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Police Identify Philadelphia's 'Boy In The Box,' City's Oldest Cold Case

More than half a century after police found the body of a young boy stuffed into a cardboard box, investigators were able to use genetic genealogy to identify him as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

By Jill Sederstrom
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More than 65 years after the body of a young boy who had been starved, beaten and shoved into a cardboard box was found in Philadelphia — which became the city's oldest unsolved homicide case — investigators have finally determined the boy’s name.

Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced Thursday the boy, known for years as the “boy in the box,” has been positively identified as Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

“Today, after 65 years, America’s Unknown Child’s name was finally restored,” she wrote on Twitter. “I want to thank all who have worked tirelessly since 1957 to give Joseph Augustus Zarelli his voice back.”

The boy’s remains were discovered on Feb. 25, 1957 in the city’s Fox Chase neighborhood, NBC News reports. The malnourished boy had been badly beaten, wrapped in a blanket and shoved into a cardboard box.

"This announcement only closes one chapter in this little boy's story while opening up a new one. This is still an active homicide investigation and we still need the public's help in filling in this child's life story," Outlaw said during a Thursday press conference according to WPVI-TV.

A police rendering of Joseph Augustus Zarelli

The case remained unsolved until a new break came from advances in genetic genealogy.

Famed forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick was able to use DNA captured after the boy’s body had previously been exhumed to develop a list of possible relatives. Investigators then used that information to track down the victim’s extended family, according to NBC News. His parents were not publicly identified

“Joseph has a number of siblings on both the mother's and father's side who are living and it’s out of respect for them that their parents’ information remain confidential,” Philadelphia Capt. John Smith said at Thursday’s press conference.

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Police have not determined who killed the boy.

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

According to investigators, Zarelli was born on January 13, 1953 — making him just four years old when his life was cut short.

The chilling murder stuck with many of the investigators who were at the scene the day that Zarelli was discovered.

Bill Kelly, for instance, had taken the young boy’s fingerprints, and his family told WPVI he had continued to try to work the case until his death.

"He was one of the first on scene that fateful day. He never forgot about that image. I mean how could you?" his granddaughter Jessica Greene said. "He was the fingerprint expert on scene. Those fingerprints were ingrained in his mind his whole life, and when he closed his eyes in his mind that's what he saw."

Kelly’s daughter, Kathleen Kelly Greene, said her father would have been thrilled the young boy was finally identified.

“I was thinking my father would be so happy,” she said.

Outlaw said on social media that there is a $20,000 reward for information in the case that leads to an arrest and conviction of the boy’s killer.

“We will NEVER stop seeking justice for victims,” she wrote.

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