By Alan Burke
---- — DNA evidence has finally and conclusively proven Albert DeSalvo was the killer of Mary Sullivan, believed to be the last victim of the Boston Strangler, according to Attorney General Martha Coakley and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley.
The announcement from Coakley and Conley came after DeSalvo’s remains were exhumed from the Puritan Lawn cemetery in Peabody last week. New techniques in DNA testing allowed technicians to match DeSalvo’s DNA to fluid residue preserved from in and around Sullivan’s body. She was murdered in Boston in 1964 at age 19.
The result of the testing “leaves no doubt that Albert DeSalvo was responsible for the brutal murder of Mary Sullivan,” said Coakley. Testing gave odds of 1 in 220 billion that DeSalvo was not the match.
As a result, Coakley said, it is “most likely” that DeSalvo was the strangler responsible for up to 13 murders of women in the Boston area, from 1962 to 1964.
DeSalvo confessed to those killings, but he later recanted and doubts persisted after inconsistencies were found in his version of events. He was convicted, however, in separate sexual assault cases and was later stabbed to death in prison.
But Marblehead lawyer Elaine Sharp, who represents the DeSalvo family, is saying not so fast.
In a statement released by her office, Sharp said, “At this time, the family of Albert DeSalvo, more specifically, Richard DeSalvo, Albert’s brother, and Albert’s nephew, decline to comment on these allegedly ‘definitive results’ because .... they have not been proved to be relevant to the question of whether Albert raped and strangled Mary.”
Sharp did not explain further. Previously, she has argued that inconclusive DNA testing in 2001 — before the current techniques were available — cast doubt on whether DeSalvo was the killer.
“We ask the media and the public not to take at face value what the government agents have announced today,” she added. “There is more to come on this matter.”
Salem attorney Neil Chayet, who had a tangential role in the original strangler case, said the new evidence goes “a long way to giving firm answers.”
“It’s conclusive in the Sullivan case,” he said, while noting it does not directly address the other killings.
In the 1960s, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Chayet was part of the Law Medicine Institute at Boston University, where he was assigned to the Psychiatric Task Force. He recalled it as an early effort to use sciences such as forensics, toxicology and pathology to create a picture of who the strangler, or other such killers, might be. It was actually a forerunner of modern profiling.
Psychiatrists and psychologists from the task force were assigned to meet with investigators from the various police departments, the State Police and the office of the attorney general to evaluate information regarding the strangler. For Chayet personally, there was a stunning surprise in all this.
“It was my job to deal with the number of psychiatrists who called us to say, ‘I have the strangler in my practice.’ I was stunned when I got the first call. And then I got others.”
Repeatedly, he heard reports of fierce anger toward women. It left him asking one of the psychiatrists in the task force, “How many sick people are out there?”
“You really don’t want to know,” he was told.
While such tips raised questions about doctor/patient privilege, names were passed on to police, he recalls, in the interest of public safety.
Chayet was later involved in working for the release of handyman Roy Smith, convicted in the 1963 murder of a Belmont woman, Bessie Goldberg. Chayet and others believed that Goldberg had been a victim of the strangler.
Yesterday’s DNA evidence, Chayet said, is important for families of the victims — people still living who were involved in the strangler case, and knew the “panic and terror” caused by the wave of stranglings. “To have some closure is very important,” he said.
That was indeed the reaction of Casey Sherman, the nephew of Mary Sullivan.
“It’s a great day,” he told reporters. “This is now full justice for my aunt.”