65-Year Mystery Solved as Philly Cops Finally Identify Murdered ‘Boy in the Box’

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
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It took more than six decades, but cops in Philadelphia have finally identified the infamous “Boy in the Box”—the city’s longest unsolved homicide victim.

The boy was identified as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli, police said in a Thursday press conference.

Zarelli’s body was found in a cardboard box on the side of a Philadelphia road on Feb. 25, 1957. Detectives probed for decades to identify the boy and his killer to no avail, but were able to positively ID the child this week after genealogists uncovered potential relatives that led detectives to find Zarelli's birth certificate.

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The mystery surrounding Zarelli’s death received national attention in the 50s as details emerged about his slaying. The boy was clean and had been freshly groomed, but was badly beaten. Cops guessed he was between 3 to 7 years old.

Portraits of the then-unknown child, his face riddled with scars and his eyes swollen shut, appeared in newspapers around the county. The child was also malnourished with scratches and bruises all over his body, including distinct scars on his heel, chin, and groin, cops said at the time.

Zarelli became known as the “Boy in the Box” and “America's Unknown Child.” Detectives are said to have knocked on the door of nearly every home in Philadelphia in 1957, but nobody knew to whom the child belonged.

The investigation into who killed Zarelli is ongoing, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Thursday. Capt. Jason Smith said detectives “have their suspicions” on who killed the boy, but they don’t have evidence to say with certainty.

“This is still an active homicide investigation and we still need the public’s help in filling in this child’s story,” Outlaw said.

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Both of Zarelli’s parents are dead but cops said they won’t release their names. Zarelli was never reported as missing.

“Joseph has a number of siblings on both the mother’s and father’s side who are living and it is out of respect for them that their parents’ information remain confidential,” said Smith.

Zarelli’s family have been contacted, police said, but Smith refused to share what their reaction was when asked Thursday.

Cops said the Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia crime-solving club made up of former law enforcement personnel, was integral in identifying Zarelli. The organization was able to pair DNA taken from the boy’s exhumed body and find a list of potential relatives.

From there, Smith said cops were able to dig up Zarelli’s birth certificate—the only trace of his existence.

Cops say they’re now dedicating officers full-time to identifying the little boy’s killer.

“The investigation will start all over again and then we’ll start searching for a suspect,” Smith said.

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