A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler

A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler

by Casey Sherman, Dick Lehr

Nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan was the last, and youngest, victim in the sensational Boston Strangler case that panicked a city and riveted the nation. Fourteen months after Mary's brutal killing on January 4, 1964, handyman Albert DeSalvo, in jail on an unrelated sexual assault charge, told authorities he was the Boston Strangler and confessed to the gruesome


Nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan was the last, and youngest, victim in the sensational Boston Strangler case that panicked a city and riveted the nation. Fourteen months after Mary's brutal killing on January 4, 1964, handyman Albert DeSalvo, in jail on an unrelated sexual assault charge, told authorities he was the Boston Strangler and confessed to the gruesome murders of thirteen women. Prosecutors led the public and the press to believe the Strangler was behind bars, yet DeSalvo, later stabbed to death in prison while serving time for a different crime, was never charged with or tried for any of the killings because no physical evidence linked him to the slayings and many key investigators and psychiatrists discounted his implausible and coached confession. And the anguished Sullivan family never believed that the so-called Strangler murdered their beloved Mary.

Now Mary's nephew, Casey Sherman, exposes the truth behind her death and unravels the mysteries surrounding the Boston Strangler murders. A Rose for Mary is the gripping story of his ten-year quest to find the real killer of the aunt he never knew. It is also the deeply personal story of an ordinary family caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Drawing on interviews with major figures in the Strangler case and exhaustive research, Sherman reexamines the crime scenes, initial police investigations, prime suspects, and DeSalvo's shocking confession tapes, which have never been made public. He reveals the political motivations of the Boston Strangler Task Force and uncovers the role of flamboyant defense attorney F. Lee Bailey in manipulating DeSalvo's confession. Sherman also presents compelling new DNAevidence, and he discloses how his reinvestigation led to an unlikely alliance with the DeSalvo family, relating how the relatives of the victim and her self-confessed killer are together battling powerful law enforcement officials in Massachusetts to exonerate Albert DeSalvo and reopen Mary Sullivan's officially unsolved murder.

Sherman's dramatic account of his decade-long search for justice for Mary and the Sullivan family unmasks his aunt's real murderer and provides startling new revelations about the other notorious Boston Strangler serial killings.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Boston television producer Sherman, nephew of the last woman killed by the Boston Strangler, finds Albert DeSalvo’s confession too politically expedient to be convincing. DeSalvo was never even tried for the murders, the author reminds readers, yet his guilt was given official sanction by the state attorney general as well as DeSalvo's lawyer, the high-profile F. Lee Bailey. Sherman suggests that in addition to the political motives involved—attorney general Edward Brooke was eyeing a Senate seat, and tying up the case would be a nice feather in his campaign hat—financial considerations also played a part: there was publishing and movie money to be made from the Boston Strangler’s story, money that would pay hefty legal fees. The author has been digging into the circumstances of his aunt's death for ten years and by now believes he knows who is lying, who is giving him the story to the best of their knowledge. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts consistently stonewalled his efforts; as an early investigator in the case explained to Sherman, "Son, this isn't just about the Boston Strangler. Oh, sure it's the biggest case of them all. But what about the would-be Albert DeSalvos out there? The suspects who were pressured to confess to a crime they didn't commit." Many people did give the author valuable information, and his own detective work turned up serious faults in the state’s handling of the case. He believes he has located his aunt's killer, a man "guarded twenty-four hours a day by a conscience that would not let him forget." It would be nice to think that Sherman's substantial legwork will force Massachusetts to allow reinvestigations into the Strangler deaths. Despite theauthor’s closeness to the case—or maybe because of it—he offers valuable insights into the 13 murders that rocked the city. (26 illustrations, not seen)

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Northeastern University Press
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The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler


Northeastern University Press

Copyright © 2003

Casey Sherman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55553-578-X

Chapter One

JANUARY 4, 1964

Mary Sullivan could not wait to get a jump on this new day.
Even though it was Saturday and she did not have to work,
she was up by 7:30 A.M. After a cup of coffee, she'd retrieve her
record player and prized Johnny Mathis record collection from
her car, which was parked on the street. She had been living in her
new apartment for four days now and was getting along wonderfully
with the two roommates she once had worked with at Filene's
department store. Mary would begin her new job at the bank on
Monday, but today she would finish moving her belongings into
her new home. Granted, accommodations were cramped. There
was only one bedroom, which could fit two beds, and since Mary
had been the last one to move in, she had to sleep on the living
room couch. But Mary was used to cramped quarters, having
grown up with three sisters and two brothers.

Mary's high spirits were not dampened that Saturday by the fact
that she was spending it alone. Her roommates, Pat Delmore and
Pam Parker, had been called into work at Filene's to help handle
the mad rush of holiday returns, but she had promised to have
dinner with them that evening. Forecasters predicted the temperature
would be in the upper forties: it would be a good day for Mary
to explore her new neighborhood. Her apartment was on the top
floor of the three-story building at 44A Charles Street in Boston,
just down the street from her favorite pub, The Sevens, a small,
lively joint with a long bar that seated about twenty-five people
comfortably but on a good night often packed close to fifty.

Charles Street was and remains a bustling area. With its antiques
shops and small tucked-away cafés, it is one of the few places
in the city where Boston Brahmins connect with the lower-income
and college crowds. Cutting through the heart of the Beacon Hill
neighborhood, Charles Street is just one block from the Boston
Common and three blocks from the golden dome of the state-house.
The neighborhood of roughly ten thousand residents is
steeped in history. Before the American Revolution, Beacon Hill
was a pastureland for cattle. Then builders constructed elegant row
houses along the south slope of the hill, which attracted Boston's
finest families. The Cabots and the Lodges made their homes here.
Then, in the late nineteenth century, European immigrants, sailors,
poets, and former slaves flooded the north slope of Beacon
Hill, adding a touch of bohemia to the blue-blooded neighborhood.

Mary Sullivan's Charles Street neighborhood, with its cobble-stone
walks and gas lamps, was the Boston pictured in postcards,
not a place where one would expect a gruesome murder. Mary
certainly thought it was safe.

That same day, Diane Sullivan received a letter from her sister
in the mail. Not waiting until she got inside, she opened the letter
right there at the mailbox. Mary wrote that she was enjoying her
new life in Boston and invited Diane up to stay. Diane immediately
started thinking about the fun they would have in the big
city. Of the six Sullivan children, seventeen-year-old Diane and
nineteen-year-old Mary were the closest in age and in character,
and the two were best friends. Diane raced inside the house and
handed the letter to Florry, who looked at the address and sighed.
"44A Charles Street! That's dangerous. We're going up to get her
as soon as your father comes home," Florry pledged. Diane was
confused. Charles Street was considered one of the nicest places
to live in Boston. Why was Florry so afraid?

After a frantic day at Filene's, Mary's roommates returned to
their Charles Street apartment at approximately 6:00 P.M. The
temperature had dipped below freezing, and a light snow had
begun to fall. After climbing the long flight of stairs, Pat Delmore
pulled her key chain out of the pocket of her wool coat, only to
realize that her apartment key was no longer on the chain. Something
else disturbed her. It appeared that Mary had forgotten to
lock the door. "Mary's gonna have to be more careful. I need to
have a chat with her about keeping this door locked," Delmore

She and Pam Parker entered the apartment. The hall light was
on, but otherwise the flat was dark. Then the roommates noticed
that their bedroom door was open. "I could see Mary lying on the
bed in the dark," Pat recalls. "I knew something was wrong."

Parker slowly walked into the bedroom. She could make out
Mary's shape, almost in a sitting position near the headboard.
"Wake up, Mary, we're home. We're about to put dinner on," Parker
said softly. When there was no reply, she called out again.
Silence. "I could see Mary's eyes [were] open," Parker recalls.
"She was looking right at me. I didn't know why she wasn't responding."

Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw when she
flicked on the bedroom light. Mary's breasts were exposed. Three
ligatures were wrapped tightly around her neck. A broom handle
had been lodged in her vagina. There was also a greeting card
sitting on the bed by her left foot. It read, "Happy New Year."

Parker ran out of the bedroom screaming, "I think she's dead. I
think she's dead!" Pat Delmore stood in the kitchen, frozen. "Pam
grabbed my elbow, and we ran down the stairs. We didn't have a
phone, so we had to run across the street to a drugstore," Delmore
remembers. "I was so crazed, I spent five minutes looking through
the yellow pages for the police department's phone number." Finally
she and Parker reached a dispatcher at Boston Police headquarters,
who told them to wait outside the apartment building for
help to arrive.

Beacon Hill should have been the safest neighborhood in Boston
that night. Twelve police officers had been canvassing the area,
interviewing residents for a census report. A few moments after
Mary's roommates crossed back to their side of Charles Street, motorcycle
officer John Vadeboncour pulled up outside their building
and ushered Parker back up to the apartment. His words echoed
the thoughts of Mary's roommates: "O my God!"

The official autopsy report provided the following information:

The body of the deceased was on one of two twin beds, the one
nearer the door leading to the kitchen of the apartment. The body was
in a sitting position at the head of the bed, leaning against the headboard.
The thighs and knees were flexed, and spread apart. The neck
is flexed, the chin resting on the upper chest. The head is leaning
toward the right. The body is nude except for the partial cover of the
shoulders by a blouse and bra. The breasts are bare. The mouth contains
mucoid sticky secretions, a dried strand of this extending from
the mouth towards a dried streak of similar material on the skin of the
right breast, and on the anterior chest wall. A broom handle is present
in the vagina [to the extent of three inches], the whole broom is extending
out flat on the bed in front of the body. About the neck are
tied three ligatures consisting of (A) a charcoal colored nylon stocking,
(B) a pink silk scarf, and (C) a pink and white scarf of floral design.
The only clothing present, and this is about the shoulders, is a white
bra and a yellow and beige striped blouse. [The first ligature] is extremely
tight causing a deeply depressed furrow, completely encircling
the neck. [There are] acute traumatic injuries to both breasts.

Investigators also made an unusual discovery in Mary's bathroom.
A red plaid ascot had been cut up and stuffed into the toilet.

The oldest of the Sullivan children, twenty-four-year-old Helen,
was working as a nurse and living with her new husband in the
Boston suburb of Arlington. Authorities called them that night for
the grim task of identifying Mary's body. The medical examiner
was holding Mary's body in the basement of the mortuary. From
the top of the stairs, Helen could see Mary's lifeless body on a
table, her feet sticking out from under a white sheet. Helen's knees
buckled. She could not bring herself to go downstairs. In her place
her husband, Arthur, walked down the basement steps and told the
examiner that the dead woman was Mary Sullivan. Meanwhile a
large crowd gathered outside 44A Charles Street as detectives
marched in and out of the building. The whispers spread. The
killer had struck again. One neighbor told police she had seen an
older man helping a woman who looked like Mary bring boxes
into her apartment building earlier that day, several hours before
the murder. Had this witness caught a glimpse of Mary's killer?
Another neighbor, living directly across the street, had a clear view
into Mary's apartment. At approximately 5:00 P.M., the time investigators
believed Mary was killed, the neighbor claimed to have
seen a man standing in Mary's bathroom. She said the man had
red hair.

One man fitting that description was Pat Delmore's fiance, a
Boston University student named Joseph Preston Moss (not his real
name). Moss was among the dozens of people watching detectives
rush in and out of 44A Charles Street that night. He had come to
take Delmore out for a date. Sharply dressed in a camel hair coat,
Moss stood out in the throng of people gathered along the sidewalk
outside the apartment. He was talking to Delmore when a cop
called him over and took him up to the apartment. Upstairs, Moss
told police the roommates had seen someone on the fire escape
outside the apartment just two days before. He also said the women
were worried about a defective kitchen window. There were no
signs of forced entry into Mary's apartment. How had the killer
gotten in? Through the window, perhaps? Or had Mary let him
in? Was she comfortable with him, comfortable enough to let her
guard down?

An aspiring photographer named Joe Butera lived a few blocks
away and followed the police sirens to Charles Street. He was snapping
pictures of the scene when he saw Moss, his former classmate,
walk out of the building with the police. Noticing Butera, Moss
motioned him over. "They ... They think I did it," Moss whispered.

At around seven o'clock that evening, Florry and Jack Sullivan
were relaxing in their living room in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Jack
had gotten home late from his new job as a maintenance mechanic
at Cape Cod's Otis Air Force Base. He had been working on jeep
motors, and he had just finished washing the grease from his sore
and callused hands. Because he was exhausted, Florry did not
mention her worry over Mary's letter. Then the phone rang. It was
not the police, but rather a reporter at the Boston Globe. "Mister
Sullivan, do you have a daughter named Mary Ellen?" the reporter
asked. "No, sir. My daughter's name is Mary Ann," Jack replied,
having forgotten she had changed her middle name at confirmation.
As Jack listened on the phone, Florry looked into her husband's
eyes and sensed something was wrong. She arose from the
chair and instinctively grabbed Mary's high school graduation
photo from the mantel. "What hospital is she in?" she asked. Jack
did not answer. He just shook his head and wept.

Diane says she also had an uneasy feeling that day. "It was a
beautiful, unusually warm winter day on Cape Cod, and I remember
thinking to myself, why do I feel so sad?" Diane was on a date
with Donny Sherman, her future husband. She remembers going
to a Yarmouth diner called Bill & Thelma's for a bite to eat around
nine o'clock that evening. Bill & Thelma's was a traditional sock
hop restaurant where the local teens danced and the music always
played. But there was no music playing on this night.

"It was a very surreal experience," Diane recalls. "I walked into
the restaurant and felt a hundred eyes on me. My friends and even
people I didn't know were staring at us and whispering. I knew
something was wrong." Diane and Donny chose a table in the
back of the restaurant. Finally a classmate of Diane's got up the
courage to come to their table. "You have to go home," the classmate
said, her face ashen. When Diane asked her why, the girl
would not answer but only repeated, "You just have to go home."
Diane says it came to her immediately. "I looked up at Donny and
said, 'Oh, no! Mary's been strangled in Boston!'"

On the drive home, images of childhood days with Mary played
in Diane's mind. If she lost Mary she would lose not only a sister
but also a best friend. All the plans the two had made could be
dashed in an instant. Diane did not cry, however. The crying
would have to wait until later. Now she had to be strong for Mary.
Upon arriving home, Diane rushed into the house and found her
parents weeping in their living room. Her father confirmed Diane's
premonition that her sister had been murdered. Diane had one
burning question: "Where is Nathan?" Nathan Ward was Mary's
aimless former boyfriend, whom she had met during the summer
of 1961. Ward was on leave from the army after spending three years
stationed in Japan. Mary found Ward's swagger irresistible. He
studied the martial arts and could break a board with one blow.
But behind the macho posturing was an unfocused young man
prone to abusive behavior. He had a hair-trigger temper and would
often shout obscenities at Mary in public for little things like her
hairdo or the color of the sweater she was wearing. Shortly before
her move to Boston, she had finally broken off the relationship.

Diane and Mary's brother David, then fifteen years old, was
working as an usher at the Hyannis Theater on Main Street, just
three blocks from Howard Johnson's. Ward was scheduled to wait
tables at the restaurant that night. David pedaled his bicycle from
the movie house to the restaurant to tell Nathan the shocking news.
Ward was nowhere to be found, however. David would return to
Howard Johnson's later that evening, but once again Nathan Ward
was not there. This story would disturb investigators, who were told
by Ward's boss that he had been working that night. They could
not find any witnesses to corroborate the restaurant manager's

The next several days were a blur for the Sullivan family. Normally,
Mary's parents would have been planning her birthday party
on January 11. Now they were planning her funeral. It was a torturous
time for Florry Sullivan. She spent hours sitting in her living
room, clutching Mary's picture and whispering her daughter's
name over and over. Mary had been so young. Why had the
Blessed Mother taken her now, and in such a horrendous way?
The Sullivan family had been robbed of its favorite daughter. Mary
had made everyone laugh and kept a watchful eye out for Diane
and her younger siblings, and now she was gone.

Paying for the funeral was also difficult for Mary's parents. Even
after cashing in their life insurance policies, the Sullivans were still
short on funds, and despite the family's active involvement at St.
Francis Xavier Church, the parish did not offer them any assistance.

Excerpted from A ROSE FOR MARY
Copyright © 2003 by Casey Sherman.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Casey Sherman is a television producer for WBZ-TV News in Boston. He has been nominated for an Emmy Award for his work on the Boston Strangler case. He is also a contributing writer for Boston Magazine. Sherman lives in the Boston area with his wife and daughter. Dick Lehr is an investigative and special projects reporter for the Boston Globe and the coauthor (with Gerard O'Neill) of the New York Times bestseller Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob.

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