Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Boston Strangler

Case Under Review

Diane Dodd, left, sister of Mary Sullivan, with her son, Casey Sherman
Diane Dodd, left, sister of Mary Sullivan,
with her son, Casey Sherman

Although Albert De Salvo was never charged with the strangulation murders of 11 women due to a lack of evidence, many thought that he was the Boston Strangler, especially after he confessed. Two people very close to the case believe he didn't do it. One is Albert's brother Richard DeSalvo; the other is Casey Sherman, the nephew of the strangler's last known victim, Mary Sullivan. Both men and their families are convinced that Albert DeSalvo did not kill Mary Sullivan. If they are correct, their findings may not only overturn the prosecution's case against DeSalvo but will almost certainly cast doubt on the entire Boston Strangler case, in which 11 Boston-area women were sexually assaulted and murdered between 1962 and 1964.

Ironically, it was DeSalvo's own taped confession that convinced the families he was not the killer. "Police say he had to be the killer because he knew things that only the killer would know, but when we listened to the confession tape, it's completely wrong. He confessed to events that simply never happened," said Casey Sherman. Mary Sullivan, who was killed in 1964 at age 19, was Casey's mother's sister.

Albert DeSalvo, a blue-collar worker with a wife and children, confessed to all of the Boston Strangler murders, as well as two others. But, there was never any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scenes. He did not match witness descriptions of possible suspects. His name was not on a list of more than 300 suspects compiled by case investigators and he was never tried in any of the killings. DeSalvo was sent to prison for life for another string of rapes and sexual assaults and was stabbed to death in the maximum-security state prison at Walpole in 1973 — but not before he recanted his confession. At the time of his death, he was in fear of his life and had been housed in the prison infirmary to provide him additional protection.

In October 2000, the two families united to have Sullivan's remains exhumed for DNA testing, a technology that was not available nearly 37 years ago. They hope the results, expected in early 2001, will put further pressure on prosecutors to release to them old evidence they hope will clear DeSalvo. Sherman and his family also believe that his aunt's killer is still at large. For the DeSalvo's, the primary motivation is to clear their family name. Richard DeSalvo said that members of his own family have been constantly berated and assaulted because of the Boston Strangler case and that it has led to rifts in the family.

Richard DeSalvo, being interviewed by the press
Richard DeSalvo, being
interviewed by the press

All 11 women believed to be the Strangler victims were strangled with articles of their own clothing, and one was also stabbed repeatedly. The prosecution has always argued that Albert De Salvo possessed information that only the killer would know. Sherman countered by suggesting that DeSalvo could have gotten details about Sullivan's slaying from the newspapers. This view is supported by Susan Kelly in her 1995 book Boston Stranglers: The Wrongful Conviction of Albert De Salvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders, but she goes further suggesting that DeSalvo could have learnt the details from the "real" killer in prison. In his confession, DeSalvo said he strangled Mary Sullivan with his hands. In reality, she was strangled with her own clothing. DeSalvo also claimed to have raped her when evidence has proven that she was sexually assaulted with a broomstick. A forensic scientist who took part in an autopsy arranged by the families said experts were unable to find the effects of a blow DeSalvo claimed to have inflicted on Sullivan. Also, the families said DeSalvo claimed to have left a knife and a sweater at the murder scene but neither was found.

Tests are also being conducted on 68 samples of hair, semen and tissue taken from Sullivan's exhumed body. Richard DeSalvo said his brother's body would also be exhumed if it would help their case. Sherman said a prime suspect in his aunt's death is a former boyfriend of one of her roommates as there was no evidence of forced entry into her apartment.

Richard De Salvo believes his brother confessed to the Boston Strangler killings because he knew he was going to prison for life for other crimes and wanted to cash in on book and movie deals and use the proceeds to take care of his family. According to the families, DeSalvo's lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, convinced him that if he confessed, he would go to a mental institution rather than prison.

Recent photo of F. Lee Bailey
Recent photo of F. Lee Bailey

Even though Bailey still claims that Albert DeSalvo is the Boston Strangler, he supports the families' campaign to have DNA tests carried out, as he believes that the results will prove that DeSalvo did it.

The state attorney general's office is currently "reviewing" the Sullivan slaying but has continually denied the families access to evidence because they consider the case is still unsolved. In October 2000, a judge ordered the two sides to try to work out a compromise but the Boston authorities have been less than cooperative. Jerry Leone, chief of the Massachusetts attorney general's criminal bureau, said that if evidence does point to someone other than DeSalvo as Sullivan's killer, it doesn't necessarily cast doubt on all the other Boston Strangler murders and doesn't mean the other cases will be reinvestigated. "We are looking into the Sullivan case because it's the only case that has any evidence that can be used in a viable prosecution right now," Leone said. On the other hand, Richard DeSalvo believes that if it is proven his brother didn't kill Mary Sullivan, it raises a serious question about who really killed the others.

In recent months, Attorney General Thomas Reilly has made it very clear that he will not allow the release of any evidence causing the families to reactivate their lawsuit against the state of Massachusetts.

Attorney General Thomas Reilly
Attorney General Thomas

On February 23, 2001, Judge William G. Young reinstated the lawsuit, which calls for the release of all evidence pertaining to the original investigation so that the families can pursue their own investigation. The state has since sought a motion of dismissal.

After a private investigation conducted by Casey Sherman, both families are even more convinced that DeSalvo was coerced into confessing in the belief that he would receive favorable attention if he did. To support their case the families have offered the results of the forensic tests carried out on Mary Sullivan's remains, which have shown no indications of head trauma and damage to the fragile neck bones normally associated with strangulation.

The matter now rests with Judge Young. Should the lawsuit be successful, the authorities will be ordered to hand over to the families, all evidence pertaining to the Boston Strangler investigation for the purposes of private analysis. If the lawsuit fails the family is expected to launch an appeal. More importantly, if the DNA results prove conclusively that DeSalvo was not the killer, the entire case may be reopened and a new hunt instigated for the real Boston Strangler.


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