How "Boy in the Box" mystery will help solve other cases

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- For 65 years the nation has been waiting for investigators to determine the identity of the boy who became known as America's Unknown Child or "The Boy in the Box." Now, we know that child was Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

Investigators used modern forensic techniques, including forensic genetic genealogy, also known as investigative genealogy, to identify Zarelli.

Ryan Gallagher, the unit manager for the criminalistic unit with the Philadelphia Police Department's Office of Forensic Science, explained Thursday how this DNA processing differs from typical processing.

"With typical DNA processing, our scientists in the lab examined 24 areas along DNA to develop a profile. With advancements in DNA technology, it is possible to examine thousands of areas along your DNA. For standard DNA analysis, which we do every day, this expanded test is something not necessary. However, the analysis of this additional DNA has created a new capability for investigating cases by revealing potential familial relationships. This growing field is often called genealogy or investigation genealogy."

A review of Zarelli's case to apply modern forensic technology was ruled a success as investigators were finally about to name the child and crack a decades-old mystery surrounding his identity.

Zarelli is just one of the cold cases investigators are working on - and for anyone wondering if they are using these forensic techniques to solve other mysteries, the answer is yes.

Philadelphia Police Captain Jason Smith wants the public to know investigators are "absolutely" using these efforts to solve crimes.

"There is an ongoing effort to apply the technology and techniques used in this investigation to other unknown human remains cases," Smith said. "These investigations involve victims of homicide, cases deemed to be suspicious in nature, as well as accidental or from natural causes."

There is a team of investigators from multiple units within the Philadelphia police department working with the forensic science bureau, the Philadelphia Office of the Medical Examiner and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to review and identify cases that would benefit from applying modern forensics techniques to the investigation.

Smith adds there are currently more than a dozen cases in progress at this time and others are added as leads develop.

There are currently more than a dozen cases in progress right now and as leads are developed they're pursued by investigators and worked on by other members of the group.

Philadelphia's Chief Medical Examiner Constance DeAngelo says this technology is brand new as of 2017-2018. In each case they solve using it, something new is learned and applied to succeeding cases.

"The oldest cases you're going to find are 3 to 4 years old right now that haven't been solved but as the databases grow and our tools develop, and we go forward with the technology there's going to be a lot more. And it's going to go a lot more quickly," DeAngelo said.

On April 24, 2019, a court order was obtained to have Zarelli's remains exhumed once again to attempt to gather DNA. Forensic anthropologist Dr. Washburn examined the remains and was able to obtain the required amount of DNA to apply modern forensic techniques.

With the help of genealogists, genealogy and DNA records were used and initially match Zarelli to relatives on his birth mother's side. Further investigation leads detectives to possible relatives on Zarelli's paternal side.

Both of the child's parents are deceased and investigators will not be releasing the names of Zarelli's relatives at this time.

CBS3 has closely followed the investigation and kept the case on TV and online for decades. Last week, CBS3 Investigations was first to break that police had finally identified the boy.

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