The man who once claimed to be the Boston Strangler has been linked to one of 11 victims by DNA evidence for the first time, leading to the planned exhumation of his remains and perhaps putting to rest some speculation that he wasn’t the notorious killer.
Albert DeSalvo’s remains will be dug up because DNA from the scene of Mary Sullivan’s rape and murder produced a “familial match” with him, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said Thursday.
Police secretly followed DeSalvo’s nephew to collect DNA from a discarded water bottle to help make the connection, officials said. Conley said the match excludes 99.9 percent of suspects, and he expects investigators to find an exact match when the evidence is compared directly with DeSalvo’s DNA.
The district attorney stressed that the evidence only applied to Sullivan’s slaying and not the other homicides.
The killings included two in Lawrence. Mary M. Brown, 68, who was stabbed, strangled and beaten. Her body was found on March 6, 1963. Joann M. Graff, 23, was sexually assaulted and strangled. She was found dead on Nov. 23, 1963.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said yesterday’s development was “an opportunity to bring closure” for the surviving family members, friends and relatives of Sullivan and other alleged victims of DeSalvo.
“Even after all this time, memories linger when a relative close to you meets an untimely death in such a violent fashion,” Romero said. “I commend the attorney general for taking this step, even after all these years.”
Romero said the Brown and Graff cases remain open to this day.
“There’s been a lot of speculation who was responsible for the Boston Strangler murders. This could also be an opportunity to see if he (DeSalvo) was involved in all these other cases,” Romero said.
Mary Sullivan, 19, had moved from her Cape Cod home to Boston just days before her death. She was found strangled in her Boston apartment in January 1964 and has long been considered the strangler’s last victim.
Eleven Boston-area women between the ages of 19 and 85 were sexually assaulted and killed between 1962 and 1964, crimes that terrorized the region and grabbed national headlines. DeSalvo, a blue-collar worker and Army veteran who was married with children, confessed to the Boston Strangler slayings, as well as two other murders, but he was never convicted of the killings.
He had been sentenced to life in prison for a series of armed robberies and sexual assaults and was stabbed to death 1973 while serving his prison sentence in Walpole — but not before he recanted his confession.
The Lawrence victims
On Wednesday night, March 6, 1963, police opened a manhunt for a “mentally depraved person” after finding the nearly nude body of widow Mary M. Brown viciously beaten, strangled and stabbed in her apartment at 319 Park St., where she lived alone.
The body was discovered in the den by Patrolmen Joseph T. Hayes and James J. Harvey, who broke into the locked apartment, after neighbors reported not seeing Brown for several days.
She had been struck in the head with a blunt object, causing a skull fracture. A towel had been stuffed in her mouth. Her stockings were rolled down to her ankles, but her shoes were left on. There were bruises on her face, throat and chest, indicating a struggle, according to police, but neighbors said they heard nothing.
A carving fork was plunged into her chest, up to the hilt, sometime after her death, according to reports.
Police couldn’t locate the blunt object used in the murder. They also couldn’t tell how the murderer entered the apartment — both doors were locked and bolted.
Months later, Patrolman A. Ray Morris and Sgt. Francis T. O’Connor found Graff in her one-room Essex Street apartment. Friends of Graff had called police after she failed to answer her phone or door for two days and did not respond when they came to pick up the very devout woman to go to church.
Morris, the first patrolman to enter Graff’s apartment, still remembered exactly what he saw in a 2003 interview with The Eagle-Tribune. He has since died.
Graff’s lifeless, nude body was face up and sprawled across her bed. Two nylon stockings and one leg of a leotard had been knotted tightly around her neck in an elaborate bow.
Her attacker had also bitten her right breast and raped her.
“You could tell she was dead,’’ said Morris, who was 43 at the time of the slaying, in the 2003 Eagle-Tribune interview. “As a matter of fact, she was starting to turn blue. You could see her body as soon as you opened the door to her apartment. Her bed was on the right as you entered. There was no expression on her face.’’
Decades later, friend Elsie Hartung of Methuen had vivid memories of the days following Graff’s murder. She was also interviewed in 2003 and has since died.
“It was a terrible thing,’’ the 84-year-old Hartung said in 2003. “She was such a lovely woman. She was a very sweet person.’
Hartung and Graff went to the same church in Lawrence, and Hartung had Graff over for dinner at her home on Oak Street in Methuen every Wednesday night.
Hartung said Graff was a very conservative woman who wouldn’t even allow Hartung’s two sons into her apartment when they would go to pick her up every Wednesday to bring her to Hartung’s home in Methuen for dinner.
Every Saturday, she did her wash and hung it out to dry from an upstairs porch used by her and others living in the apartment building.
“She must have left the door open,’’ Hartung said in 2003. “When she went out there, and she probably figured she wasn’t going to be long, so might have left the door to her apartment unlocked. That’s the only way he could have gotten in because she wouldn’t have let him in. She wouldn’t let any boy in. She wouldn’t even let my sons into her apartment.’’
Were all of the crimes connected? Several similarities suggested they were.
All of the women, including Graff and Brown, were murdered in their apartments, had been sexually molested and were strangled with articles of clothing. With no signs of forced entry, the women appeared to know their assailant, or, at least, voluntarily let him into their homes.
All the women were respectable citizens who led quiet, modest lives.
An attorney for DeSalvo’s family said yesterday they believe there’s still reasonable doubt he killed Sullivan, even if additional DNA tests show a 100 percent match.
The lawyer, Elaine Sharp, said previous private forensic testing of Sullivan’s remains showed other DNA was present that didn’t match DeSalvo’s.
“Somebody else was there, we say,” Sharp said of the killing. “I don’t think the evidence is a hundred percent solid, as is being represented here today.”
But Donald Hayes, a forensic scientist who heads the Boston Police Department’s crime lab, said investigators’ samples were properly preserved, while the evidence used in private testing came from Sullivan’s exhumed body and was “very questionable.”
Sharp also said Thursday that the family was outraged that police followed a DeSalvo relative to get the DNA they needed for comparison.
The families of DeSalvo and Sullivan had jointly sued the state for release of evidence while pursuing their own investigation. Sullivan’s body was exhumed in 1999 for private DNA testing as part of the effort.
F. Lee Bailey, the attorney who helped to obtain the confession from DeSalvo, said yesterday’s announcement will probably help put to rest speculation over the Boston Strangler’s identity.
Bailey had been representing another inmate who informed the attorney that DeSalvo knew details of the crimes. Bailey went to police with the information, and he said DeSalvo, who was already in prison for other crimes, demonstrated he knew details only the killer would know.
Bailey would later represent DeSalvo.
“It was a very challenging case,” said Bailey, who lives in Yarmouth, Maine. “My thought was if we can get through the legal thicket and get this guy examined by a team of the best specialists in the country, we might learn something about serial killers so we could spot them before others get killed.”
Authorities said they’re continuing to comb through evidence files and still are hoping to find samples to do DNA testing in connection with the other Strangler-linked killings.
They plan to exhume DeSalvo’s body from a grave in Peabody and said it could be just a matter of days before they get results of DNA testing they’re planning.
It’s not clear if prosecutors will take a fresh look at the other unsolved cases, including the ones in Lawrence.
“We have not been contacted as of yet, but if we are contacted, we will assist with any request. We would certainly cooperate with any investigation by the District Attorney’s office,” Chief Romero said.
He doesn’t know whether there is any evidence available for DNA testing in either case, but it could solve both murders.
“Today, there’s technology that wasn’t available 50 years ago. The development of DNA samples has expanded means of identifying potential suspects,” Romero said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.