Wednesday, September 19, 2007

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Boy Missing

It's been 50 years. We still don't know his name.

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Published: Feb 14, 2007

He was only a little boy. Somewhere between 4 and 6 years old, with blue eyes, fair complexion and medium to light brown hair, crudely cut. His nude, severely malnourished body was wrapped in a cheap cotton flannel blanket, placed inside a cardboard box that originally housed a white bassinet. Deep bruises covered much of the boy's frame and face, a telltale indication of prolonged abuse. Tossed aside like trash off an isolated rural road, lying there for days, perhaps weeks, before anyone found him.

Illustration By: Evan m. lopez


Fifty years later, an old man leans by the boy's gravestone, sidestepping the plush toys and flowers that have been left on the ground nearby. He smiles, thinking about the many hundreds of similar artifacts placed by well-wishers and sympathetic visitors in the nearly 10 years that the boy has lain here. It's a brisk January day and he almost didn't make it to the cemetery. It's hard enough for him to drive and snow falling hard just a few minutes before made him understandably nervous. But the snow has stopped, replaced by brilliant sunshine breaking over the sky. He moves even closer and utters a prayer, inaudible to anyone around him but full of heartfelt sentiment that echoes loud and clear:

That he will live long enough for the one piece of news that has eluded him for decades, even as he grows increasingly resigned that this may never come.

He is the Boy in the Box, America's Unknown Child and more recently, Jonathan. Names used interchangeably, but always with a sense of incompleteness, because none is his for-sure true one. Years of voluminous leads, promising theories and fluctuating spotlights, and the answers are still frustratingly out of reach. With the 50th anniversary of the boy's death approaching, the probability of a definitive outcome grows ever slimmer as his strongest advocates grow older, more infirm and die off. The case's most active homicide investigator retired recently from the Philadelphia Police Department, with no replacement in sight. Even a dedicated Web site (at by an interested layman lies fallow after his unexpected death two months ago. When they are gone, who will be left to speak for the boy?

There were no such worries on the morning of Feb. 26, 1957, when investigators were concerned with whether a tip from a La Salle College student that a boy's body lay in the woods off Susquehanna Road was legitimate. Once the remains were discovered, recalled William H. Kelly, then a fingerprint expert for the Philadelphia Police Department, there was a sense of optimism that the case would be solved fairly quickly. "At first we figured the boy's family would come forward, say his death was an accident and offer some sort of explanation," Kelly explained. "But that didn't happen. Days and weeks passed and still he wasn't identified."


This was an unacceptable and unthinkable idea for those haunted by the boy's bruised and battered face. William Fleisher, a former Philadelphia police officer, FBI agent and customs official, was 13 years old when the boy was found. "I close my eyes and still visualize his face," he said. "I was in a supermarket, and there was a picture of this boy — obviously dead — and I froze. I'd seen television footage of World War II, of D-Day, but this was a child, and it shocked me. His face has stayed with me for the rest of my life."

The boy's face also remains a vivid memory for Bill Bass. Now known as one of the foremost experts in forensic anthropology (he recently retired from the University of Tennessee, which houses "The Body Farm," the anthropological institute he founded), Bass was a doctoral student at Penn, working with noted forensic anthropology expert Wilton Krogman. "I still have trouble with it," he said in a recent telephone interview. "There were bruises all over his body. I kept wondering how someone could do that to another human being, to such a small child. It was unthinkable." Even after 50 years and nearly 2,500 cases, this case still "sticks in my mind."

It sticks in Kelly's mind, too; periodically he will pore through the single white binder he keeps in his Northeast Philadelphia home that contains faded case file artifacts, newspaper clippings and aerial shots of the crime scene. Revisiting the files strengthens his resolve, but also fills him with sadness for how the "holy innocence" of this child ended with such a terrible outcome without resolution.

The boy's lack of identity did not owe to investigative indifference. If anything, the opposite was true, as the case would be the most heavily investigated in Philadelphia history. Tens of thousands of "Information Wanted" posters with graphic photos of the boy's mortal wounds circulated within Philadelphia and to outside law enforcement agencies, to no avail. The box he was found in was from one of 12 bassinets sold by a J.C. Penney store in Upper Darby, and all but one was conclusively traced to its owners. Police compared the boy's footprints and ear impressions to every possible candidate, including a missing Long Island boy, a Hungarian refugee and a New Jersey youngster. None matched.


The leads grew colder and colder, and a sense of frustration set in. Years passed, with anniversaries occasionally marked by bursts of media activity that produced few leads, none of which checked out. The boy was buried in a potter's field, in a far corner of Northeast Philadelphia just off Mechanicsville and Dunks Ferry roads. Inscribed on his headstone were the words, "Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy." The case officially remained open (and still does, according to police spokesman Capt. Benjamin Naish) but the march of time was taking its toll. It seemed as if the Unknown Boy would be lost amidst newer, fresher homicide cases with more evidence, more detail and more scientific tools available at detectives' disposal.

And that might have been the case if not for Remington Bristow, an investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office. He kept a death mask of the boy by his desk, a reminder that if no one else would speak for the boy, he would. And he did, spending more than 35 years working on the case (including more than a decade on his own dime), consulting psychics and traveling to many parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to track every lead, no matter how frivolous.

"Rem Bristow was single-handedly responsible for keeping the case in the public eye," said Joseph McGillen, Bristow's former colleague at the Medical Examiner's Office. When Bristow died in 1993, he believed the boy's fate rested with the Nicoletti family, who operated a foster home for as many as 25 children about one and a half miles from where the boy's body was discovered. At the time, all the foster children were accounted for by police, and years later investigators reconfirmed that the Nicolettis likely had no involvement with the boy's death.

Police kept the case open in name only, investigating only if someone came forward with a lead, but a chosen few did not forget. By the late 1990s, Fleisher was at the helm of the Vidocq Society, an organization founded to re-examine old crimes with fresh eyes. So when a small group (including Philadelphia Daily News reporter Ron Avery) wanted to present the decades-old case of the Boy in the Box at Vidocq's next meeting, the answer was obvious — and the effect nothing short of snowball. "We had the case files brought [to Vidocq's offices] on a Saturday morning and see references to all these old-time cops," Fleisher recollected. "I rang up Sam Weinstein, who had been the second officer on the scene at the time, to tell him what we're doing, and he kept correcting me. He had all the facts right, all in his head after all these years."

Kelly got back involved after watching a television news story of a possible new lead; it turned out to involve the same Hungarian refugee whom he had ruled out in the early weeks of the case. McGillen, retired from the Medical Examiner's Office since 1984, also returned to the investigative fold. The trio quickly went to work, knocking on doors, poring through decaying files, questioning and requestioning possible witnesses and informants like the younger cops they had once been. In the meantime, the reopened investigation (and Vidocq's promise that they would foot the bill) spurred the Police Department to exhume the boy's body and extract teeth and bones necessary for obtaining a crime-fighting tool that was unknown in the 1950s: DNA.


But once the boy was taken out of the potter's field, he wasn't going back. The burial site had grown increasingly neglected in the intervening years and "we felt he should have a more appropriate resting place," Fleisher said. That came in the form of Ivy Hill Cemetery, which donated a prime burial plot near the Easton Road site's entrance. Craig Mann (whose father originally buried the dead boy in 1957) donated the coffin, burial vault and funeral services. Optimism filled the air at the Nov. 11, 1998 reburial ceremony, and it seemed as if the case might be solved. Further leads streamed in when Edison, N.J. resident George Knowles turned a lifelong fascination with the unknown boy into a public tribute with the creation of the America's Unknown Child Web site.

Then came what Kelly called "the best lead in 50 years." A woman identified only as "M" confided in her psychiatrist that she had been present when the boy was killed — and that the culprit was her own mother, a schoolteacher at a well-to-do school in Lower Merion. Two years of back-and-forth interviews with M revealed more details. Her mother had taken M to pick up the toddler a year earlier, trading an envelope of cash for a little boy wearing a soiled diaper. A year of regular abuse followed until one afternoon, after throwing up a meal of baked beans, M's mother became so enraged she threw the boy into the bathtub and beat him, then smashed his head against the floor tiling. Just 13 at the time, M was sitting on the toilet when the boy's beating took place — and she accompanied her mother to dispose of the body.

To substantiate the story, Kelly, McGillen and Philadelphia homicide detective Tom Augustine — who took over the reopened case from the department's side in 1998 — drove to Cincinnati to meet with M in 2002. An hour interview turned into almost three. The trio came back to Philadelphia convinced that her story held up, and further investigative work could not rule out her claims. "She had more to lose than to gain," said Kelly. "This woman had a good job, a Ph.D.; it wasn't like she was some loony." McGillen added that M had first spoken of the case to her psychiatrist back in 1988, years before the media coverage blitz brought on by the boy's exhumation and a dramatization broadcast by America's Most Wanted. "We sat across the desk looking for any telltale signs of deceptions, and we saw none. She was articulate, very literate and believable."

But a history of mental problems, coupled with what was seen as reticence on the part of M to confirm some details while validating others leave some, like Fleisher, skeptical of her claims. "She's given enough detail to make the story titillating, to increase the probability so that it isn't completely coincidental, but until she tells the whole truth — and I believe she knows more than what she's telling — we'll never know if this is anything more than a manipulative power game."

While McGillen and Kelly fully believe they have found the case's solution, proving it to the satisfaction of the Police Department — beyond a reasonable doubt — could be impossible. They both keep in touch with M periodically and hope that she'll someday visit the boy's grave. "If she could come here, we'd be able to follow up on some things that we've not been able to do because of the logistics," McGillen said. The chances are slim. "She feels she's done all she can. There's no strong motivation on her part to revisit the past even further and take that extra step."

Fifty years is a very long time to be searching for answers. When the unknown boy was first found, Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA in a Cambridge University laboratory was still fresh, only four years old. The idea that DNA could be used for identification purposes was a vague thought, decades away from reality. Blood-typing tests could only distinguish between small groups, not individuals, and fingerprints could only be dusted from specific surfaces — and certainly not from corpses.


Fifty years means that a lot of important evidence withers away with time. When the unknown boy was exhumed for DNA testing purposes, investigators knew very well that a full profile would not be available. The bones were too old and brittle, body tissues long since decomposed. The two teeth and jawbone contained only mitochondrial DNA, whose separate sequence is too small to produce a conclusive match to any individual. And in the near-decade since the exhumation, the boy's DNA profile has been compared to a handful of prospects. All could be ruled out; but even if a match seemed likely, it can never be proven conclusively. "It's hard to compare unless there's a direct, point-for-point match," Fleisher explained. But the boy's profile is about to be uploaded into CoDIS (Combined DNA Index System), the FBI's identification system, in case another, possible direct hit comes along.

The story of America's Unknown Child might be markedly different had his remains been discovered five, 10, even 20 years ago. Would it have been solved? "In my professional opinion, yes," Kelly said.

Fleisher and McGillen agreed that the probability of solving the case would be far higher. "There would be fresh DNA available, for one thing," Fleisher elaborated. "Forensic technologies have come a long way, especially with hair, fibers and blood. You have better ways to capture footprints and bite marks, and much faster turnaround times."

But the two biggest changes were increased communication by police departments and changes in media coverage. The Boy in the Box received plenty of local coverage at the time, mostly from the Philadelphia Bulletin and the Inquirer, and the case stayed in the community's consciousness as a result. But national coverage was nonexistent, and with the level of networking between police departments of different counties, let alone other states, limited to ad hoc inquiries, it's little wonder that a case with as many complexities and as many leads as this went cold. "The whole system is 50 years better," Fleisher said. "Back then, a lot of people didn't even have a telephone in the house — they had to rely on pay phones. Now almost everyone seems to have a cell phone." The implication being, witnesses could come forward more readily and evidence could be discovered more quickly thanks to modern technology.


The what-if game is a tempting one to play but the bottom line is that each investigator, during each period of time, was thorough and dogged — they just couldn't catch up with time. "The problem with cases this old is that the people who killed him are probably dead by now," said Bass. "The leads get weaker and weaker, and there's only so much you can do to investigate them after so many years."

On Feb. 26 at 10 a.m., the Vidocq Society will host a memorial service for the unknown boy at Ivy Hill Cemetery. It's their way to mark what Fleisher asserts is "an important benchmark not only to Philadelphia's law enforcement, but to the entire community," and a commitment to reinforcing the value of this little boy's life, its constant reminder of children abused, battered, neglected and murdered.

But the ceremony will also mark the passage of time and the passing of those no longer around to see it. Bristow has been dead for almost 15 years, taking the whereabouts of the boy's death mask with him. Weinstein left Vidocq's investigative team in 2004 and passed away from lengthy illnesses later that year. George Knowles' death was discovered by accident, when Kelly mailed a Christmas card that was returned with the word "DECEASED" stamped on the envelope. He and McGillen haven't been able to find out further details, but a check of the Social Security Death Index confirmed that Knowles died in New Jersey on Dec. 6. Kelly is 79 and McGillen is 80 — their days of active involvement over or close to it.

Then there is Tom Augustine, long one of the biggest champions of America's Unknown Child. As the Police Department's inside man, the homicide detective helped Kelly and McGillen to look at all leads, old and new. He, too, had been haunted as a child by posters of the boy's face staring back from grocery store windows, and easily made this quest for answers personal. But in late December 2006, a drug test that allegedly came up positive for cocaine, forced him to make a choice: contest, and risk losing out on a long-earned pension, or retire. He chose the latter, and retired with full benefits after 39 years. Following an initial spate of interviews with the Inquirer's Robert Moran soon after the story broke, Augustine has kept a low profile, refusing all subsequent media requests (including City Paper's). He's also kept mum about what, if any, plans he has to continue working on the Boy in the Box case. Both Kelly and McGillen have been in touch with Augustine, but the subject did not come up. "I think he just wants to enjoy his new retirement," Kelly said. Fleisher left a message of support that has, to date, been unreturned.


But for those still on the case, the mantra remains the same: Never give up. They aren't giving up because there may not be anyone left to carry the torch. The case file, long housed at Vidocq's offices and then in the personal custody of Kelly and McGillen, is set to return to the Police Department, where it will probably be nothing more than reference material. "We don't think there's any further information to extract," said McGillen. And even if there is, no younger officer will be as familiar with the case of these elder statesmen. "I'll be working the case as long as I'm physically able," Kelly asserted. "I just wish I had another 50 years to keep doing so."

There will be speeches, tributes and prayers to those still here and those long gone. And perhaps the memorial service will be a way for someone to step out of the darkness, out of a maze of secrets and shadows and deliver what these determined investigators, these advocates for the little boy who has touched the hearts and minds of so many, crave the most:

His true name.


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