While police last week identified America’s Unknown Child (formerly the Boy in the Box) as Joseph Augustus Zarelli, the case is not closed.
“This is still an active homicide investigation,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a Dec. 8 news conference at police headquarters, 400 N. Broad St.
Outlaw thanked police investigators, the Medical Examiner’s office, the Vidocq Society (which tracks unsolved murders) and Identifinders International for their assistance in identifying Joseph, whose body was dumped unceremoniously in a JC Penney box on Susquehanna Road, a little west of Verree Road, in Fox Chase way back in 1957.
On Feb. 26, 1957, Philadelphia Police Officer Elmer Palmer was dispatched to then-rural Susquehanna Road, where he discovered the body of a boy believed to be about 4 years old. The boy was in a cardboard box that once contained a bassinet bought at the JCPenney at 69th and Chestnut streets in Upper Darby.
Though the case received wide attention and a poster of the boy was mailed with gas bills, no one ever came forward to identify the boy. Olney’s Mann Funeral Home buried the boy in Potter’s Field at 12898 Dunks Ferry Road and assisted in his move to West Oak Lane’s Ivy Hill Cemetery. The reburial took place in 1998 after investigators exhumed his body looking for forensic evidence.
The story was chronicled on America’s Most Wanted and dramatized on Cold Case.
Bill Fleisher, a retired FBI and U.S. Customs agent long active with the Vidocq Society, attended last week’s news conference and promised that Vidocq will add Joseph’s name to the stone at Ivy Hill.
“Our lad is no longer that Boy in the Box,” Fleisher said. “Joseph Augustus Zarelli will no longer be that Boy in the Box.”
Police Capt. Jason Smith, commander of the homicide division, said Joseph’s remains were exhumed again in 2019, and modern forensics helped lead detectives to maternal and paternal relatives, including his parents. A birth certificate showed Joseph was born on Jan. 13, 1953. He was 4 when he died and lived near 61st and Market streets, but was never reported missing.
Smith said Joseph’s parents have passed away, but that he has living siblings, but would not identify them or say where they live. He also declined to answer why Joseph’s siblings and neighbors did not come forward over the years.
Joseph’s body was emaciated, and Smith said he likely died of blunt force trauma. He was asked who killed Joseph.
“We have our suspicions,” he said, adding that it will be an “uphill battle” to positively identify a killer.
Smith said he hopes the news conference leads to an “avalanche of tips” that could help solve the case.
Today on the 700 block of Susquehanna Road, a private historical marker stands in memory of Joseph, thanks to Delaware Eagle Scout Nicholas Kerschbaum and the Vidocq Society. ••