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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 cafes, 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 statehouse. 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 cobblestone 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 thought.
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 story.
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. Then the local Protestant minister said he would take care of the funeral arrangements free of charge. This offer infuriated the priests at St. Francis. The monsignor not only changed his mind, but also gave the Sullivans a family burial plot at the church cemetery in nearby Centerville. "A Catholic girl should receive a Catholic burial," he said.
Meanwhile, the murder was attracting global attention. There were calls from newspapers in Ireland asking if the Sullivans still had family in their ancestral homeland. The media had attached themselves to the big story and would not let go even if it meant violating the family's privacy. Diane felt trapped inside her own home by the crowd of reporters camped outside. "That's when I gathered David and Phyllis (the youngest of the Sullivan children) and said, 'Let's go say good-bye to Mary.'" The trio left the house as reporters swarmed around them. "Are you the ones?" a reporter shouted. Mary's siblings did not answer. Instead they held hands and pushed their way past the reporters out into the street.
They walked a quarter mile down the road to Sea Street Beach, Mary's favorite spot. She had loved to look out at the mouth of Lewis Bay and watch the waves crashing against the rugged jetty and the seagulls diving into the ocean for their next meal. On Sea Street Beach, Mary would squish her toes in the warm sand while trying to spot JFK and Jackie sailing off the nearby Kennedy Compound. As Diane held hands with David and Phyllis on that chilly beach, no one spoke. They just stared at the ocean and said good-bye to Mary in their thoughts.
Later that day Diane told the family she would pick out the pallbearers for the service. The group would be made up of Mary's best friends, including Nathan's roommate, Tom Bahr. Diane drove to their apartment to ask Tom to be a pallbearer. While she and Tom were discussing the details, Nathan walked into the living room, screaming. "You can't talk about this here! I don't wanna hear anything about Mary's funeral.... I can't take it!" His face was red with anger. Diane restrained an impulse to confront Nathan about her suspicion that he was involved in the murder. "It wasn't the time or the place, so I just left," she recalls. "Besides, I figured if Nathan did it, the police would do their job and arrest him."
Excerpted from Search for the Strangler by Casey Sherman Copyright © 2003 by Casey Sherman.
Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 26, 2011
I saw The Boston Strangler with Tony Curtis years ago and just from watching the movie I was not convinced that Albert DeSalvo was really the strangler. When I came across this book I knew I had to read it.
The author is the nephew of Mary Sullivan and it became his life's mission to find her real killer since his mother never believed that DeSalvo was the killer and that Mary's murderer was still roaming free.
The book opens with the murder of Mary and background on the victims, DeSalvo and the police that were involved in the case. The second half tells the story of the author and his family. Why he was so intent on solving this mystery and how he went about it.
I was shocked by a lot of what I read. Not because it was gruesome but because it showed a real lack of caring on the part of the investigation. It seemed they just wanted to close the case and didn't care if they had the right person or not. It also didn't matter how many people were hurt by their actions or non actions.
While I think DeSalvo was not a nice person and yes he had many problems and probably should have been in prison, I find it sad that his family has to live with the stigma of his being The Boston Strangler when more than likely he is not. After reading this book there is no doubt that he was not the killer of Mary Sullivan!
The book is well written. The story flows very smoothly and gives us reason to look at things in a different light. It is written in a very nonjudgmental way with one goal in mind, to find the real murderer. I found the scenes between the DeSalvo family and the author touching. They worked together to prove DeSalvo's innocence in one murder at least.
SEARCH FOR THE STRANGLER is a true crime book that should not be missed.
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Posted January 29, 2013