Philadelphia police identify victim in city’s oldest unsolved homicide case

A gravestone reads,

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. Nearly 66 years after the boy was found Philadelphia police are set to reveal the identity of the victim in the city's most notorious cold case. Police say detective work and DNA analysis helped them learn the name of a youngster who'd been known to generations of Philadelphians as the "Boy in the Box." Authorities are set to publicly release the victim's name Thursday. His naked, badly bruised body was found in a wooded area on Feb. 25, 1957. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After 65 years, the Philadelphia Police Department has finally identified the victim in the city’s oldest unsolved homicide case as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli, of West Philadelphia.

“Without the hard work, dedication and passion and the doggedness of the many, we would not be here today to give America’s formerly unknown child, Joseph Augustus Zarelli, a voice,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said.

Police officials made the announcement Thursday morning alongside forensic experts at the Philadelphia Public Services Building.

Residents discovered the bruised body of the boy in a box on the side of Susquehanna Road in Northeast Philadelphia on Feb. 25, 1957. For decades, police had been unable to pinpoint exactly who the boy was and who beat him to death. The case became known as the “Boy in the box,” gaining both local and nationwide attention.

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From the homicide unit to the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office, investigators worked across city departments for more than six decades — and even reached out for outside help from Identifiers International and the Vidocq Society.

“Sadly, many that worked on his case throughout the decades and put in countless hours of work into identifying him have passed on. But as you can see, his story was never forgotten,” Outlaw said.

With recent advancements in DNA analysis, investigators finally had tools at their disposal to identify the child.

“Contemporary forensic applications and techniques, including genealogical DNA testing and inquiries, were made with the assistance of genetic genealogists. The results of the DNA testing were uploaded through DNA databases, and the results were interpreted by the genealogists involved in this investigation,” Police Captain Jason Smith said.

Detectives were able to find relatives on Joseph’s maternal side, using new leads from the genealogist, and eventually deciphered who both of the parents were.

At this point in time, police will not be releasing the parents’ names, citing “a number of siblings on both the mother and father side who are living.”

The police don’t have a suspect yet either.

“We have our suspicions as to who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions as this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation,” Smith said.

The press conference had a somber yet celebratory tone. Police are hopeful that the relatively new methods used to identify Joseph will be helpful for the city’s other cases where victims have yet to be identified.

Officials said the department’s forensic genealogy program is still working out the kinks. Ryan Gallagher, the unit manager for the Criminalistics Unit with the Department’s Office of Forensic Science, said “they have established a process for all new unidentified remains and are working through the records of all previous homicides to identify cases which may be included in this program.”

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“The science and technology that was instrumental in the identification of this child, one of our oldest unsolved homicides, gives me hope that we can continue to identify unknown victims of crime and that no one will ever again have to wait this long for their name and the story of their life to be told,” Outlaw said.

While police now know the name of “America’s Unknown Child,” work still has to be done to find a suspect. And it may be an uphill battle.

The Philadelphia Police Department had a 47% clearance rate for homicide cases in 2021, which is several points below the national average. Meanwhile, the clearance rate for gun homicide victims was just 36% in 2020 — a number that has garnered scrutiny amid the city’s ongoing gun violence epidemic.

When asked by a reporter about the city’s issues with solving homicides, Outlaw said she “would ask that everyone not lose hope.”

“Because we announced something historic today, does not take away from the arduous work of our detectives and surrounding partners here in this city. I can understand why people may feel that way, but this case was a big deal,” Outlaw said.

Police are offering a $20,000 reward for anyone with information that leads to an arrest in Joseph’s case.

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