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Memories of the strangler

By Martine Powers
Globe Staff / June 14, 2012
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It all started with a sentence, tucked into the bottom corner of the Globe’s front page a half century ago.

“An attractive divorcee was found strangled in her third-floor apartment at 77 Gainsborough St., Back Bay, at 7:45 last night.”

Anna Slesers, a 55-year-old Latvian seamstress, lived alone. On June 14, 1962, she was discovered by her son — blue taffeta bathrobe ripped open, the garment’s sash tightened around her neck, ends tucked up in a bow.

It took months before Slesers’ killer was matched with the moniker that prompted terror around the region and captivates people still: “the Boston Strangler.”

“In my short life, I had never known anything like that,” recalled James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, who was 11 years old when the killings began. “People were much more used to keeping doors unlocked and not worried about strangers, much less stranglers.”

The tally: 13 murders in 19 months. They took place in Boston, Lawrence, Cambridge, and Salem. Most victims, but not all, were strangled with their own possessions, like nylon stockings, a pillow case, a bra. Most, but not all, were sexually ­assaulted, sometimes with an object. Some were left in grotesque poses. The oldest victim was 85; the youngest, 19. One was black, a fact that puzzled ­investigators at the time.

And there was the accused: Albert DeSalvo, imprisoned on other charges, confessed to the killings but was never convicted. In 1973, the 42-year-old was stabbed to death in his cell as he slept. Many remain unconvinced of his guilt. DNA evidence from the last supposed Boston Strangler victim, ­exhumed in 2001, did not match DeSalvo.

The case remains one of America’s great whodunits, a constant source of fascination for those obsessed with the was-he-or-wasn’t-he details of DeSalvo’s confession.

“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,” said former US senator Edward W. Brooke, who was the state attorney general during the killings and who established the Boston Strangler task force.

That the city was in the midst of rapid change only heightened the anxiety caused by having a killer of women on the loose. As the Prudential Center was erected, transforming the look and feel of the Back Bay, old Boston families moved to the suburbs. Those who stayed recognized fewer and fewer of their neighbors.

The Boston Strangler compounded those fears of the new and unfamiliar, said Alan ­Rogers, professor of history at Boston College, and brought ­attention to the increasing numbers of women, young and old, living alone in the city.

“The strangler focused on women, not just stereotypically beautiful women, but ordinary women, people coming in from the suburbs for work, for a place to begin a career,” Rogers said. “Older women were trapped in the city, living alone in small apartments; there was a real sense of fear.”

As the victims grew in number, police advised women on safety: Lock doors and windows. Ask for identification from anyone knocking at the door. Beware of a stranger disguised as a woman or clergyman.

Brooke paid police to guard his wife and two teenage daughters.

“I can’t really tell you what the fear was that came down upon everyone, anyone, women and their spouses and fathers,” said Brooke, who now lives in downtown Miami.

In many ways, Brooke said, the Boston Strangler case changed the way law enforcement agencies conducted investigations. It was the first time computers were used in a major criminal investigation in the country, Brooke said. The task force also fostered cross-­department communication.

Police brought in doctors, lawyers, accountants, and psychoanalysts to pore over the evidence. They attended victims’ funerals, scanning the crowd for a suspect. Hundreds of ­potential suspects were brought in.

Police also targeted gay men, conducting raids at gay bars and branding them as sexual deviants, Rogers said.

Brooke even resorted to hiring a psychic, who failed to identify the killer; Brooke was ridiculed when news organizations learned of the psychic’s ­involvement in the case.

In the end, police did not identify DeSalvo as the strangler. While awaiting trial for sexually assaulting women, he allegedly confessed to fellow ­inmate George Nassar, who told his attorney, F. Lee Bailey.

Bailey, who took on DeSalvo as a client, negotiated an agreement that DeSalvo would provide a confession, but it could not be used as evidence. Bailey could not be reached for comment.

The confession included ­details about the killings and the crime scenes that many ­believe only the strangler could have known.

But some still doubt that ­DeSalvo, a 34-year-old maintenance worker from Malden, was the killer, suggesting that he could have gleaned the information from newspapers, ­police, or the real killer.

Among them is Casey ­Sherman, the nephew of Mary Sullivan, the last of the Boston Strangler victims, and author of a book about his aunt’s death. Because he doubted the legitimacy of the confession, he had his aunt’s remains exhumed and tested for the killer’s DNA. It did not match DeSalvo.

“Everybody who’s taken an independent look at this case and doesn’t have dogs in the fight believe that there are serious doubts,” Sherman said this week.

Brooke maintains that the details provided by DeSalvo were uncanny. But he doubts that anyone, least of all himself, will ever obtain a definitive ­answer.

“I’ll probably go to my grave not knowing for sure,” Brooke said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.

Follow her on Twitter

@martinepowers.

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