Strangler who terrorized Greater Boston for two years in the early 1960s.
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said that a DNA match has been made between DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler, and the murder of 19-year-old Sullivan, who was raped and murdered and “her body desecrated” in her Charles Street home on Jan. 4, 1964.
Conley said the DNA testing showed a “familial match” between forensic evidence in Sullivan’s killing, leading prosecutors to ask for a Suffolk Superior Court judge to order the exhumation of DeSalvo’s remains to prove “once and for all” that DeSalvo murdered Sullivan.
Conley noted that a total of 11 murders have been attributed to the Boston Strangler and DeSalvo, and that there is widespread disagreement among law enforcement and researchers who have investigated the killings whether DeSalvo did in fact kill all of the women as he confessed to have done.
“At this point in time, 50 years removed from those deaths and without the biological evidence that we have in the Sullivan case, that is a question that we cannot answer,’’ Conley said. “But these developments give us a glimmer of hope that there can be one day finality, if not accountability, for the families of the ten other women murdered so cruelly in Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence, Lynn and Salem.’’
Casey Sherman, the nephew of Mary Sullivan, who wrote a 2003 a book that concluded DeSalvo’s confession did not match the other evidence in Sullivan’s murder, attended the press conference where officials laid out the DNA connection.
Sherman welcomed the developments, but also said he was still trying to absorb the scientific evidence connecting DeSalvo to Sullivan’s murder.
“We are not there yet,’’ Sherman said of himself, and his mother. “Once the exhumation is done and there is a definitive answer, yes or no. But we are getting there...It’s taken 49 years for police to say they legitimately got their man.’’
F. Lee Bailey, who represented DeSalvo and negotiated his confession with then-Attorney General Edward Brooke, said today’s announcement confirms what he always felt to be true about DeSalvo, his one-time client.
“I believe that the detectives who determined that he was the man … were correct when they said, ‘close the file, this is the guy,’ ” Bailey said in a telephone interview from his home in Maine.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis said detectives followed DeSalvo relatives around, waiting for the chance to grab something that could provide a DNA sample for comparative purposes. When a relative discarded a plastic bottle, an officer picked it up and it was submitted for DNA testing.
“The ability to provide closure to a family after 50 years is just a remarkable thing,’’ Davis said.
Marblehead attorney Elaine Whitfield Sharp represented the DeSalvo family when they conducted their own forensic study a decade ago which excluded DeSalvo as the source of sperm found on Sullivan’s body.
In a statement, Whitfield Sharp applauded the new effort by law enforcement but stopped short of fully embracing the conclusion by Conley that DeSalvo has now been proven to be Sullivan’s killer.
“It is strong evidence. But it is not definitive,’’ Whitfield Sharp said in the statement. “But, in the interests of pursuing the truth, one more suspect needs to be ruled out as the killer.’’
She did not identify who that suspect was.
Conley defended the use of surreptitious means to get the DNA profile from the DeSalvo family as “fair and legal and ethical’’ and also allowed the investigation to proceed without disrupting the DeSalvo family.
Conley said the DNA sample from one of DeSalvo’s nephews helped build the “familial match’’ between DeSalvo and Sullivan’s murder.
“This is good evidence,’’ Conley said, in explaining why they want to directly test DeSalvo’s remains. “It is not sufficient enough to close the case.”
Attorney General Martha Coakley said that resolution in the haunting serial killing case may finally be in the offing.
“We may have just solved one of the nation’s most notorious serial killings,’’ Coakley said.
But Coakley also said the only biological evidence that survived the decades since the murders involved the murder of Mary Sullivan. Authorities said the evidence involved seminal fluid on a blanket taken from the crime scene where Sullivan was slain.
Coakley said an exhaustive search of the records reached the conclusion that there is no DNA evidence remaining from the 10 other killings.
DeSalvo confessed to being the “Boston Strangler,’’ but was never prosecuted for the crimes under a deal negotiated with then-Attorney General Edward Brooke and DeSalvo’s attorney, F. Lee Bailey. But many people, including Brooke, have questioned whether DeSalvo did kill all of the women whose deaths have been attributed to the Strangler.
“Even to this day, I can’t say with certainty that the person who ultimately was designated as the Boston Strangler was the Boston Strangler,” Brooke told the Globe in 2012.
DeSalvo, who was then imprisoned on other charges, was linked to the killings when he confessed to the crimes to his cellmate, George Nassar. Nassar told Bailey, who negotiated a deal where DeSalvo admitted he was the Strangler, but was never prosecuted for them.
DeSalvo was stabbed to death in Walpole state prison in Nov. 25, 1973. He was 42 years old.
(Mike Bello of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.)
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