BOSTON -- Investigators said Thursday that they had linked the man believed by many to have been the Boston Strangler to DNA found in the home of a woman thought to be the Strangler's last victim in a string of unsolved murders that petrified the city in the early 1960s and has perplexed it ever since.
Over the course of about 20 months from 1962 to 1964, 11 women ages 19 to 85 were brutally murdered in Boston and nearby cities, many sexually assaulted and killed in their homes. Mary Sullivan, 19, the last of the victims, was found raped and murdered in her apartment in January 1964.
"We may have just solved one of the nation's most notorious serial killings," Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said at a Boston Police Headquarters news conference.
Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley said investigators, who included Boston Police Department cold case team members and the attorney general's office, had recently tested seminal fluid samples taken from Sullivan's body and the blanket on which it was found. They identified a near-certain match with Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to the murders (and two more), but who was never prosecuted for the crimes.
"For almost five decades, the only link between Albert DeSalvo and Mary Sullivan was his confession," Mr. Conley said. "That confession has been the subject of skepticism and controversy from almost the moment it was given."
The new testing brings an element of modern scientific proof to one murder in a case that seemed likely never to be solved, especially after DeSalvo was killed in prison in 1973. He had been sentenced to life for unrelated sexual assault and robbery charges.
The disclosure comes as the city revisits two other notorious crimes. Earlier this year, authorities announced they had identified the thieves who robbed the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. And crime boss James "Whitey" Bulger is standing trial on a sweeping racketeering indictment after he spent more than 16 years on the lam.
The Boston Police Department crime lab's Don Hayes found the blanket among a trove of police evidence in 1998, and the department received slides with the sample taken from Sullivan's body in the early 2000s. But early attempts to recover usable DNA samples were inconclusive. So Mr. Hayes stored the samples and waited for technology to improve. Last fall, investigators sent the samples to two private labs for another try -- and this time got a DNA profile for an unknown male.
"The evidence in this case never changed," Mr. Conley said, "but the scientific ability to use that evidence has surpassed every hope and expectation of investigators who were first assigned to the case."
Those DNA profiles matched one from a water bottle recently used and discarded by a nephew of DeSalvo's, which investigators had obtained by trailing him. Investigators said they used a test of male chromosomes passed from generation to generation, and found a match that gave them virtual certainty of DeSalvo's guilt.
A Superior Court judge in Boston granted permission Wednesday to exhume DeSalvo's remains, so a final identification could be made. That process could conclude as early as next week.
In the early 2000s, investigators hired by the families of DeSalvo and Sullivan discovered DNA on Sullivan's body that did not belong to her or DeSalvo. That and inconsistencies between DeSalvo's confession and police fact-finding about the case led some investigators to conclude that he had not committed that murder. It all added to a body of speculation that the Boston Strangler was more than one man -- a possibility often raised by lawyers for the DeSalvo family and by Casey Sherman, who is the son of Sullivan's sister.
But the new evidence "provides an incredible amount of closure to myself and my mother," said Mr. Sherman, 44, an author who wrote a book about the Strangler case. "I've lived with Mary's memory every day, my whole life."
The lawyer who represents the DeSalvo family, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, said the family took umbrage at having been trailed for a DNA sample -- and that while the evidence was strong, she did not find it conclusive. "Just because you find DNA that matches somebody on their body doesn't mean that they murdered them," she said.
While authorities say the evidence about DeSalvo's role in Sullivan's death is all but decisive, they acknowledged that it applied only to her murder.