November 27, 2000 12:00 PM

For years, the photograph of the aunt he never knew—brown-eyed and chestnut-haired—sat in the Hyannis, Mass., living room of Casey Sherman’s parents, but he had only the vaguest idea of her fate. “My family never really talked about it,” says Sherman. “It was something whispered.”

He was 9 years old when his mother, Diane Dodd, finally told him about her older sister: In January 1964, at the age of 19, Mary Sullivan, a finance-company receptionist, had been the last victim of Albert DeSalvo, allegedly the notorious Boston Strangler, who was blamed for a string of at least 11 brutal murders that terrorized Boston in the early ’60s. Or so the family thought. Though DeSalvo confessed to the killings, including Mary Sullivan’s, in 1965, he was never formally charged with them. But he was charged with and convicted of a series of other sexual offenses and was himself stabbed to death in prison in 1973.

Now Sherman and DeSalvo’s family—convinced he was innocent—have persuaded authorities to subject evidence in the case to new, more sophisticated DNA analysis in order to solve the crimes once and for all. “It’s one of the most bizarre criminal cases in American history,” says Sherman, 31, a TV news producer in Boston. “There are a lot of loose ends.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly has admitted as much. Announcing in October that investigators would be taking a new look at the evidence, he pledged in a written statement “to find the truth after all these years…. This is about Mary Sullivan and the legitimate questions raised by her family that deserve to be answered.”

The mysterious stranglings began on June 14, 1962, when Anna Slesers, a 56-year-old Latvian immigrant, was found in her Boston apartment choked with the cord of her housecoat and apparently raped. Over the next 18½ months, Boston’s panic mounted as one woman after another was strangled. Police cautioned women not to open doors to strangers; locksmiths worked overtime; gun sales rose; and nervous Bostonians bought dogs for protection. “There was a tremendous amount of public hysteria and pressure to close the case,” says Susan Kelly, author of 1995’s The Boston Stranglers.

The last killing occurred in January 1964, but public anxiety didn’t subside until DeSalvo, an ex-shipyard worker, was incarcerated in November 1964 at Bridge water State Hospital for a series of sexual assaults. There he confessed to 13 murders and offered investigators details of the crime scenes they thought only the killer could know. DeSalvo, however, was never linked to them by physical evidence. In 1973 he was murdered, apparently by fellow inmates at Walpole State Prison, where he was serving a life sentence on the assault charges. Though DeSalvo was never tried for the stranglings, he was certainly guilty of them, believes attorney E Lee Bailey, who defended him in the case. “There is no evidence in the world to believe someone else was involved,” he says. “The odds are infinitesimal that one guy could so completely take a bunch of seasoned homicide detectives by selling them a confession that is not true.”

Yet doubts have lingered. Author Kelly finds it significant that the Strangler murders ceased 11 months before DeSalvo’s arrest. And she notes that, while most serial killers pick the same sort of victim, in this case the first six victims were older white women, one was black, and four were much younger white women. As to why DeSalvo would have confessed if he weren’t the Strangler, she speculates that, imprisoned for life, he had a sick desire for notoriety and also hoped to make money for his hard-pressed wife and two children with a book deal. (In fact, the DeSalvos did receive about $50,000 for his life story.) Kelly claims he could have easily gained his minute knowledge of the case, which he used in his confessions, from reading detailed media accounts of the murders and from Bailey’s inside knowledge of the prosecutors’ case. Moreover, the psychiatrist who treated DeSalvo at Bridgewater, Dr. Ames Robey, 71, says the man had a photographic memory. “He told me he was fascinated by these stranglings,” says Robey, adding that DeSalvo told him he had visited some of the crime scenes after police left. Robey also points out that DeSalvo’s prior sexual attacks involved a relatively low level of violence. As for murder, says Robey, “there was nothing in him like that.”

Determined to learn the truth, Casey Sherman made a short documentary on the case in 1992 while a journalism student at Boston University. Sifting through old crime-scene reports and interviewing DeSalvo’s brother Richard, 64, a retired truck driver who has long suffered from his association with his famous sibling, Sherman became convinced that Albert DeSalvo was innocent. He found the confession to his aunt Mary’s murder particularly revealing. “He got the facts all wrong,” says Sherman. “He told investigators he strangled her with bare hands. The autopsy shows she was strangled with two scarves and a nylon. He says he raped her and ejaculated inside her; the autopsy shows no trace of seminal evidence inside her.”

Frustrated that authorities showed little interest in reopening the case, Sherman and relatives of DeSalvo’s filed suit in September to gain access to evidence. Then, on Oct. 14, Sullivan’s family had her body exhumed to gather DNA for comparison with DeSalvo’s, which could take months. Five days later Attorney General Reilly announced that his office would also conduct DNA testing on evidence relating to Sullivan’s murder. “We have this evidence,” says Reilly, “and we are going to make sure we know what, if anything, it tells us.”

Though they admit he committed other crimes, DeSalvo’s relatives say he was no murderer. “It’s 37 years since it started,” says Richard DeSalvo. “For us, it’s never-ending.” Sherman, committed to pursuing the case to honor the memory of his aunt, vows that once DeSalvo is exonerated, he will begin the pursuit of whoever did kill Mary Sullivan. “You have 11 women murdered,” he says. “Where is the justice for them?”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Tom Duffy in Boston

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