By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — Officials plan to exhume the body of Albert DeSalvo from the Puritan Lawn cemetery in order to test the DNA of the suspected Boston Strangler against DNA newly developed from the death scene of Mary Sullivan, a 19-year-old strangled in Boston in 1964.
Advances in DNA testing have allowed criminologists to prove there is a connection between the crime and someone in the DeSalvo line, according to a team led by Attorney General Martha Coakley and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. Now they want to prove that “someone.”
“There was no forensic evidence to link Albert DeSalvo to Mary Sullivan’s murder — until today,” Conley said at a Thursday press conference. “Advances in the sensitivity of DNA testing have allowed us to make a familial match between biological evidence recovered from the crime scene and a suspect in Mary Sullivan’s murder. That suspect is Albert DeSalvo.”
The new technology can coax DNA from aged samples. By testing DeSalvo’s remains, Conley hopes to make the identification 100 percent positive and solve a mystery that has haunted Massachusetts for roughly half a century.
It will mark the second time in little more than 10 years that the suspected killer’s body has been removed from its grave in Peabody. In October 2001, a private group led by forensic scientist James Starr — notable for previously exhuming the body of Jesse James — disinterred DeSalvo for testing. Those results were not conclusive.
Starr also exhumed the body of Mary Sullivan and reported finding DNA from someone who was not DeSalvo. Marblehead attorney Elaine Sharp, who represents the DeSalvo family, believes that means there will be unanswered questions despite the new evidence.
While Sharp called the new DNA evidence “strong” and praised the effort in seeking the truth all these years later, she said, “It is not definitive.”
It is “very compelling evidence that (DeSalvo) was present at the crime scene,” she said. “It doesn’t mean he was the one who murdered her.”
She also objected to the process used to obtain DeSalvo family DNA, which involved surreptitiously following his nephew and obtaining a discarded drink container. And she complained that there was no effort to get permission from the family to exhume DeSalvo’s body; a Suffolk County Superior Court judge gave the OK.
The Strangler murders from 1962 to 1964 marked a period of unprecedented terror in Greater Boston, when women were advised never to open their doors to strangers. Many of the victims were older women, people leading ordinary lives who made the mistake of unlocking the door to a serial killer. Evelyn Corbin, 58, for example, is believed to be one of the Strangler’s victims. She was murdered in Salem in 1963.
DeSalvo, at one point, confessed to killing 13 women, but he was eventually convicted on unrelated charges of sexual assault. Doubts about the confession lingered, and DeSalvo later retracted it.
Albert DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison in 1973.
Sharp said she believes there is a second suspect, someone she did not name, but who she said is still alive today and living in New Hampshire.
Alan Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.