True Tales of Murder and Mayhem

Boston’s 25 most sensational, notorious, infamous, and sometimes just downright weird crimes of all time.

true crime boston number 11

Murder at 30,000 Feet (1970)

It was St. Patrick’s Day when John DiVivo attempted to hijack Eastern Airlines Flight 1320 on a trip from Newark to Boston. After failing to pay the $21 onboard fare, DiVivo pulled out a revolver and demanded to speak with the pilot. DiVivo fatally shot copilot James Hartley Jr. during the ensuing cockpit scuffle, though Hartley managed to grab the gun and return fire, striking DiVivo twice before succumbing to his own injuries. Hartley’s death marked the first skyjacking-related killing in American history. Pilot Robert Wilbur Jr., also wounded, landed the plane at Logan safely. —A.T.

true crime boston number 12

The Strangled Aunt

I never knew my Aunt Mary. The chilling black-and-white portrait of her, frozen in time at 19 with her warm smile and Black Irish complexion, hung above the fireplace in my grandparents’ Cape Cod home. As a boy, I felt her eyes staring back at me.

Mary Sullivan was strangled to death on January 4, 1964, in her bed at 44A Charles Street. She was found naked, propped up against the headboard, two scarves and a nylon stocking around her throat, a broomstick protruding from her body. There were no fingerprints, only a sadistic calling card by her left foot. “Happy New Years,” it read.

My mother, Diane, adored her sister. But in our repressed Catholic household, no one ever talked about what had happened to Mary. As a child, all I ever heard were whispers of the “Boston Strangler,” the bogeyman of my youth. For years I feared the monster would come back and finish us off.

As a teenager, I remember watching The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis, hoping the movie would fill in the blanks. But it only raised more questions. In 1967, Albert Henry DeSalvo, a Chelsea native, handyman, and serial rape suspect, confessed to Aunt Mary’s murder, along with a dozen other vicious killings. But my mother doubted DeSalvo was the killer, and indeed, the police had never charged him with the Strangler’s crimes; his confession was ruled inadmissible.

As a student at Boston University, I studied journalism and dug deeper into the case. While my buddies went bar-hopping, I would stand alone outside Aunt Mary’s apartment, trying to visualize that horrific January day. I pored over police files, autopsy reports, and photos, spending late nights in my dorm comparing Mary’s murder with the Strangler’s other work. I interviewed DeSalvo’s prison psychiatrist, his former attorney, and retired detectives who had doubts about his guilt.

In 1999, I unearthed the long-lost tapes of DeSalvo’s confession, tucked away in a dusty barn on Cape Cod. I was shocked to find that DeSalvo’s narrative did not match the evidence of the case. He claimed, for instance, to have killed Aunt Mary with his bare hands. But she was actually strangled with the two scarves and the nylon stocking found still wrapped around her neck. There were other discrepancies: DeSalvo claimed he killed Mary in the late afternoon, but investigators believe she died much earlier. He even told the cops false details lifted from the newspapers.

In November 1973, in prison for a series of rapes, DeSalvo told his family he was about to recant his Strangler confession and “blow the lid off this whole thing.” But he was fatally stabbed the night before his planned announcement. His death remains unsolved.

By 2000, I was a news producer for WBZ-TV. I was newly married, with a baby, struggling to balance my home life with my quest to find the real Strangler. I gathered a team of forensic experts to exhume Aunt Mary’s remains and look for DNA evidence. They did find foreign DNA, but it did not match DeSalvo’s.

That same year, I learned that police had fingered another suspect in 1964, a man who failed two polygraph tests but then disappeared. When I tracked him down, the suspect was working as a golf pro at a resort in northern New England. I confronted him on the course. He was cagey, claiming he was watching college football on television at the time Aunt Mary was killed. But his story didn’t check out: No college or professional football games were televised on January 4, 1964. Did he kill Mary? I didn’t know for sure, but I was finally convinced DeSalvo wasn’t the Strangler, and wrote a book in 2003 detailing my discoveries.

Then, in July 2013, everything changed. I got a call from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office requesting an emergency meeting. At the DA’s office, officials showed me that seminal fluid on my aunt’s remains and on a blanket taken from the crime scene contained a unique genetic profile from an unidentified male. Police had exhumed DeSalvo’s body and extracted three of his teeth and a 6-inch chunk of his femur. The DNA was a match.

I was stunned. For a moment, my own throat tightened and I could not speak. All the evidence I had gathered had pointed away from DeSalvo being Mary’s killer, the infamous Boston Strangler who haunted my childhood. This new evidence seemed definitive, but still, the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. Why was DeSalvo’s confession so flawed? Why did he try to recant years later? Was the Boston Strangler one man? I may never know the answers.

Today, in my own home, there are no walls of silence or secrets. I’ve talked with my two daughters about the Boston Strangler case. Like me, they stare at the black-and-white picture of Aunt Mary that now rests over my fireplace. It still haunts us all.

—By Casey Sherman

true crime boston number 13

Get Whitey (1970s–1980s)

If there’s one name on this list that everyone in Boston will recognize, it’s Whitey Bulger. The Hub’s most notorious criminal dominated the underworld in his South Boston headquarters for decades, dabbling in everything from racketeering to drug trafficking and murder. Bulger happily ratted out his Italian Mafia rivals to the FBI, which both eliminated the competition and secured his protection by corrupt federal agents. An impending indictment in late 1994 sent Bulger running, earning him a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. After almost 17 years on the lam, he was arrested in California with girlfriend Catherine Greig. Convicted of 11 murders and a slew of other charges last summer, he was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. —A.T.

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The Girl on the Mailbox (1988)

Tiffany Moore was just 12 years old when she was killed near her Roxbury home. As she sat on a mailbox talking with friends, she was struck by three bullets allegedly intended for a nearby gang member. Shawn Drumgold was given a life sentence for the crime. He maintained his innocence, and his conviction was vacated in 2003 when a court found evidence of police misconduct. The city settled for $5 million this May. —A.T.

true crime boston number 15

The Heist of the Century (1990)

Two thieves made history when they stole some $500 million in artwork from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Dressed as policemen, the thieves breezed past the guards and nabbed 13 drawings and paintings, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet. Though the FBI recently announced they were closing in on the culprits and even claim to have spotted the missing artworks, they remain memorialized in the museum, where empty frames still hang on the walls. —A.T.

  • RoxanneRoxanadana

    Ms Toppan deserves a book & a full length movie. Why has this not been done yet?