Joseph Augustus Zarelli has been identified as the ‘Boy in the Box’. For decades after the discovery of his body in February 1957, Zarelli’s identity remained a mystery. Joseph, who was found naked in a cardboard box, suffered a gruesome death: he was malnourished and showed signs of extensive physical abuse.
The authorities ruled that his cause of death was homicide by blunt force trauma. Several investigators tried to solve the case, but a dearth of evidence and the boy’s mysterious identity meant the case remained cold for decades. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said:
“For 65 years, the story of who would come to be known as ‘America’s unknown child’ has haunted this community, the Philadelphia Police Department, our nation and the world.”
Zarelli’s parents are deceased, but the boy has living siblings from both sides of the family
In 1998, authorities exhumed Zarelli’s body to extract DNA. Advancements in DNA analysis increased hope that the boy would be identified. However, the investigation yielded nothing. In 2019, his body was exhumed again for retrieval of more DNA evidence, and this time, the investigators hit the jackpot.
The boy’s DNA results were uploaded to DNA databases, and through interpretation from genetic genealogists, investigators located and contacted Zarelli’s maternal relatives.
Authorities obtained records of children born to the woman they believed was the boy’s mom. They found Joseph Augustus Zarelli’s birth certificate, confirming he was born on 13th January 1953. Through additional analysis, authorities determined Zarelli’s father.
The police confirmed that Zarelli’s parents died but added that he has siblings and relatives from both sides of the family. Philadelphia Homicide Captain Jason Smith refused to release the identities of the parents, saying:
“At this point in time, we are not going to be releasing that information. Joseph has a number of siblings of both the mother and father’s side who are living, and it is out of respect for them that their parent’s information remain confidential.”
Internet sleuths have posited theories about Zarelli’s parents, but none so far seems credible enough to merit publication.
Police said Joseph’s birth certificate will be amended to reflect his name. The Vidocq Society, a group that works on unsolved homicide and that visited Joseph’s grave annually, plans to work with Ivy Hill Cemetery to put Zarelli’s name on his grave.
A relative said he was happy to have helped identify Zarelli
In 2017, Justin Thomas bought a DNA Activation kit for his girlfriend from Ancestry.com. Thomas and his girlfriend broke up before she used the kit, so he decided to try it out. Justin learned a little about his family’s lineage but didn’t give much thought to the test.
Four years later, he received a call from a forensic genealogist working on a ‘cold case in Philadelphia’ who needed more DNA. Thomas convinced his mom to provide a DNA sample to aid the investigation.
Justin said he was shocked to learn that the boy in the box’s last name was Zarelli. He speculated that Augustus was likely his mom’s first cousin: the last name of his mom’s uncle is Zarelli; his grandmother’s brother is Zarelli. Thomas revealed that the Zarelli family lived in West Philadelphia before relocating to Delaware County.
Justin told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Now that I have two young girls and seeing his pictures and hearing the story, I’m really upset about it. It strikes home. It’s horrible. I can’t imagine. I want to talk to everyone in the family to try to understand.”
The authorities are offering a reward for information leading to the resolution of Zarelli’s case
“This announcement only closes one chapter in this little boy’s story, while opening up a new one,” Outlaw said. “This is still an active homicide investigation and we still need the public’s help in filling in this child’s life story.”
The police said they had suspicions about the person responsible for Zarelli’s death but didn’t release information on the suspects. Outlaw tweeted that authorities are offering a reward for information leading to the resolution of Zarelli’s case:
“Today, after 65 years, America’s Unknown Child’s name was finally restored. I want to thank all who have worked tirelessly since 1957 to give Joseph Augustus Zarelli his voice back. However, the search for justice continues.”