The case of the Boston Strangler — the serial killings of 11 women in the early 1960s, some choked to death with their own nylon stockings — has never truly been solved. An inmate confessed, but authorities have doubted his story for decades.
On Thursday, citing advances in DNA testing and their own sleuthing, officials in Massachusetts said they have finally linked the confessor to one of the women, a 19-year-old girl who was the Strangler’s last victim.
“We may have just solved one of the nation’s most notorious serial killings,” said Martha Coakley, the state attorney general.
Albert DeSalvo, who was already in prison for unrelated crimes, confessed to all 11 killings. But he was never convicted, and pieces of his story didn’t add up. He recanted before he was stabbed to death in prison in 1973.
Police saved evidence from the rape and murder of Mary Sullivan for almost half a century — semen and scraps from a blanket — and matched it to DNA on a water bottle discarded in the present day by a nephew of DeSalvo.
The match is technically preliminary, but officials said they had 99.9 percent certainty, and they will dig up DeSalvo’s body to make a final match.
Sullivan’s nephew Casey Sherman, who said he had doubts about DeSalvo’s guilt, said he thought the breakthrough would provide “an incredible amount of closure” for his family, but only when the match is confirmed.
Sullivan’s grandfather learned of her death from a reporter, Sherman said. The grandfather asked whether she was in the hospital and was told no — she was in the morgue.
On Thursday, Sherman choked up as he told reporters: “I’ve lived with Mary’s memory every day, my whole life.”
“We’re not there yet,” he said, “but we’re getting there.”
A lawyer for the DeSalvo family, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, said that independent, private testing in 2000 had found the presence of another man’s DNA on the body, so the match proves only that DeSalvo had sex with Sullivan, not that he killed her.
“Let’s call it what it is. There’s another potential killer here,” she said. “And they have to rule that person out as the killer.”\
Authorities told The Associated Press that the evidence in the private testing was questionable.
Law enforcement officials have argued for decades not just over whether DeSalvo was the Strangler but whether all 11 killings were carried out by the same person. Authorities stressed Thursday they had no surviving DNA evidence from the remaining 10 murders.
In Sullivan’s killing, forensics experts had traded to extract a usable DNA profile from the remaining evidence twice before, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Only advances in the last decade allowed them to do it.
Last fall, Conley said, authorities sent the evidence to two sophisticated laboratories, neither told that the other was working on the case. They returned DNA profiles for Sullivan.
A Boston police fugitive squad followed the nephew around and retrieved the water bottle when he discarded. It was good for a familial match because male descendants of the same father share similar Y chromosomes, Conley said.
To confirm it, though, the DNA has to come from DeSalvo himself. There was no immediate word on when DeSalvo’s body would be exhumed to confirm the match.
“This is good evidence, strong evidence and reliable evidence,” Conley said. “But it is not sufficient to close the case with absolute certainty.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published July 11 2013, 1:21 PM