Police in the US have released the identity of a young boy nearly seven years after his body was found stuffed inside a cardboard box.
Joseph Augustus Zarelli was the victim of one of Philadelphia’s most notorious cold cases.
On February 25, 1957, the child’s naked, battered body was found in a wooded area in Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood.
Now that police have finally identified him, they hope it will bring them one step closer to finding the boy’s killer and give the victim — known to generations of Philadelphians as “the boy in the box”” a little dignity.
Philadelphia Police Chief Danielle Outlaw at a news conference
The city’s oldest unsolved homicide “has haunted this community, the Philadelphia Police Department, our country and the world” for nearly 66 years, she said.
The homicide investigation is still ongoing and authorities say they hope the release of Joseph’s name will spark a new round of leads.
Both of Joseph’s parents are deceased, but he has living siblings, police said.
The boy was just four years old when he was found, wrapped in a blanket and placed in a large box.
Police said he was malnourished and beaten to death.
The boy’s picture was affixed to a poster and hung around the city as police struggled to identify him and catch his killers.
Leads, leads and dead ends
Detectives tracked down and dropped hundreds of leads — that he was a Hungarian refugee, a boy kidnapped outside a Long Island supermarket in 1955, and various other missing children.
They investigated a pair of traveling carnival workers and a family that ran a nearby foster home, but ruled them out as suspects.
An Ohio woman claims her mother bought the boy from his biological parents in 1954, locked him up in the basement of her suburban Philadelphia home and killed him in a fit of rage.
Authorities found her account credible, but were unable to verify her account—another dead end.
Generations of police officers took on the case.
In 1998 and 2019, they were allowed to exhume his body for DNA testing, and it was this latest round of testing, combined with genetic genealogy, that gave the police their major breakthrough.
Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifinders International, said the victim’s DNA had degraded to the point that it would take two and a half years to extract enough data to perform a family tree.
The test results were uploaded to a DNA database, resulting in a match for the child’s mother.
Authorities obtained a court order seeking vital records of any children they suspected to be born to Joseph’s mother between 1944 and 1956, and located Joseph’s birth certificate, which also listed his father’s name.
The tombstone finally has a name
The boy’s remains, originally buried in Pauper’s Grave, are now inside the main entrance of Ivy Hill Cemetery, under a weeping cherry tree, and a headstone designates him as “America’s Unknown Son.”
A service is held there every year on the anniversary of the discovery of the boy in the box.
People often leave flowers, and at this time of year, Christmas decorations and toys as well.
“This boy has always been special to all of us because we didn’t know who he was,” said Dave Drysdale, the cemetery’s secretary and treasurer.
Now they do. Now he has a name – his real name – and it will be etched in stone.