The Boston Strangler (Don't Be A DeSalvo)

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Ep. 95

Albert Desalvo/Boston Strangler


So most of us deranged lunatics already know the story of the boston strangler which is what we are discussing tonight. Some of you may be asking yourselves, “ but guys, I thought you only did unsolved cases” well we do and this one is no different. Even though you know the story, you may not know all the craziness surrounding the case. Most people straight up believe the killer was Albert Desalvo, and he seems like the logical choice, especially since he's been linked directly by DNA evidence to one of the crime scenes, which we’ll talk more about later. There's also much evidence that does not necessarily add up to Desalvo being responsible for all the murders. One thing a good portion of people don't realize is that desalvo was NEVER convicted of the Boston Strangler murders. We will start off with Disalvo's story and how he became known as the perpetrator behind these heinous murders, and then we’ll get into the crazy stuff.

Born on September 3, 1931, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Albert DeSalvo was in and out of trouble with the police from an early age, but nothing as gruesome as the "Boston Strangler" case. DeSalvo admitted to murdering 13 women in Boston between 1962 and 1964, most of whom were elderly and alone. He was killed in prison in 1973, after being sentenced to life.

DeSalvo, a well-built 29-year-old, had a history of breaking and entering. He had spent time in prison for a bizarre series of peeping tom escapades where he would knock on ladies' doors, pretend he was a model scout and proceed to measure up the flattered woman if he was lucky enough to get in. It seemed like a harmless, albeit disturbing pastime and DeSalvo spent 18 months in prison for such sexually oriented mischievousness.

DeSalvo had a tough upbringing. He was brought up with four siblings and his father was a wife-beating alcoholic. As a boy, Desalvo became a delinquent and spent time in and out of prison for petty crime and violence.

Years after he had been discharged from the army for disobeying orders, he settled down and married Irmgard Beck, a girl from Germany. They lived modestly and, despite Irmgard giving birth to a handicapped child, the family managed to sustain itself. Irmgard was aware that DeSalvo was highly sexed and tried to avoid intercourse for fear of having another handicapped baby. However, a healthy boy was born and DeSalvo appeared to become a conscientious family man, liked and appreciated by colleagues and his boss. He was also known to be an outrageous braggart, which perhaps led the police to later disbelieve his claims to be the Strangler.

Between June 1962 and January 1964, a series of grisly murders took place in Boston. All the victims were women who had been strangled. The Boston slayings were blamed on one lone sociopath, and mystery still surrounds the case.

The "Boston Strangler" has been held accountable for around 11 of 13 murders of female victims. No one was actually tried for the Boston murders. But DeSalvo was—by the public at least—believed to be the man responsible. DeSalvo actually confessed to each of the 13 official Strangler murders. However, some doubt was shed on DeSalvo's claims by people who personally knew and worked with him.

What makes these particular murders stand out in the annals of serial killing is the fact that many of the victims were mature or elderly. The combination of old age, loneliness and vulnerability, adds to the brutality and tragedy of the events.

Anna Slesers, a seamstress and devout churchgoer was the first victim to be murdered on the evening of June 14, 1962. She lived on her own in a modest brick house apartment at 77 Gainsborough St. in Boston. Her son Juris was meant to come by to pick her up for a memorial service. When he discovered her body in the bathroom with a cord around her neck tied in a bow, Juris assumed she had committed suicide.

Homicide detectives James Mellon and John Driscoll found Slesers in an obscene state; nude and stripped of dignity. She had been sexually assaulted. The apartment looked as though it had been ransacked, with Slesers' purse and contents strewn on the floor. Despite what appeared to be a robbery, a gold watch and pieces of jewelry were left behind. The police settled on the hypothesis that it was a botched burglary.

Just under three weeks later on June 28, 1962, 85-year-old Mary Mullen was also found murdered in her home. Two days later, the body of 68-year-old Nina Nichols was also discovered in the Brighton area of Boston. Again, it appeared to be a burglary despite valuable silver that appeared untouched. The ransacking didn't seem to make sense to detectives.

Nichols was also found in a state of undress, her legs wide open and her stocking tops tied in a bow.

Then, on the same day, a second body was discovered a few miles north of Boston, in the suburb of Lynn. Helen Blake was a 65-year-old divorcee and her murder was more gruesome. She had suffered lacerations to her vagina and anus. Again, the bow trademark was evident; this time made from tying her bra around her neck. Like the previous crimes, the scene appeared to be a burglary.

After this brutal slaying, it was clear that Boston had a serial killer in its midst. Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara canceled all police leave due to the severity of the situation, and a warning went out via the media to Boston's female population. Women were advised to lock their doors and be cautious of strangers.

Police profiling had already decided that in all probability they were looking for a psychopath, whose hatred of older women may actually be linked to his own relationship with his mother.

It wasn't long before McNamara's fears were realized. A fourth brutal slaying took place at 7 Grove Garden in Boston's West End on August 19. The victim was 75-year-old widow Ida Irga. She had been strangled and she was on her back on the floor wearing a brown nightdress, which was ripped and exposed her body. Her legs were apart and resting on two chairs and a cushion had been placed under her buttocks. Again there was no sign of forced entry.

Less than 24 hours later, the body of Jane Sullivan was found not far from the previous victim at 435 Columbia Rd in Dorchester. The 65-year-old nurse had been murdered a week before and was found dead in the bathroom. She had been strangled by her own nylons.

Terror spread throughout Boston as the city feared another attack, but it was three months before the Strangler struck again. This time the victim was young.

Twenty-one-year-old Sophie Clark was an African American student who was very mindful of her safety, and rarely dated. Her body was found on December 5, 1962, a few blocks away from the first victim, Sleser. Clark was found nude and had been sexually assaulted. She had been strangled by her own stockings and semen was discovered for the first time. Somehow, despite Sophie's precautions, she had still let in the murderer.

Although Clark did not fit the same profile as the other victims, the police were sure it was the work of the same killer. Furthermore, this time they had a lead regarding the killer's possible identification. A female neighbor informed the police that a man had knocked on her door, insisting that he had been sent to paint her apartment. He finally left after she told him that her husband was sleeping in the next room.

Three weeks later, another young woman's life ended tragically. Twenty-three-year-old Patricia Bissette was pregnant when she was found dead in her apartment near the area where Slesers and Clark had lived. Bissette was discovered by her boss when she didn't turn up for work. Her body lay in her bed covered by sheets, and she had been sexually assaulted and strangled with her own stockings.

While the city appeared to have been spared another attack for several months, the police desperately tried to find any connection between the women and people they may have known. Every sex offender on the Boston Police files was interviewed and checked, yet still nothing turned up.

Before long, a series of murders started again. This time the body of 68-year-old Mary Brown was found strangled and raped 25 miles north of the city in March 1963.

Two months later, the ninth victim, Beverly Samans, was found. The 23-year-old graduate had missed choir practice on the day of her murder, May 8, 1963.

(1956–2002)

Samans was found with her hands tied behind her back with one of her scarves. A nylon stocking and two handkerchiefs were tied around her neck. Bizarrely, a piece of cloth over her mouth hid a second cloth which had been stuffed in her mouth. Four stab wounds to her neck had most likely killed her rather than strangulation.

There were a further 22 stab wounds to Samans's body, 18 in the shape of a bulls-eye on her right breast. She had been raped, but there was no evidence of semen. It was thought that because of her strong throat muscles due to singing, the killer had to take to stabbing her instead of strangulation.

The police, who were now desperate, even sought the help of a clairvoyant. He described the killer as a mental patient who had absconded from Boston State Hospital on the days the killings took place. However, this was soon discounted when another murder was committed. On September 8, 1963, in Salem, Evelyn Corbin, youthful-looking 58-year-old divorcee became the latest victim.

Corbin was found nude and on her bed face up. Her underwear had been stuffed in her mouth and again there were traces of semen, both on lipstick stains and in her mouth. Corbin's apartment had been ransacked in a similar fashion.

On November 25, Joann Graff, a 23-year-old industrial designer was raped and killed in her apartment in the Lawrence section of the city. Several descriptions of her attacker matched those of the man who had asked to paint Clark's neighbor's flat. The description detailed a man wearing dark green slacks, dark shirt and jacket.

On January 4, 1964, one of the most gruesome murders was discovered when two women came across the body of their roommate. Mary Sullivan was found dead sitting on her bed, her back against the headboard. She had been strangled with a dark stocking. She had been sexually assaulted with a broom handle. This obscenity was rendered even more disturbing by the fact that a Happy New Year card lay wedged between her feet. The same hallmarks of the killer were evident; a ransacked apartment, few valuables taken and the victims strangled with their own underwear or scarves, which were tied into bows.

The city was panic stricken and the situation prompted the drafting in of a top investigator to head the hunt for the Strangler. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state, began work on January 17, 1964, to bring the serial killer to book. There was pressure on Brooke, the only African American attorney general in the country, to succeed where others had failed.

Brooke headed up a task force that included assigning permanent staff to the Boston Strangler case. He brought in Assistant Attorney General John Bottomly, who had a reputation for being unconventional.

Bottomly's force had to sift through thousands of pages of material from different police forces. Police profiling was relatively new in the early 1960s, but they came up with what they thought was the most likely description of the killer. He was believed to be around thirty, neat and orderly, worked with his hands and was most likely a loner who may be divorced or separated.

In fact, the killer ended up being found by chance, not by the work of the police force.

After a spell in prison for breaking and entering, DeSalvo went on to commit more serious crimes. He had broken into a woman's apartment, tied her up on the bed and held a knife to her throat before molesting her and running away. The victim gave the police a good description, one that matched his likeness sketch from his previous crimes. Shortly afterward, DeSalvo was arrested.

It was after he had been picked out of an identity parade that DeSalvo admitted to robbing hundreds of apartments and carrying out a couple of rapes. He then confessed to being the Boston Strangler.

Despite the police not believing him at the time, DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital to be assessed by psychiatrists. He was assigned an attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey. When DeSalvo's wife was told by Bailey that her husband had confessed to being the Strangler she couldn't believe it and suggested he was doing it purely for payment from the newspapers.

During his spell in Bridgewater, DeSalvo struck up a friendship with another inmate, an intelligent but highly dangerous killer called George Nassar. The two apparently had worked out a deal to split reward money that would go to anyone who supplied information to the identity of the Strangler. DeSalvo had accepted that he would be in prison for the rest of his life and wanted his family to be financially secure.

Bailey interviewed DeSalvo to discover if he really was the notorious killer. The attorney was shocked to hear DeSalvo describe the murders in incredible detail, right down to the furniture in the apartments of his victims.

DeSalvo had it all worked out. He believed he could convince the psychiatric board that he was insane and then remain in prison for the rest of his life. Bailey could then write up his story and make much needed money to support his family. In his book The Defense Never Rests, Bailey explains how it was that DeSalvo managed to avoid detection. DeSalvo was Dr. Jekyll; the police were looking for Mr. Hyde.

After a second visit and listening to DeSalvo describe in grisly detail the murder of 75-year-old Ida Irga, Bailey was convinced his client was the Boston Strangler. When he asked DeSalvo why he chose a victim of such an age, the man coolly replied that "attractiveness had nothing to do with it."

After many hours of questioning and going into minute detail of what the victims wore or how their apartments looked, both Bailey and the police were convinced that they had the killer. One disturbing revelation was when DeSalvo described an aborted attack on a Danish girl. As he was strangling her he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Horrified by the ghastly vision of what he was doing he released her and begged her not to tell the police before fleeing.

DeSalvo was incarcerated in what is now known as the MCI-Cedar Junction prison in Massachusetts. In November 1973, he got word to his doctor that he needed to see him urgently; DeSalvo had something important to say about the Boston Strangler murders. The night before they were to meet, however, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison.

Because of the level of security in the prison, it is assumed that the killing had been planned with a degree of co-operation between employees and prisoners. Whatever the case, and though there were no more murders by the Strangler after DeSalvo had been arrested, the Strangler case was never closed.

So there you have the basic tale of the strangler. We didn't get to crazy into details because quite frankly you either already know the story or you can find literally hundreds of other podcasts on just Desalvo and The Strangler murders, so really there's no reason to rehash all that. We want to look into the other circumstances surrounding the case.


GEORGE NASSAR/F. LEE BAILEY


George Nassar was the man that Delsalvo originally confessed to being Strangler to. Nassar would contact his lawyer F. Lee Bailey to tell him he should come and talk with Desalvo. If that name sounds familiar it's probably because Bailey was involved in some pretty notable cases throughout his career. There's another local connection in this episode for us. Bailey, who used to be a Rocky River Ohio resident, was the man who famously got Sam Shepherd acquitted of murdering his wife. If you are not familiar with that case, you may soon as it is another unsolved case from our own backyard that I have a feeling we may cover at some point. He also represented Patty Hearst and yes...O.J. Simpson. Bailey’s cross examination of detective Mark Fuhrman is considered by some to be the key to Simpson's acquittal. The man was pretty good at what he did even if he is a jackass. The confessions came when DeSalvo was arrested and sent to Bridgewater State Mental Hospital. Dr. Ames Robey was the medical director:


“Well, the first thing that was so obvious about Albert was his incredible need to be somebody important. He would brag about almost anything. He gave the feeling, although he didn’t say so at that time, that he sort of wanted to be as well known as, quote, “the Boston Strangler.”

Three months later, George Nassar, another inmate at Bridgewater, had an odd conversation about the Boston Strangler with his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. Bailey recalled his talk with Nassar:

“He asked me whether or not it would be possible for someone who had done the stranglings to write a book. And my off-hand answer was sure, but he might go to the electric chair as a consequence. Later on, I was asked to go down and see this fellow, Albert DeSalvo, by my client.”

Bailey expected to come face to face with a monster. Instead, he met a married man with two children who seemed concerned about his family:

“I was a little incredulous because everybody develops a profile. You’re looking for a monster, somebody that, you know, the jowls are dripping and it just didn’t seem to fit.

He wanted to be able to tell his story. He said, ‘I would like to find out why I am like this. Maybe people can give me tests or something.’”

According to Bailey, DeSalvo confessed he was the Boston Strangler.

“I had no way of knowing whether or not he was telling the truth, fantasizing because he was crazy, or had read a lot of things in the newspapers and wanted to be famous.”

Two days later, Bailey returned to Bridgewater with a tape recorder and a list of questions. With DeSalvo’s permission, Bailey had struck a deal with the Boston police. They would provide Bailey with details only The Strangler would know, as a way of testing DeSalvo. In return, Bailey was guaranteed that the tapes would never be heard in court.

Deputy Superintendent John Donovan, retired Chief of Homicide in the Boston Police Department, said he was intrigued by what he heard:

“His descriptions of the crime scenes were just so accurate that that impressed me very much.”

But when Dr. Ames Robey heard the tape, he was not so impressed. He believed there was another explanation for DeSalvo’s knowledge of the crime scenes:

“Albert indicated to us that he had gone to the various sites that the newspapers had named after the police tape was off the doors in the apartments, just to sort of be there and see what it was like.”

Dr. Robey says that DeSalvo had a photographic memory. He may have visited the victims’ apartments, or perhaps he was just repeating what someone else had described to him. Then Robey began to believe that DeSalvo’s friend, George Nassar, was somehow involved:

“I first began to wonder about something going on when no other inmates would come near them. And they would immediately stop talking if the guards or staff came anywhere near where they could hear. But they would have extensive conversations about what, of course, we didn’t know.”

A career criminal, George Nassar had been imprisoned for killing a gas station attendant shortly after the Strangler killed his last victim. Nassar agreed to discuss his role in the case and his relationship with Albert DeSalvo for the first time:

“With Albert DeSalvo, I was simply an associate. I’ve done the same thing with many, many prisoners. People come to me and ask for advice. I give it to them if they say, if it’s worthy of me assisting them, I assist them, for my reasons because I feel it’s a worthy thing to do.”

The Massachusetts Attorney General ordered that news of DeSalvo’s confession be kept under wraps. Within the police department, there was a split over whether DeSalvo was, in fact, the killer. Then someone leaked the story of the confession to the local papers.

In response to the story, two women came forward. One was a survivor of a possible Strangler attack. The other was a neighbor of one of the victims. They were brought to Bridgewater to see if they recognized any of the inmates.

Surprisingly, the one familiar face did not belong to Albert DeSalvo, but to George Nassar. Is it possible that he was actually the Boston Strangler? Dr. Ames Robey thought it was possible:

“George Nassar would fit the profile of the Boston Strangler. We found nothing that would rule him out, not even one iota.”

George Nassar denied the accusation:

“I do not kill women. I’ve never conceived of it. I wouldn’t conceive of it. I have great respect and regard for women, beginning with my mother who brought me up that way.”

F. Lee Bailey wasn’t convinced his client fit the profile of the Strangler:

“George Nassar was eliminated as the Strangler. I don’t think he had the profile to strangle. George Nassar used a gun.”

Albert DeSalvo was the state’s prime suspect, even though there was no physical evidence that linked him to any of the killings. F. Lee Bailey suggested that DeSalvo undergo hypnosis. He recalled the session:

“We had him hypnotized and age regressed right through one of the homicides. And the things that developed in the presence of a very bright medical hypnotist were of great interest.”

The session revealed that DeSalvo had had problems with every significant woman in his life. According to F. Lee Bailey:

“We found an involvement of his wife who he’d married in Germany, his daughter who had a physical disability that troubled him greatly, his mother whom he had a love-hate relationship. And it was just the beginning.”

Dr. Robey observed the session and came to a completely different conclusion:

“The answers were almost implied in the question, which, at least from my training, is something you don’t do. I was not at all convinced that anything had been uncovered. And was a little surprised later when Mr. Bailey announced what had occurred under hypnosis was ‘definitive evidence.’ Albert, even with the crimes he was charged with, he was considered gentle, polite. His sexual proclivities, his general attitude, he was not angry and hostile.

In the summer of 1965, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office conducted its own interrogations. The transcripts of those interviews were never released, but author Susan Kelly obtained a copy while researching her book called “Deadly Chara