Murdered 'Boy in the Box' ID'd 65 Years Later

Philadelphia cops hope for 'avalanche of tips' in cold case murder of Joseph Augustus Zarelli
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2022 11:44 AM CST
Murdered 'Boy in the Box' ID'd 65 Years Later
The marker of the grave of a small boy whose battered body body was found abandoned in a cardboard box decades ago in Philadelphia is seen Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022.   (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

For 65 years, Philadelphia police have worked to identify a boy found dead—beaten and malnourished—inside a cardboard box left in a wooded area in the northeastern part of the city on Feb. 25, 1957. Thanking the many people who've worked on the investigation over the decades, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw on Thursday announced the boy has finally been identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli—a huge break in what has become the city's "oldest unsolved homicide," per ABC News. Dubbed "The Boy in the Box" and "America's Unknown Child," Joseph was born Jan. 13, 1953, meaning he was just four years old when he died.

Working with DNA taken from remains exhumed in 2019, genetic genealogists were able to identify possible relatives on the maternal side and eventually the birth mother herself, Capt. Jason Smith of the Philadelphia Police Homicide Unit said at a press conference, per CBS News. Birth records related to the mother identified a child born in 1953, whose father was also named, he said. Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick of Identifinders International, who described the case as the most challenging she'd ever worked, said genetic data also pointed to the father. Smith declined to identify either of the parents out of respect for their living children but noted both are deceased.

He added police do not know for certain who killed Joseph, who died of blunt force trauma, though "we have our suspicions," per ABC. He said the case remains an active criminal investigation. "We may never make an identification but we're going to do our darnedest to try," he continued. His hope? That the identification of the boy leads to an "avalanche of tips" and "a diamond in the rough," perhaps from a family member or neighbor who remembers the boy, he added. In the meantime, William Fleisher of the cold-case-focused Vidocq Society said the Philadelphia crime-solving group would ensure a name is added to Joseph's grave so he "will no longer be unknown." (More cold cases stories.)

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