New DNA evidence casts doubt on whether Albert DeSalvo was really the Boston Strangler.
In the early 1960s, Boston was in the grip of fear. A killer was on the loose. Ten women were found murdered. They ranged in age from 19 to 75; they had different ethnic backgrounds; they lived in different neighborhoods.
The only thing these women had in common was that they were strangled to death in their own apartments. The police were frustrated and the public terrified. They named the killer the “Boston Strangler.”
Susan Kelly, author of two books about the Boston Strangler case, described the mood in Boston at the time:
“There are stories of women rushing out to dog pounds to buy every available stray mutt for protection. Locksmiths reported a run on their businesses. People were obviously quite clearly frightened by whatever was out there.”
Ten months after the last murder, few people noticed when a man named Albert DeSalvo was arrested on unrelated sexual assault charges. DeSalvo was married and had two children. He also had an extensive history of sexual offenses. One of his many nicknames was the “Measuring Man.” DeSalvo pretended to be recruiting fashion models. He would smooth talk his way into women’s homes, measure them for clothing, and then fondle them. When DeSalvo’s scam eventually caught up with him, he was arrested and sent to prison for one year.
After De Salvo’s release, police began receiving complaints about “the green man,” a maintenance worker who talked his way into women’s apartments and then assaulted them. Susan Kelly said DeSalvo’s scam was more successful than one might imagine:
“She would let him in. He would make an overture to her. If the overture were repelled, he would leave. But a surprising number of times it wasn’t, according to him, and he ended up making love with the woman. Later, his assaults became much more aggressive. Eventually these were the charges he was arrested for.”
DeSalvo was arrested and sent to Bridgewater State Mental Hospital. Dr. Ames Robey was the medical director:
“Well, the first thing that was so obvious about Albert was his incredible need to be somebody important. He would brag about almost anything. He gave the feeling, although he didn’t say so at that time, that he sort of wanted to be as well known as, quote, “the Boston Strangler.”
Three months later, George Nassar, another inmate at Bridgewater, had an odd conversation about the Boston Strangler with his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. Bailey recalled his talk with Nassar:
“He asked me whether or not it would be possible for someone who had done the stranglings to write a book. And my off-hand answer was sure, but he might go to the electric chair as a consequence. Later on, I was asked to go down and see this fellow, Albert DeSalvo, by my client.”
Bailey expected to come face to face with a monster. Instead, he met a married man with two children who seemed concerned about his family:
“I was a little incredulous because everybody develops a profile. You’re looking for a monster, somebody that, you know, the jowls are dripping and it just didn’t seem to fit.
He wanted to be able to tell his story. He said, ‘I would like to find out why I am like this. Maybe people can give me tests or something.’”
According to Bailey, DeSalvo confessed he was the Boston Strangler.
“I had no way of knowing whether or not he was telling the truth, fantasizing because he was crazy, or had read a lot of things in the newspapers and wanted to be famous.”
Two days later, Bailey returned to Bridgewater with a tape recorder and a list of questions. With DeSalvo’s permission, Bailey had struck a deal with the Boston police. They would provide Bailey with details only The Strangler would know, as a way of testing DeSalvo. In return, Bailey was guaranteed that the tapes would never be heard in court.
Deputy Superintendent John Donovan, retired Chief of Homicide in the Boston Police Department, said he was intrigued by what he heard:
“His descriptions of the crime scenes were just so accurate that that impressed me very much.”
But when Dr. Ames Robey heard the tape, he was not so impressed. He believed there was another explanation for DeSalvo’s knowledge of the crime scenes:
“Albert indicated to us that he had gone to the various sites that the newspapers had named after the police tape was off the doors in the apartments, just to sort of be there and see what it was like.”
Dr. Robey says that DeSalvo had a photographic memory. He may have visited the victims’ apartments, or perhaps he was just repeating what someone else had described to him. Then Robey began to believe that DeSalvo’s friend, George Nassar, was somehow involved:
“I first began to wonder about something going on when no other inmates would come near them. And they would immediately stop talking if the guards or staff came anywhere near where they could hear. But they would have extensive conversations about what, of course, we didn’t know.”
A career criminal, George Nassar had been imprisoned for killing a gas station attendant shortly after the Strangler killed his last victim. Nassar agreed to discuss his role in the case and his relationship with Albert DeSalvo for the first time:
“With Albert DeSalvo, I was simply an associate. I’ve done the same thing with many, many prisoners. People come to me and ask for advice. I give it to them if they say, if it’s worthy of me assisting them, I assist them, for my reasons because I feel it’s a worthy thing to do.”
The Massachusetts Attorney General ordered that news of DeSalvo’s confession be kept under wraps. Within the police department, there was a split over whether DeSalvo was, in fact, the killer. Then someone leaked the story of the confession to the local papers.
In response to the story, two women came forward. One was a survivor of a possible Strangler attack. The other was a neighbor of one of the victims. They were brought to Bridgewater to see if they recognized any of the inmates.
Surprisingly, the one familiar face did not belong to Albert DeSalvo, but to George Nassar. Is it possible that he was actually the Boston Strangler? Dr. Ames Robey thought it was possible:
“George Nassar would fit the profile of the Boston Strangler. We found nothing that would rule him out, not even one iota.”
George Nassar denied the accusation:
“I do not kill women. I’ve never conceived of it. I wouldn’t conceive of it. I have great respect and regard for women, beginning with my mother who brought me up that way.”
F. Lee Bailey wasn’t convinced his client fit the profile of the Strangler:
“George Nassar was eliminated as the Strangler. I don’t think he had the profile to strangle. George Nassar used a gun.”
Albert DeSalvo was the state’s prime suspect, even though there was no physical evidence that linked him to any of the killings. F. Lee Bailey suggested that DeSalvo undergo hypnosis. He recalled the session:
“We had him hypnotized and age regressed right through one of the homicides. And the things that developed in the presence of a very bright medical hypnotist were of great interest.”
The session revealed that DeSalvo had had problems with every significant woman in his life. According to F. Lee Bailey:
“We found an involvement of his wife who he’d married in Germany, his daughter who had a physical disability that troubled him greatly, his mother whom he had a love-hate relationship. And it was just the beginning.”
Dr. Robey observed the session and came to a completely different conclusion:
“The answers were almost implied in the question, which, at least from my training, is something you don’t do. I was not at all convinced that anything had been uncovered. And was a little surprised later when Mr. Bailey announced what had occurred under hypnosis was ‘definitive evidence.’ Albert, even with the crimes he was charged with, he was considered gentle, polite. His sexual proclivities, his general attitude, he was not angry and hostile.”
In the summer of 1965, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office conducted its own interrogations. The transcripts of those interviews were never released, but author Susan Kelly obtained a copy while researching her book called “Deadly Charade.” Susan came to believe that Albert DeSalvo was playing along:
“When you read the transcript and you come to a point where Albert gives an incorrect answer to a question, he is guided to give the correct answer. And Albert, who was a smart guy, caught on very quickly. This man was not the Boston Strangler, he didn’t kill anyone.”
F. Lee Bailey strongly disagreed:
“They had the right guy, beyond question. No one has ever come up with anything meaningful to contradict that. The question is, how could we try him as the Strangler and close the file in the public’s mind?”
F. Lee Bailey struck a deal with the State. Albert DeSalvo went on trial, but not as the Boston Stranger. Instead, he was tried for sexual assault and other crimes in connection with the “green man” case. In return, the State agreed not to press for the death penalty.
According to Bailey, it was the right thing to do:
“That’s all we wanted. Nobody ever wanted Albert on the street, including Albert, and to ask not to be executed so that he could be studied seemed to me a reasonable objective.”
After less than four hours of deliberation, the jury reached its verdict: guilty on eight criminal counts. DeSalvo had wanted to be sent to a mental hospital, but his insanity defense failed. He was sentenced to life in prison. Susan Kelly had suspicious as to why:
“It was a much more severe sentence than he would have received normally on the sex charges of which he’d been convicted. But he was being sent to the prison as the Boston Strangler. It was that simple.”
Dr. Ames Robey concurred:
“I think the most difficult part of all of this was the feeling that whether they had it solved or not, they had quieted the public’s concern. So, theoretically everyone was happy.”
In prison, DeSalvo was re-united with his old friend, George Nassar. Once again, questions were raised regarding Nassar’s possible involvement with the stranglings. Nassar admitted nothing:
“Because Al was not tried, this case had become mythical, it became part of, like, a public fantasy of what really happened. It became a continuing mystery, when it should’ve been resolved. And I was part of the mystery.”
Outside of prison, DeSalvo had become a legend. But inside, he feared his fame had made him a marked man. After more than six years behind bars, he asked to be transferred to a cell in the prison infirmary. Here, he would be isolated from the other inmates.
On the evening of November 25th, 1973, DeSalvo telephoned his former psychiatrist, Dr. Ames Robey.
“He wanted to talk to me, to tell me the, quote, real story. He didn’t say what the real story was and I could only hope that this is what I would hear, but I never heard it.
DeSalvo told Dr. Robey that he also intended to tell a reporter the same story. But before he talked to anyone, he was found in his cell murdered, stabbed repeatedly in the chest.
Some believed that DeSalvo was involved in a drug deal gone bad. Others, including George Nassar, say DeSalvo was killed in a dispute over cuts of meat he was allegedly selling on the prison black market. To Dr. Robey, it was clear what had happened:
“Somebody didn’t want that interview happening. And I think they’ve said before, ‘dead men tell no tales.’”
Three inmates were eventually charged with Albert DeSalvo’s murder, but no one was ever convicted.
Was Albert DeSalvo the Boston Strangler?
F. Lee Bailey:
“Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. We learned that at great and tragic expense to the community and then wasted him away. We could’ve learned a lot from Albert. We didn’t.”
Dr. Ames Robey:
“I think Albert became the Boston Strangler because he wanted so much to be the Boston Strangler. It was the most important thing in his life. For somebody that felt all his life that he was a nobody, all of a sudden he could become world-renowned.”
“After eight years of research on this case, one thing I’m certain of is that Albert DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler. There are a number of very good suspects. None of them happen to be Albert DeSalvo.”
Shortly after his murder, authorities came across a collection of poems that DeSalvo had written while in prison. One of them provided an intriguing footnote to the legend of the Boston Strangler. It read:
Here’s the story of the strangler yet untold
The man who claims he murdered 13 women, young and old
Today he sits in a prison cell
Deep inside only a secret he can tell
People everywhere are still in doubt
Is the strangler in prison, or roaming about?
Despite these and other doubts, DeSalvo became known far and wide as the Boston Strangler. But recently, new physical evidence suggests the real killer or killers were never caught. Samples of DNA found on the Strangler’s last victim seems to prove that Albert DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler.
On January 4, 1964, Mary Sullivan was found by her roommate, strangled to death and sexually assaulted. In a final morbid gesture, placed at her feet was a Happy New Year card.
The police collected semen left on Mary’s body by the killer. But in 1964, there was no way to match it to a suspect. Albert DeSalvo later admitted he’d killed Mary. However, two families have formed a surprising alliance to challenge his confession: the family of Mary Sullivan and the family of Albert DeSalvo, including his brother Richard:
“I never believed my brother was the Boston Strangler from day one. I just want the name cleared. That’s all. Albert was not perfect. Albert did some bad things. Albert was not a murderer.”
Mary Sullivan’s sister, Diane, also believes that DeSalvo was not the killer:
“I’m gonna do everything I can to find her murderer, to find the murderer of Mary.”
According to Casey Sherman, Mary Sullivan’s nephew, he contacted the Boston police and asked about possible DNA evidence in The Strangler case:
“I made several inquiries to the Boston police department and they told me flat out that they did not have any physical evidence left in the Boston Strangler case to test for DNA evidence.”
So Mary Sullivan’s family turned to the only evidence available to them: Mary’s remains.
Casey said the family felt exhumation was the only way they could settle the case:
“We had to do the exhumation of my aunt’s body. It was a horrible experience. We didn’t want to do it, but it was our last and only recourse, we thought, and it was the only chance to find her killer.”
The Sullivans got help from a team of forensic experts, including world-renowned Professor of Law and Forensic Science, James Starrs:
“We were obviously looking for any seminal fluid, and we do know that seminal fluid will fluoresce under UV light. So we looked, and seminal fluid fluoresced, and it was also in the right location for seminal fluid. It’s on pubic hair.”
Forensic molecular biologist Dr. David Foran was another member of the team:
“So we examined that, hoping to get any DNA from it. We had to be extra careful because, obviously, her hair is going to have her DNA in it, so one of the tricky parts becomes isolating DNA only from this material that’s stuck in the pubic hair, and not from the hair itself.”
Dr. Foran successfully isolated a DNA sequence and compared it to Albert DeSalvo’s genes using DNA taken from his brother, Richard. The results were virtually indisputable; the semen was not Albert DeSalvo’s. It confirmed to Casey Sherman that his family made the right decision in exhuming his aunt’s body:
“When he said that there was DNA, they believed, from Mary’s killer on her body, and that DNA didn’t match Albert DeSalvo, it was just complete vindication as far as I was concerned.”
The results led James Starrs to lay down a challenge:
“For those who say that Albert DeSalvo did do it, the shoe is on their foot now. It’s for them to come forward and show the evidence to prove that Albert DeSalvo did do it.”
But if Albert DeSalvo did not kill Mary Sullivan, then who did?
The detectives who first investigated the killing found a strange piece of evidence in her bathroom. According to Diane Dodd, Mary’s sister, it implicated Mary’s abusive ex-boyfriend:
“They found an ascot cut up in the toilet. When my sister dated this person, that’s all she bought him for presents, because he loved ascots. So I could see him definitely cutting that ascot up in the bathroom, and I could absolutely see him killing Mary.”
Another suspect emerged based on an eyewitness account. A neighbor saw a man in Mary’s apartment at the approximate time of the murder. Mary’s roommate had a boyfriend who matched the description given by the neighbor. He may have had access to Mary’s apartment, and her keys, explaining why there were no signs of forced entry.
Casey Sherman felt this scenario made sense:
“Her apartment key had gone missing the day before she was killed. Now this key hadn’t fallen off the keychain. It was taken off.”
The suspect was brought in for a polygraph test. According to police, his responses were deemed “untruthful.” Once DeSalvo had confessed however, investigations into this suspect and Mary’s ex-boyfriend, were closed.
According to author Susan Kelly, the police also had strong suspects in several of the other murders:
“If Albert wasn’t the Boston Strangler, who was the Boston Strangler? From what my research indicates, there wasn’t one, there were many.”
On June 14, 1962, the Strangler claimed his first victim, 56-year-old Anna Slesers.
Earlier that day, a painting crew was working at her apartment. Sixteen days later, the same painting crew arrived at the apartment building of Helen Blake. She became victim number two. Casey Sherman thinks the connection is obvious:
“Two of the members of the painting crew, their alibis couldn’t be corroborated by their boss or by their fellow workers. And that’s an unusual connection.”
Casey points out that the police also had a suspect for victim number six, 20-year-old Sophie Clark:
“The suspect in the Sophie Clark case was seen entering her apartment building. He was seen fleeing her apartment building, covered in sweat.”
Police identified the man and learned that he had dated Sophie at least once. He was given polygraph tests on two separate occasions and, according to authorities, failed both.
Victim number seven was 23-year-old Patricia Bissett. In this case, police also had a strong suspect: Patricia’s boss, the man who discovered her body. Casey did some of his own research into her murder:
“Detectives found out that Patricia Bissett was having an affair with her happily married boss at the time she was killed. Well, I found her autopsy report. It shows that she was one month pregnant when she was murdered. Not only do you have motive, you have a suspect there.”
But investigation of all these suspects stopped cold when Albert DeSalvo confessed. Susan Kelly says her research reveals the true picture:
“There’s a possibility that some of the older women died at the hands of the same person. Each of the young women who died was murdered by a different individual who had his own motives.”
Casey Sherman suspected that many of the murders were copy-cat killings:
“If you hated a woman back in the early 1960’s, you could kill her, loosely wrap a stocking around her neck, and hope that the police would think it was the Boston Strangler. All the grizzly details were printed in the papers at the time. If you wanted to commit a murder, here was your diagram.”
The Sullivan family continues to hope that Mary’s killer will one day be identified and prosecuted. Bringing some peace of mind to his mother is Casey’s prime motivation:
“I want closure for my mother. My mother has had to live nearly 40 years without any answers in this case. We want to publicly identify Mary’s killer, look him in the eye, and tell him what he stole from us.”
In 2013, a DNA test confirmed that DeSalvo killed Mary Sullivan.