PEABODY, Mass. – The family of a woman who may have been the Boston Strangler's last victim could be just days away from getting answers about her slaying after decades of wondering whether police pinned it on the right man.
Workers at a Massachusetts cemetery on Friday began digging up the remains of Albert DeSalvo, the suspect in the death of Mary Sullivan. His casket was expected to be exhumed Friday afternoon and taken to the medical examiner, where tissue or bone samples will be taken, a spokesman for the Suffolk District Attorney's office said.
Authorities said Thursday that for the first time they have forensic evidence tying DeSalvo to Sullivan's death. DeSalvo was the man who first confessed to being the Boston Strangler, but later recanted before his stabbing death in prison as he served a life sentence for other crimes.
Casey Sherman struggled to hold back tears for his late aunt as he joined law enforcement officers to talk about a case that gained public notoriety but always has been a source of private pain for his family.
Nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan, whom Sherman called "the joy of her Irish Catholic family," left the quiet of Cape Cod for the bustle of life in Boston in January 1964. A few days later she was dead.
Someone raped and strangled her in the apartment she'd just moved into, and her death became linked to what some believed was the work of a serial killer who also stole the lives of 10 other women during a homicidal rampage in the Boston area that lasted two years.
"I've lived with Mary's memory every day, my whole life. And I didn't know, nor did my mother know, that other people were living with her memory as well," Sherman said of the aunt who died before he was born. "And it's amazing to me today to understand that people really did care about what happened to my aunt."
Authorities will exhume DeSalvo's remains because testing of DNA from the scene of Sullivan's rape and murder produced a "familial match" with him, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said. It happened after scientific advances that only became possible recently, and after police secretly followed DeSalvo's nephew to collect DNA from a discarded water bottle to help make the connection.
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 10 homicides.
"Even among experts and law enforcement officials, there is disagreement to this day about whether they were in fact committed by the same person," Conley said.
Eleven women between the ages of 19 and 85 were sexually assaulted and killed in the Boston area 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 11 Boston Strangler slayings and two others. But he was never convicted of the Strangler slayings.
He went to prison for a series of armed robberies and sexual assaults before his death in Massachusetts' maximum security prison in Walpole in 1973.
An attorney for DeSalvo's family said Thursday 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 from what appeared to be semen was present that didn't match DeSalvo.
"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.
But Sherman, who previously wrote a book on the case pointing to other possible suspects, acknowledged the new findings point to the man he had defended. Sherman said the DNA evidence against DeSalvo appeared to be overwhelming.
"I only go where the evidence leads," he said, thanking police and praising them "for their incredible persistence."
Sherman also expressed sympathy for the DeSalvo family, with whom he had joined in the past in a shared belief that DeSalvo didn't kill his aunt. That belief was based on DeSalvo's confession, which Sherman previously said was inconsistent with other evidence.
The families of DeSalvo and Sullivan had jointly sued the state for release of evidence while pursuing their own investigation. They had Sullivan's body 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 Thursday's announcement will probably help put to rest speculation about the Boston Strangler's identity.
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.