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DNA links Albert DeSalvo to 1964 ‘Strangler’ slaying

Any lingering doubts authorities may have had about who killed the last victim attributed to the Boston Strangler vanished Friday morning when police said DNA test results confirmed that Albert DeSalvo raped and strangled Mary Sullivan in January 1964.

DNA extracted from a 6-inch piece of DeSalvo’s femur and three of his teeth, which police obtained after they exhumed his body more than a week ago, matched DNA in seminal fluid found nearly 50 years ago on a red blanket in Sullivan’s Beacon Hill apartment, where she was found, and on her body.

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The lab in Dallas that performed the test said the odds that a white male other than DeSalvo was the source of the evidence were 1 in 220 billion.

Or as Sergeant Detective William Doogan of the Boston police cold case squad, said, “You would have to leave the universe to find somebody who did this other than Albert DeSalvo.”

The cases involving 10 other women DeSalvo confessed to killing remain open because officials say they know of no biological evidence preserved that would allow them to test for DNA.

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One slim hope lies in the knowledge that some biological evidence was collected at one of the scenes decades ago, but what happened to that evidence is a mystery, officials said.

That case, which police declined to identify, has been assigned to a Boston crime analyst who will search for the lost evidence, said Donald Hayes, head of the Boston police crime laboratory.

Still, authorities said that even without scientific evidence to connect DeSalvo to the other killings, they believe he was behind the string of rapes and murders that terrified the city between 1962 and early 1964.

“I could try to be judicious and say, ‘Oh, we don’t know,’ ” Doogan said to reporters gathered at police headquarters Friday. “[But] you’re asking what’s in my mind, and in my mind, yes, he probably was [the Boston Strangler].”

DeSalvo was stabbed to death in a Walpole prison by a group of inmates in 1973. He had been serving a life sentence for a series of rapes unrelated to the Boston Strangler killings.

In 1967, while he was serving that sentence, he confessed to 11 killings attributed to the Boston Strangler, as well as two others. Doogan said he based his belief that DeSalvo was the strangler on the voluminous police files chronicling the case and the deep knowledge DeSalvo had of the crimes.

While Albert DeSalvo’s  confession to the Strangler killings was questionable, his DNA match is not.

AP/file

While Albert DeSalvo’s confession to the Strangler killings was questionable, his DNA match is not.

Still, his confession was always the subject of some doubt, even by the family of Mary Sullivan.

DeSalvo’s family insisted that the young handyman, hungry for attention, made up the story to achieve notoriety. They pointed to inconsistencies in his confession and even had his body exhumed more than a decade ago, hoping to find DNA evidence that would exonerate him.

On Friday, their lawyer, Elaine Whitfield Sharp of Marblehead, said that DeSalvo’s surviving relatives, including his brother Richard and his nephew, did not wish to comment yet.

“These allegedly ‘definitive results’ . . . have not been proved to be relevant to the question of whether Albert raped and strangled Mary,” Sharp said in a statement that urged the press to be dubious of the officials’ findings.

“There is more to come on this matter,” she said. Sharp was not more specific.

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley dismissed the family’s contention that the new evidence does not prove the identity of the man who raped and killed Sullivan.

“They’re completely out on an island there,” he said. “This is irrefutable. There is no question that Albert DeSalvo murdered Mary Sullivan.”

Conley called Sullivan’s nephew, Casey Sherman, early Friday morning to tell him about the DNA match.

Sherman, who was born five years after his 19-year-old aunt was killed, had long doubted that DeSalvo was the killer and even worked with DeSalvo’s family to prove police wrong. But he agreed with Conley that the DNA evidence removes any doubt about his aunt’s killer.

Sherman, now 44, said his family now has a sense of finality. After Conley gave him the news, Sherman said he called his mother, whom he described as immensely relieved.

“ ‘Mary can rest now,’ ” she told her son.

Sherman said he feels sympathy for the DeSalvo family, with whom he has not spoken since police announced July 11 that they had made a match between the DNA found at the scene and a sample of DNA taken from a plastic water bottle discarded by one of DeSalvo’s nephews. Police decided to exhume DeSalvo’s body because the sample did not give investigators absolute certainty that the DNA found at the crime scene belonged to DeSalvo.

“My heart goes out to them,” Sherman said. “They’re victims of Albert DeSalvo, too. They have had to live his life sentence because of their last name. . . . Maybe they can accept this and put it behind them.”

But unlike authorities, he remained skeptical that DeSalvo was responsible for all the deaths attributed to the Boston Strangler, saying he needs definitive evidence.

“If modern science can answer those questions, they’ll do it,” Sherman said.

Doogan, who also expressed sympathy for the DeSalvo family, said that exhuming DeSalvo’s remains from the Peabody cemetery was a last resort, the only way to obtain DNA directly from him after other efforts to find it were exhausted.

During the excavation, officers helped gravediggers take the coffin out of the family plot. At least six men worked in unison, using nylon straps that had been wrapped around the coffin to pull it up. Then, the gravediggers and officers gingerly carried the coffin, almost like pallbearers, Doogan said.

They were careful to keep it parallel to the ground as they moved it from the grave to the medical examiner’s truck. The entire time, officers held a large tent over the coffin, to hide it from the news helicopters that hovered above.

“The last thing we wanted to do was give the DeSalvo family heartache,” said Doogan. “We didn’t want to desecrate the grave in any way.”

The casket remained sealed until it reached the examiner’s office on Albany Street.

The remains stayed at the examiner’s office overnight and were taken back to the cemetery the following morning, accompanied by a caravan of police cars. Gravediggers then reinterred DeSalvo’s coffin and covered the grave with grass.

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.
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