Child in ‘Boy In The Box’ cold case murder identified by Philadelphia police


His name was Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

Nearly 66 years after the beaten body of a young boy was discovered inside a cardboard box, Philadelphia police say they have finally cracked a mystery central to the city’s most notorious cold case: the identity of the victim.

Revealing the name to the public on Thursday, authorities hope it brings them closer to the boy’s killer and gives the victim – known to generations of Philadelphians as the “Boy in the Box” – a small measure of dignity.

The city’s oldest unsolved homicide has “haunted this community, the Philadelphia Police Department, our nation and the world,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference.

“When people think of the boy in the box, a deep sadness is felt, not only because a child has been murdered, but because all of his identity and rightful claim to own his existence has been taken away,” a- she declared.

The child’s headstone in a Philadelphia cemetery is seen. His name will be carved in stone.

The homicide investigation remains open, and authorities said they hope the release of Joseph’s name will spur a new set of leads. But they warned that the passage of time complicates the task.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle for us to definitively determine who caused the death of this child,” said Capt. Jason Smith, homicide unit commander. “We cannot make an arrest. We may never make an identification. But we will do our best to try.

Police said both of Joseph’s parents were dead, but he had living siblings. They said his family lived in West Philadelphia.

The child’s naked and badly bruised body was found on February 25, 1957, in a wooded area in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia. The boy, who was 4, had been wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a large JCPenney crib box. Police say he was malnourished. He had been beaten to death.

The boy’s picture was put on a poster and plastered all over town as police scrambled to identify him and catch his killer.

Officials, seen at a press conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, said the boy's parents were dead but he had siblings still alive.
Officials, seen at a press conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, said the boy’s parents were dead but he had siblings still alive.

Detectives pursued and dismissed hundreds of leads – that he was a Hungarian refugee, a boy who was kidnapped outside a Long Island supermarket in 1955, a variety of other missing children. They investigated a pair of traveling carnival workers and a family who operated a nearby foster home, but ruled them out as suspects.

An Ohio woman has claimed his mother bought the boy from his biological parents in 1954, kept him in the basement of their suburban Philadelphia home, and killed him in a fit of rage. Authorities found her credible but could not corroborate her story – another stalemate.

All the while, the boy’s missing identity has plagued the police, generations of whom have taken over the case.

They got permission to exhume his body for DNA testing in 1998 and again in 2019, and it was that last round of testing, combined with genetic genealogy, that gave police their big break.

Test results were uploaded to DNA databases, allowing genealogists to match on the maternal side. Authorities obtained a court order for the vital records of all children born to the woman they suspected was Joseph’s mother between 1944 and 1956, and found Joseph’s birth certificate, which also mentioned the name of his father.

William Fleisher, the co-founder of a group of professional detectives called the Vidocq Society which looked into the Boy in the Box case a quarter of a century ago, said hundreds of investigators devoted their “heart and soul” to learn the boy’s identity. and the circumstances of his death since 1957.

“Many of these men and women are no longer with us, but I feel their souls are standing here with us right now,” Fleisher said at the press conference.

“Now our boy is no longer that boy in the box. He has a name.

Originally buried in a pauper’s grave, the boy’s remains now rest just inside the front gate of Ivy Hill Cemetery, under a weeping cherry tree, and a headstone designates him as “the child unknown to America”. Services have been held there every year on the anniversary of the discovery of the boy inside the box.

People often leave flowers and, at this time of year, Christmas decorations and toys.

“The boy has always been special to all of us, because we don’t know who he is,” Dave Drysdale, the cemetery’s secretary-treasurer, said in a phone interview ahead of the news conference.

Now they do. And now that he has a name—his real name—it will be carved in stone.


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