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What we know and don’t know about Joseph Augustus Zarelli, also known as the Boy in the Box

Philadelphia Inquirer 12/8/2022 Nick Vadala, The Philadelphia Inquirer
The gravesite of the Boy in the Box is shown on Thursday at the Ivy Hill Cemetery and Crematory in Philadelphia. © Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS The gravesite of the Boy in the Box is shown on Thursday at the Ivy Hill Cemetery and Crematory in Philadelphia.

Nearly 66 years after police first discovered the body of a young boy in a cardboard box in a wooded area of the Fox Chase section of Philadelphia, police have identified the boy formerly known as “America’s Unknown Child.”

Also referred to as the “Boy in the Box,” the child was discovered Feb. 26, 1957. Decades of investigation led to few developments in the case, but with continued detective work and advances in modern DNA testing, investigators were finally able to reveal his identity on Thursday.

“In his very short life, it was apparent that this child experienced horrors that no one should ever be subjected to,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a news conference. “When people think about the Boy in the Box, a profound sadness is felt. Not just because the child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away.”

Now, with the boy’s identity revealed, there is a small amount of closure in the case. But it still remains an active homicide investigation.

Here is what we know:

Who was the Boy in the Box?

The Box in the Box’s name was Joseph Augustus Zarelli. He was born Jan. 13, 1953, and died in 1957, when he was just four years old. He never had a social security number issued to him, and no missing persons report was ever filed, police said Thursday.

Joseph’s family resided in West Philadelphia near the area of 61st and Market during his life, said Capt. Jason Smith, commanding officer of the Homicide Unit. There are a number of living family members, but police did not say where they live or reveal any further details. The boy’s mother and father, whom police declined to identify, are deceased.

Joseph’s death certificate will be amended to reflect his birth name, police said. The Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia-based group that works on unsolved homicides, plan to work with Ivy Hill Cemetery, where Joseph is buried, to put the boy’s name on his grave.

‘Boy in the Box’: The history of the notorious Philadelphia homicide case

How did the Boy in the Box die?

After Joseph’s body was found, an autopsy found that he was emaciated and had sustained abrasions, contusions, a subdural hemorrhage, and pleural effusions. His cause of death was likely blunt force trauma, Smith said.

How was the Boy in the Box identified?

Police have attempted to identify Joseph for decades, dating back to the day his body was found. Techniques such as canvassing the city with informational posters, providing photos of his body posed in clothing, and checking local orphanages and foster homes yielded no conclusive results.

In 1998, Joseph’s body was exhumed from a potter’s field in Holmesburg, and police collected DNA from him. It yielded no results. He was reburied at Ivy Hill Cemetery in East Mount Airy that same year, and his body was left undisturbed for two decades.

Then, in April 2019, his remains were exhumed once again for police to obtain more DNA to test with modern methods. That round of testing was effective, and investigators were able to use genetic genealogy techniques to locate relatives on Joseph’s mother’s side of his family.

That break in the case led to the identity of Joseph’s birth mother, and police were able to find birth records for her. Investigators found three birth certificates attributed to the family — one of which was Joseph’s.

With Joseph’s birth certificate, police were able to track down relatives of the child’s father, and performed more forensic genealogy tests to confirm his identity.

How DNA sleuths identified the ‘Boy in the Box’ after six decades

Who killed the Boy in the Box?

Police don’t know who killed Joseph. And with the case dating back nearly 66 years, much of the evidence has degraded, and many people who may have known him, such as neighbors or other family members the police haven’t contacted, have died.

So, we may never know who was responsible for his murder. However, Smith said, police have their “suspicions” about who could be Joseph’s killer, but declined to provide details.

Now, with Joseph’s identity revealed, Smith said he hopes for “an avalanche of tips from the public.” With luck, those tips will include information from an older person who remembers Joseph, and may be able to shed some light on what may have led to his death.

“We may not make an arrest. We may never make an identification,” Smith said. “But we’re going to do our darndest to try.”

Police ask those with more information to contact Detective Robert Hesser of theHomicide Division at 215-686-3334 or call or text their tip line at 215-686-TIPS. There is a $20,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

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