Boy in the Box: Philadelphia police reveal identity of child found dead inside a box 65 years ago



The “Boy in the Box” finally has a name.

Police on Thursday publicly identified a boy found dead in a Philadelphia box 65 years ago as four-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli, the victim of what police say is one of the oldest unsolved murders in the city.

The identification, made through DNA analysis, represents the researchers’ biggest breakthrough in the decades-old cold case, which dates back to late February 1957, when the child was discovered wrapped in a blanket in a cardboard box, with evidence of “recent and past trauma,” said Danielle Outlaw, Philadelphia Police Commissioner.

The case attracted “immense” public interest, Outlaw told reporters Thursday. But no one ever came forward to claim Joseph as their child, and his identity remained a mystery despite numerous attempts to identify him over the years.

That changed this week when police announced they had successfully identified the child through sleuthing and with the help of genetic genealogists — a field that has led to numerous cold case breakthroughs in recent years, including that of the infamous Golden State. Killer, and reunited families with missing loved ones.

“For sixty-five years, the story of America’s Unknown Child has haunted this community, the Philadelphia Police Department, our country and the world,” said Outlaw, who opened Thursday’s press conference by praising generations of police officers who worked on the case. some of whom are no longer alive. “Despite the fact that Joseph Augustus Zarelli’s full identity and rightful claim to his own existence was taken away, he has never been forgotten.”

Officials hope the techniques used to identify Joseph after so many years will help them with other cold cases and those in the future; the breakthrough “gives hope that there will never again be an unknown murder victim in the city of Philadelphia,” Outlaw said.

While officials are celebrating Joseph’s identification this week, the investigation into who was responsible for his death continues.

“We have our suspicions about who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions as this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation,” said Captain Jason Smith of the Philadelphia Police Department’s homicide division. He hopes news of the ID card will trigger an “avalanche of tips from the public”, but acknowledges that the age of the case presents investigators with an “uphill battle”.

“Maybe we won’t make an arrest,” Smith said. “We may never make an identification (of the killer). But we will do our very best to try.”

It was February 25, 1957 when Joseph’s body was found in a box near Susquehanna Road, in a wooded area in northeast Philadelphia. It was clear then, Outlaw told reporters Thursday, that the child had experienced “horrors to which no one, no one should ever be subjected.”

He had been “severely beaten,” Smith added, and multiple bruises were visible on his body. His hair was “coarsely cut close to the scalp.”

An autopsy confirmed that the child was between the ages of 4 and 6 and found that he suffered “multiple abrasions, bruises, a subdural hemorrhage and pleural effusions,” Smith said — injuries that essentially amounted to blunt force trauma.

There was great public interest in the case and the police received and followed up on hundreds of tips from the area and across the country. “However, no one would lead them to the positive identification of the child,” Smith said, adding that it becomes extremely difficult to solve a murder case and bring the killer to justice when the victim is not identified.

Although DNA was discovered in the 19th century, DNA technology was not very advanced in the 1950s, Dr. Constance D’Angelo, the chief medical examiner, Thursday. Instead, “visual identification” was the main method of identifying people, she said, which is why authorities had photos of the child published in the newspaper, put up posters around town and even sent a photo with a gas bill to the inhabitants.

However, there was no breakthrough in the case.

The boy was originally buried in a Philadelphia potter’s field, where he lay until 1998 when his remains were exhumed before being reinterred in Ivy Hill Cemetery, where a headstone today reads, “America’s Unknown Child.”

Investigators preserved parts of the child’s remains for future research, Smith said. But DNA tests at the time turned up no new clues.

Police re-exhumed the remains in 2019 when it was determined the case could benefit from more modern forensic techniques, Smith said.

This time, DNA test results were uploaded to DNA databases, Smith said. And with the help of genetic genealogists at Identifinders International, a forensic genetic genealogy company, detectives were able to locate and contact relatives in the child’s maternal family.

Investigators identified the birth mother and obtained his birth certificate, which also listed the father’s name. Further investigation led detectives to a person who was later confirmed as the child’s father through additional testing.

Police declined to identify the child’s parents, but Smith said they are both dead. However, Joseph has siblings who are still alive.

Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifinders International, said the case was the most challenging of her entire career, in part because of the extent to which the DNA was compromised. But the discovery “means we can pay it forward,” she told CNN, “to identify so many other people who you think are lost for good, because you think the DNA is all chewed up, but maybe they’re not .”

Meanwhile, the Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia crime-solving club that has been one of the champions of the case over the years, is preparing to finally put a name on the child’s grave.

“Joseph Augustus Zarelli will no longer be that boy in the box,” Bill Fletcher of the Vidocq Society said Thursday, “and will no longer be unknown.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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