Albert DeSalvo: The Boston Strangler or Convenient Fall Guy – Part 3

Post written by best-selling true crime author:

Robert Keller


Faced with the accusations, DeSalvo admitted to breaking into over 400 apartments and assaulting over 300 women. The police took these numbers with a pinch of salt. DeSalvo was well known as a braggart with a habit of exaggerating. Nonetheless, he was in serious trouble.


DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. There, his cellmate was a man named George Nassar, accused of the execution-style killing of a gas station attendant. Although he was a vicious killer, who’d previously served time for another murder, Nasser was a highly intelligent man with a near-genius IQ. He was also known to be a skilled manipulator, and at Bridgewater, he became Albert DeSalvo’s confidant. Not long after they met, Nasser placed a call to his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, who was already well on his way to becoming America’s most famous defense attorney. Shortly after that call, Bailey hopped on a flight from the west coast to meet with DeSalvo. What DeSalvo had to tell Bailey surpassed even his most famous case at that time, his successful defense of accused wife killer, Dr. Sam Shepherd.


No one knows why Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler. It has been speculated that he and Nasser cooked up a scheme whereby DeSalvo would confess and Nasser would turn him in and claim the reward money, which they’d later split. Another theory is that the smooth-talking Nasser convinced DeSalvo that there was a fortune to be made in book and movie rights. It can also not be discounted that DeSalvo was a braggart and a blowhard. The idea of being recognized as the infamous Boston Strangler would have appealed to him.


Whatever the motivation, F. Lee Bailey interviewed DeSalvo at Bridgewater and then set up a meeting with Lieutenants Donovan and Sherry of the Strangler Task Force. At that meeting, he played them a tape of his interview with DeSalvo, containing a confession to the Strangler murders. To the hard-pressed detectives of the Strangler task force, under increasing public and official scrutiny, DeSalvo’s confession must have been like manna from heaven.


And there was no chance that it could be a fake. DeSalvo’s knowledge of the crime scenes was far too detailed, containing information that only the killer would have known. DeSalvo later repeated his confession to Police Commissioner McNamara and Dr. Ames Robey, the psychiatrist at Bridgewater. This interview began on September 29, 1965, and resulted in more than 50 hours of tape and over 2000 pages of transcript. Again, DeSalvo’s detailed recollection of the crimes was impressive.   



But what was it that F. Lee Bailey hoped to achieve by having his client confess to being the country’s most infamous serial killer? The answer to that question became clear once Bailey sat down to a meeting with Attorney General Brooke and John Bottomly. Yes, he told them, you now have the confession of the Boston Strangler. But DeSalvo is a mental patient and it would be easy to argue in court that his statement is the rambling of a madman. What evidence do you actually have against him? Do you really want to risk putting DeSalvo on trial and face the prospect of losing? In an election year?


Bailey, of course, had done his homework and knew his audience well. He knew that Brooke was planning a run for the Senate and that losing such a high-profile case would be a serious blow to his political aspirations. He thus proposed an alternative solution.  DeSalvo would plead guilty to the Green Man assaults and would accept a life sentence for those crimes. The Boston Strangler murders would stop. Brooke would not get the high-profile arrest he was after but he also would not suffer a possibly ruinous defeat in court. After considering his options, Brooke agreed to Bailey’s terms.


Thus it was that Albert DeSalvo pled guilty to the Green Man charges on January 10, 1967, and was sentenced to life in prison. He would serve only seven years of that sentence. On November 25, 1973, DeSalvo was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant while in the infirmary at Walpole State Prison. The day before his death he had placed a frantic call to Dr. Ames Robey, saying that he had information to share on the Boston Strangler case and that he feared for his life. Dr. Robey had agreed to meet with him the next morning, but DeSalvo was murdered that night. His killer has never been caught.


So was Albert DeSalvo really the Boston Strangler? The evidence is conflicting and controversial. Several experts, including famed FBI profiler Robert Ressler, believe that more than one killer was responsible for the Strangler murders. In support of this, Ressler cites the varying M.O.’s and victim profiles, something that is extremely rare in serial killer cases. There is also the issue of the man seen at the Sullivan and Graff crime scenes, a man who did not match DeSalvo’s description but oddly enough was a pretty good match for his one-time cellmate George Nasser. And then there are the glaring differences between the Strangler murders and the “Green Man” sexual assaults. Are we really to believe that Albert DeSalvo could have been, simultaneously, a vicious murderer, and a man who tied up his victims, fondled them and then fled the scene after apologizing for what he’d done? It seems unlikely.


But what then of DeSalvo’s confession? If he wasn’t the killer, how could he have known so much about the crime scenes? The truth is that a significant portion of the information DeSalvo gave to the police was public knowledge. Anyone who read the papers could have regurgitated the details and DeSalvo was known to have a near-photographic memory. There were also significant inaccuracies in the so-called “intimate detail” that he gave to investigators.   


As time went by, many observers (this author included) began to believe that Albert DeSalvo had been unfairly labeled as the Boston Strangler. Then, in July 2013, a curveball. An attorney named Elaine Whitfield Sharp, representing both the DeSalvo and Sullivan families, obtained permission to exhume the bodies of DeSalvo and of Mary Sullivan, the Strangler’s last victim. Sharp’s intention was to prove through DNA that DeSalvo had not raped and killed Mary. Imagine her surprise when the tests provided a match, first via familial DNA obtained from DeSalvo’s nephew, and then via a sample obtained from DeSalvo’s remains. This suggests that, at the very least, DeSalvo was responsible for Mary Sullivan’s death. Whether he killed any of the other Strangler victims is open to debate.       


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