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Strangler case: Foresight pays off

Albert DeSalvo

Globe Staff/File 1967

Albert DeSalvo

The murders of 11 women between 1962 and 1964 by the suspected Boston Strangler could never be accurately described as cold cases. The murders have long smoldered in the minds of the public, amid doubts about the confessions of laborer Albert DeSalvo. In 1973, DeSalvo was murdered in prison, where he was serving time on an unrelated rape charge.

The desire to solve the Strangler mystery burned brightly in the crime lab of the Boston Police Department, where civilian director Donald Hayes read extensively about the murders and rooted around in old evidence bins and archives. There he discovered DNA evidence on a blanket from the home of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, who is believed to be the last of the Strangler’s murder victims.

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Unable to establish a conclusive finding, Hayes patiently tucked away evidence in the hope that evolving techniques in forensic science would one day help solve the crime. Now, more than a decade later, police say they’ve matched DNA from the crime scene to DeSalvo through a sample retrieved from a male relative. Hoping to establish an irrefutable link, authorities extracted a biological sample Friday from DeSalvo’s exhumed body.

Hayes and members of the department’s cold case squad know the value of knocking on seemingly locked doors. New discoveries in science provide once-unimaginable access to old crime scenes. But only those investigators who, like Hayes, possess exquisite patience and foresight are granted permission to enter.

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