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Police identify the ‘Boy in the Box’ from notorious 1957 homicide after breakthrough in forensics

Philly Inquirer Staff

Police say they were finally able to identify the child as Joseph Augustus Zarelli through detective work and DNA analysis.

  • Philadelphia police announced Joseph Augustus Zarelli was the name of the victim in the notorious “Boy in the Box” casein a press conference Thursday.

  • Police say the case is one of Philadelphia’s oldest unsolved homicides, dating back to February 1957. The homicide investigation remains active.

  • Investigators used new forensic genealogy technology to determine the boy’s identity.

  • Police did not release the identity of Joseph’s parents, but said they were both deceased.

  • Here’s a look back at the history of the case.

The breakthrough identification in the nearly 66-year-old “Boy in the Box” cold case is an illustration of advances in forensic technology that investigators said they hope will aid in many more homicide cases across the city.

The “brand-new technology” used dates back to 2017, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of the ‘Identifinders International genealogy group.

“We’ve solved cases in two hours and we’ve solved cases in three years,” she said. “As the databases grow and our tools develop and we go forward with the technology, there’s going to be a lot more and it’s going to go a lot more quickly.”

“Every case we saw, we learned something from that pays forward to the next one,” she added. “So we look forward to a lot more success stories.”

Calling the “Boy in the Box” case “one of the most challenging of my whole career,” Fitzpatrick said it took her and a fellow genealogist two and a half years to make the boy’s decades-old DNA usable, collaborating with experts from several countries.

Fitzpatrick said she and her coworkers worked “day and night to get that boy his identity back.”

“Because after all, what can we hope for in life and death but to be buried under a stone carrying our own name?”

If the technology used to uncover Joseph Augustus Zarelli’s identity was available 20 years ago, finding the person responsible for the boy’s death “would’ve been a different story,” said Philadelphia Police Homicide Captain Jason Smith, calling the decades-old investigation an “uphill battle.”

The case marks the first identification made “but definitely not the last” in a new partnership between the the city’s medical examiner’s office and police detectives, said Ryan Gallagher, criminalistics manager of the Philadelphia Police Department’s forensic science office.

The group meets weekly, he said, to determine which cases may benefit from the technology to identify unknown human remains or suspects in criminal cases. The group is working on testing in “dozens” of cases from 1957 to 2022, he said.

“Our goal for the project is that there will never be another unidentified homicide victim in the city of Philadelphia,” he said. “The victims of a homicide deserve and their families deserve no less.”

“There’s still many other unsolved cases,” said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. “I would ask that everyone not lose hope, but recognize that this is something breaking for us, and that we’re hoping to use it moving forward so that we can continue to improve not only how we provide service but to improve the quality of our investigations.”

— Oona Goodin-Smith

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