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After nearly 66 years and thanks to DNA advances, Philly's 'Boy in the Box' has a name: Joseph

Anthony R. Wood, Oona Goodin-Smith and Wendy Ruderman, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — Haunting images of the child victim appeared in liquor stores, and were slipped into Philadelphia Gas Works bills. They spoke to a front-page crime so odious that it elbowed aside news accounts of the Cold War and the intensifying international tensions.

As many as 25,000 circulars were sent to police departments across the country. Investigators vetted scores of false leads, and at one point pored through more than 11,000 photos of newly arrived refugees in an effort to identify the boy found in a JC Penney bassinet box in the weeds and shrubs of Fox Chase.

Finally, nearly 66 years after the body was discovered on an unusually balmy February morning in 1957, police on Thursday officially lifted the veil of anonymity from the child who had been known only as the "Boy in the Box."

With the aid of remarkable advances in DNA analysis and a team of international experts, he was identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli, who had just turned 4 when he was killed. Police said they were withholding information about surviving family members, citing privacy concerns.

"I'm stunned today," said Jim Hoffman, a California teacher and author of "The Boy in the Box: America's Unknown Child," and who had traveled to Philadelphia in 2007 for the 50th anniversary of the finding of the body.

Veteran forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of the Identifinders International, which worked with Philadelphia investigators, said the case was among the "most challenging" of her career. Fitzpatrick, who has worked on a number of famous cold-case investigations, said it took her and a fellow genealogist 2 1/2 years just to make the boy's decades-old DNA usable, collaborating with experts from several countries.


Justin Thomas, 40, who lives in Northeast Pennsylvania, unwittingly provided important evidence. Thomas, whose family is related to Joseph's family, said Thursday he took an at-home DNA test five years ago. Then, last year, he received a call out of the blue from Identifinders International telling him that he was a match to a "cold case in Philadelphia" but that more DNA was needed to crack the case. He persuaded his mother to provide a sample, which helped seal Joseph's identity.

Thomas, who is married with 3-year-old twin girls, said he was heartbroken upon reading accounts of Joseph's fatal injuries. "It strikes home," he said. "I'm really upset about it." He said he was "glad" to be part of the unraveling of the mystery.

If the DNA technology had been available, say, even 20 years ago, finding the person or persons responsible for the boy's death "would've been a different story," said Philadelphia Police Homicide Capt. Jason Smith.

It is quite possible, perhaps likely, that whoever killed Joseph has died. Nevertheless, police said that the investigation will proceed.


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