‘Boy in the Box’: Child found dead in 1957 named

PHILADELPHIA — Police on Thursday identified the notorious “Boy in the Box,” whose name had been unknown since he was found dead in 1957.

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The boy was identified as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli. Authorities said Thursday that the investigation into who is responsible for his death remained ongoing.

Update 12:10 p.m. EST Dec. 8: Officials twice exhumed Joseph’s remains — once in 1998 and again in 2019 — to get the DNA used to establish his identity using forensic genetic genealogy.

Colleen Fitzpatrick, president of Identifinders International, said the identification was “the most challenging case of my whole career.”

“It took 2 1/2 years to get the DNA in shape — it was so bad — to get to the point where we could create snip date to use for genealogy,” she said at a news conference. “The good news is the tech we push forward is giving hope to other unidentified whose DNA is thought to be beyond the ... modern horizon of technology. Maybe it isn’t, after all.”

Update 11:40 a.m. EST Dec. 8: Authorities identified Joseph using modern DNA testing techniques and genealogy, homicide Capt. Jason Smith said at a news conference.

Smith said authorities were able to identify Joseph’s birth mother and obtained the DNA samples needed to confirm her relationship with Joseph. Officials were also able to confirm the identity of Joseph’s birth father.

Authorities declined to identify either family member to protect the identities of his living siblings.

Smith said that investigators have an idea of who might have caused Joseph’s death, though he did not share details of the theories.

“We have our suspicions as to who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions, as this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation,” he said.

Update 11:13 a.m. EST Dec. 8: Police confirmed that, with the use of new science and technology, the child was identified as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

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

Earlier, Outlaw said Joseph was found in a box in a wooded area of northeast Philadelphia in February 1957.

“The boy appeared to be malnourished, and his body bore the signs of recent and past trauma,” she said. “In his very short life, it was apparent that this child experienced horrors that no one — no one — should ever be subjected to.”

Authorities spent decades trying to identify him.

Original report: In a news release obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer, police announced they planned to reveal new information in the decadeslong investigation at an 11 a.m. news conference.

“Despite numerous attempts to identify the child throughout the years, the identity of the boy remained a mystery,” police said, according to the Inquirer. “Through detective work and DNA analysis, police are finally able to identify the child.”

News reports surfaced last week that the boy had been identified. The case is Philadelphia’s oldest unsolved homicide, WPVI-TV reported.

The boy was found covered in a blanket inside a cardboard box in northeast Philadelphia’s Fox Chase neighborhood on Feb. 25, 1957. Authorities estimated that he was between 4 and 6 years old but efforts to confirm his identity over the years proved unsuccessful.

Investigators said the boy weighed 30 pounds and appeared to have been malnourished. His hair was “crudely chopped and buzzed” and he had several small scars on his body, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Sgt. Bob Kuhlmeier told KYW-TV last year that the boy died of blunt force trauma. He added that the boy “appeared to be cleaned and freshly groomed with a haircut.”

Capt. Jason Smith added that the case was one that gnawed at investigators.

“This is one of those cases,” he said, according to KYW.

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