PEABODY — The remnants of dirt-smeared bouquets still sat atop the casket Friday, as a team of gravediggers unearthed the remains of Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed before his death to 11 murders that transfixed and terrified Boston 50 years ago.
A six-car motorcade then transported his bones from a serene cemetery here to Boston. Pathologists in the state medical examiner’s office will soon remove a sample of his DNA and seek a genetic match with new evidence, in hope of conclusively linking him to the last of the killings, closing the book at last on the infamous Boston Strangler case.
Meanwhile, the Suffolk district attorney’s office received calls from a relative and friend of two other victims, urging prosecutors to search for similar evidence that might bring closure to their cases, as well.
“We certainly understand their concerns, and we would like nothing more than to close those cases, as well,” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said in a phone interview. “We could only do that if there’s DNA available. We’re looking and we’re hoping, but right now we have no other biological samples in any of the other cases to test.”
Neither Conley nor officials in the state attorney general’s office could say how much it cost to exhume DeSalvo’s body or who is paying.
But Conley said the cost of solving one of the nation’s longest-running mysteries is worth it. DeSalvo’s confessions to murdering the women from 1962 to 1964 — including 19-year-old Mary Sullivan on Beacon Hill, apparently his last victim — had long been questioned because of inconsistencies in his story.
“Mary Sullivan’s family was owed every ounce of our effort to close out her case and get the truth,” he said.
Sullivan’s nephew, Casey Sherman, among those who doubted that DeSalvo killed his aunt, said he spent the day with his family coming to terms with the new evidence. “To wake up today with so much clarity and closure after all these years is surreal,” he said. “I have a sense that my aunt can finally rest, and that her killer has been legitimately identified.”
At a press conference Thursday, state and Boston law enforcement officials said their new conclusions came from the reexamination of some evidence that had been long stored away: strips of a blanket found on the scene of the Sullivan killing and laboratory slides with traces of semen taken from her body. In January, an undercover police officer snatched a water bottle that had been discarded at a construction site by DeSalvo’s nephew, Timothy DeSalvo, and took a sample of the family DNA from it. Genetic markers clearly connected to the family bloodline were found in both his saliva and the old evidence.
Elaine Whitfield Sharp, an attorney representing DeSalvo’s relatives, said the family is still furious that a DNA sample was taken without their knowledge and said they would have provided one if asked. She said the family had exhumed the body in 2001 and took a sample of his DNA, which they still have. The family was also unhappy because officials did not tell them when they would exhume DeSalvo’s body nor did they invite them to observe at the cemetery.
“The family found their actions offensive,” said Whitfield Sharp, adding they are considering their legal options. “This is public money that I think they’re wasting as part of a publicity stunt by politicians.”
Conley said his office took the DNA sample from DeSalvo’s nephew surreptitiously for professional reasons.
At Puritan Lawn Memorial Park, the gravestones look nearly identical, low-sitting markers bearing the names of the dead. The graveyard just off Route 1 is hidden from the busy road by clusters of trees.
DeSalvo’s remains were buried in a family plot bearing his last name after he was stabbed to death in the state prison in Walpole in 1973.
Police arrived Thursday in a series of cruisers and unmarked cars and set up a blue tent by the gravesite, which is near where MIT police Officer Sean Collier was buried after allegedly being shot by the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Several officers visited Collier’s grave and said a prayer for him.
A backhoe opened the grave as more than 20 people watched, including Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis; Donald Hayes, director of the Boston Police Crime Laboratory; detectives from the Boston police cold case squad; and prosecutors.
As helicopters from several news outlets whirred above, gravediggers swept away dirt and grime from a large slab over the coffin, where at least five bouquets of dried flowers remained wrapped in plastic.
Under the tent, officials snapped pictures of the remains, a process to preserve and identify evidence before taking it to the medical examiner’s office.
A small crowd of onlookers gathered outside the entrance to the cemetery. Before the exhumation was complete around 3 p.m., a woman who identified herself as Ann Plastino said she came to the cemetery because she knew DeSalvo. She told reporters that he used to drive her to work in Chelsea in the summertime and seemed friendly and kind. “When I saw on TV that he was the Boston Strangler, I dropped my coffee,” she said. “To think I spent so much time in a car with him, it makes me shake.”
She said she still cannot fully believe he was the Strangler, describing him as a gentleman and family man.
But she was glad to learn of the new evidence. “This is just unreal,” she said. “I hope this can bring some closure.”
Bernie Finer snapped photos outside the entrance to the park. Now a Peabody resident, Finer said he lived in Malden with his wife when the Strangler was on the loose. He used to drive to work, he said, but his wife would walk to the bus, and she would often, unknowingly, walk by DeSalvo’s house.
The exhumation was ordered by a Superior Court judge at the request of Conley, Davis, and Attorney General Martha Coakley after investigators used new technology to link the DNA from DeSalvo’s nephew to forensic evidence recovered at Sullivan’s apartment on Beacon Hill, where she was raped before being killed.
Sullivan’s body was found in January 1964, the last of 11 killings DeSalvo confessed to committing during a 19-month series of killings that stretched from Boston and Cambridge to Lawrence, Lynn, and Salem. Most of the women, who were between 19 and 75 years old, were raped and strangled with their stockings or with cords.
John DiNatale, a private detective in Brighton whose father investigated the case and long argued that DeSalvo was the killer, said he felt some vindication on behalf of his family.
He said DeSalvo had confessed to his father, Phil, a former Boston police detective, describing himself in dozens of letters over the years as “like a radiator without a steam release,” who “when the drive and urge came over him, it was uncontrollable,” DiNatale said. “He couldn’t understand why he was doing the things he was doing. He was a true psychopath.”
DeSalvo told his father that he hoped to be sent to a mental institution so he could be studied “to stop the creation of another Albert,” he said.