A relative of Sullivan says he believes her killer is still alive and free. Casey Sherman, Sullivan's nephew, is among family members who have filed suit in Massachusetts hoping to have the case reopened. Sullivan's family and the family of DeSalvo approached James Starrs, a lawyer and forensic scientist, over a year ago to look at the case.
The team began work in October 2000. Starrs has helped identify the remains of Jesse James, and examined the deaths of explorer Meriwether Lewis and J. Edgar Hoover. He also developed computerized simulations of the killings of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Starrs said their focus was "not whether Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, but more limited -- did he rape and murder Mary Sullivan," who was found dead Jan. 4, 1964, in her apartment on Charles Street, Boston.
DeSalvo was arrested for unrelated sex crimes 10 months after Sullivan was killed and confessed to the killing. But he was never charged with the murder of Sullivan or the other 12 Boston Strangler victims.
DeSalvo was murdered in 1973 in Walpole State Prison.
Sherman said he believes that DeSalvo made the confessions to make money off of a book deal.
The center of the argument came from David Foran, a forensic biologist at George Washington University. He said they had examined the fingernails and hair of Sullivan, as well as the underpants she was wearing for burial, looking for mitochondrial DNA samples. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the mother and therefore would be the same among family members.
He said they had examined the DNA from Sullivan, her sister and nephew, from Richard DeSalvo, brother of Albert DeSalvo, and, to guard against contamination, the DNA of all members of the scientific team.
He said only Sullivan's DNA was found under her fingernails and in her head hair. Human DNA found in her underwear, possible from "leakage" after she was dressed for burial, was neither Sullivan's or DeSalvo's and DNA found in dried, semen-like material in her public hair also was not from either one.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, who investigated the deaths of Tsar Nicholas of Russia and John Belushi, among others, reviewed the original autopsy report and helped in the re-autopsy of Sullivan. He said there was strong indications, based on medical evidence and the contents of her stomach, that Sullivan was killed in the morning, and not after 4 p.m., when DeSalvo said he had entered Sullivan's apartment. Although DeSalvo said he'd beaten his victims, Baden said there was no evidence of that, nor did the evidence point to manual strangulation, as DeSalvo claimed.
Bruce Goldberger, a professor of toxicology at the University of Florida, said his examination of Sullivan's organs, which had been buried in plastic bags and therefore well-preserved, showed no evidence of drugs or alcohol, which the Boston Strangler allegedly used to incapacitate his victims.
Starrs said the evidence: "All of which put together is strong evidence. This is as close as you can come" to saying that DeSalvo did not kill Sullivan.
"We're not saying it exonerates Albert DeSalvo, but it is strong evidence suggesting that Albert DeSalvo is not the killer of Mary Sullivan."
Sherman, who Starrs said was not told before the event of their findings, said, "Hearing this evidence makes me feel vindicated. It will bring my mother closer to closure."
Tearing up, he said, "We don't believe Albert DeSalvo killed Mary Sullivan. We believe the killer is still out there."
Baden said no forensic tests were ever done of DeSalvo and there was no forensic evidence linking him with the crimes. But once he confessed Boston police stopped their investigation. He said there were other suspects, including Sullivan's boyfriend and a boyfriend of a roommate.
The Sullivan and DeSalvo families are involved in a lawsuit seeking to have the Massachusetts authorities release more evidence and hope to have the investigation reopened.
The case has bounced from state to federal court and back again and the state has filed motions to have it dismissed. Oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 12 in Boston.