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How Philadelphia police identified "The Boy in the Box"

Police reveal name of "The Boy in the Box"
Police reveal name of "The Boy in the Box" 03:52

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- After six decades, "The Boy in the Box" has a name: Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

The Philadelphia Police Department's reveal of Zarelli's name Thursday answered decades-old questions about his identity and brought new light to the murder investigation of the 4-year-old boy from 1957.

"When people think about 'The Boy in the Box,' a profound sadness is felt," Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said. "Not just because a child was murdered, but because his entire identity and his rightful claim to own his existence was taken away."

Philadelphia police identify Joseph Augustus Zarelli as America's Unknown Child 47:09

Born Jan. 13, 1953, Zarelli lived near 61st and Market Streets in West Philadelphia for his short life. His lifeless body was found badly beaten and dumped in February 1957, 15 miles northeast of where he lived in Philadelphia's Fox Chase neighborhood.

Why there?

"The theory would be common sense," Capt. Jason Smith said. "It's far away from their house. At that point in time, that area of Fox Chase was pretty rural."

Sources say the toddler's lifeless body was placed in a bassinet box.

"The child had been severely beaten," Smith said. "He was unclothed, had been wrapped in a multicolored blanket and placed inside of a cardboard box."

Zarelli died from blunt force trauma. He also had scars from what was believed to be an IV line.

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

Identity of "Boy in the Box" revealed thanks to DNA sampling 04:32

It was long believed the box came from a department store in Upper Darby, which isn't far from where police say the child lived.

Investigators say Zarelli was never reported missing.

Police say Zarelli, one of Philadelphia's coldest cases, has siblings on both his maternal and paternal sides. Many are still in the area. His mother and father are deceased.

Police declined to release their identities.

The question of who murdered Zarelli is now even more pressing.

"The job is over 65 years old now," Smith said. "It's definitely going to be an uphill battle for us to definitively to determine who caused this child's death."

For decades, detectives worked to piece fine details together to build an identity. The advent of forensic genetic genealogy and DNA sampling provided investigators with a pathway to a name.

When contracting with outside agencies, detectives learned of a genetic connection more than a year ago.

A second cousin once removed from Zarelli had uploaded DNA to what's known as "Gen Match," a public database.

Scientists like Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick described the mission as piecing together a Sudoku puzzle.

"The difficulty really was upfront," Fitzpatrick said. "Because the DNA was like confetti. The boy was buried in 1957 so after 65 or so years, the DNA is basically shot. He had little tiny pieces."

"So, what you do is that you sort of network them together in a self-consistent way like a big Sudoku puzzle," Fitzpatrick added, "and once you get it, all the diagonals, all the straight lines, the vertical, horizontal, all consistent with each other, the piece you're missing is the person you're looking for."

Investigators identify Joseph Augustus Zarelli as "The Boy in the Box" 05:09

Investigators say Thursday's revelation was emotional.

"It was several different feelings going through and several different emotions coming out right now," William Fleischer, founder of the Vidocq Society, said. "But the main part is it's so exciting to be able to have a child, a name, his resting place and for society to know who he is."

The identity now pushes the investigation closer to a possible resolution as distant as a conclusion may seem.

"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 filling in this child's life story."

Philadelphia police detectives and the captain of homicide would not comment on the possibility of any range of charges or criminal culpability on anyone's part in connection the Zarelli's murder.

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