As a Boston police detective, John P. Curran helped solve murders and arrest organized crime suspects. He was among the detectives who investigated the Boston Strangler case, and he worked to keep the peace when violence broke out during the years when busing was instituted to integrate the city’s public schools.
He was more than just an officer who solved mysteries, however. As a child, Mr. Curran had lived in a rough part of Roxbury, and that experience gave him insights into the realities of addiction and tumultuous families. If he saw someone who was suffering, he tried his best to help.
“He was a fair police officer and he would give a break to people who needed it,” said his son, Dennis J. Curran, a Superior Court judge. “He grew up in Roxbury dirt poor, so he saw the other side of life and knew it.”
Mr. Curran, who served as a Boston police officer and detective for more than 35 years, died Dec. 16 in his Roslindale home of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 87.
His son said Mr. Curran worked nights, weekends, and extra duty details to save enough money for his children’s educations.
“He worked his tail off to provide, because that generation’s way of showing their love for their family was to work, because the previous generation could not get work,” said Dennis, who lives in Wellesley Hills.
Unselfish and nonjudgmental, Mr. Curran put his energy into helping others, said a son-in-law, Sebastian Vu of Zurich.
Even near the end, when he was very ill, Mr. Curran was making phone calls on behalf of people who had gotten in trouble with the law, Vu said.
He added that although Mr. Curran could be reserved at times, “if you ever asked him about Boston, he would always have a story,” Vu said. “He was famous for that.”
After joining the Boston Police Department as a patrolman in the early 1950s, Mr. Curran worked in the Allston/Brighton and Hyde Park districts, and was a plainclothes officer before becoming a detective in 1961.
As a detective, he served in the homicide unit. He was part of the task force that investigated the Boston Strangler case, when, from 1962 through 1964, the murders of 13 women in Boston and surrounding communities were attributed to one person.
Dennis Curran said his father’s theory was that there was no single Boston Strangler. He said Mr. Curran believed there was a killer, and then subsequent copycats.
Although no one was convicted in the case, Albert DeSalvo confessed to the murders. Jailed for unrelated crimes, he later recanted his confessions.
DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison in 1973.
In 2001, scientists working with the families of DeSalvo and Mary Sullivan, who was believed to be the Boston Strangler’s final victim, announced that DNA from her exhumed remains did not match DeSalvo’s. They said the results did not rule him out as the killer, but strongly suggested that he did not commit that crime.
Mr. Curran’s brother Jim of Reading, who also was a police officer, said people trusted Mr. Curran when he was an officer and a detective, and that many became his informants.
When Mr. Curran worked overnight shifts, his brother said, he walked the streets and talked with anyone he met.
Among the cases Mr. Curran helped solve, his family said, was one involving the attempted murder of two Boston police officers in Mattapan Square.
Mr. Curran also was elected and served as treasurer of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association when it was formed in the 1960s.
He retired from the police department in the late 1980s.
Born to the former Catherine Campbell and Francis Curran, Mr. Curran graduated from the Society of the Divine Word’s seminary in Duxbury. He later attended the University of Idaho and transferred to Suffolk University.
Mr. Curran served in the Army as part of the occupation forces in Japan in 1948 and 1949.
In 1951, he married Theresa J. Nobilio. She died in 1999.
A service has been held for Mr. Curran, who in addition to his son, brother, and son-in-law leaves three daughters, Paula of Ames, Iowa, Lorraine Curran-Vu of Zurich, and Joan Curran Morrissey of Marshfield; another brother, Richard of Hyde Park; three sisters, Katherine Cleary of North Quincy, Anita Ceven of Stoughton, and Helen Mahan of Springfield; and four grandchildren.
“John was forever trying to help somebody,” his brother Jim said.
He recalled that in the 1940s, two teenage boys in Roxbury lost their legs as a result of a car accident. Mr. Curran and a friend walked around Boston’s Financial District and collected $75 for the injured boys, Jim said. Then they held a dance and raised an additional $5,000 to help pay off the boys’ medical bills.
“His main thing was, if the people need help, you need to give it to them,” Jim said. “That’s just the way he was. He had to help people.”
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