Watch CBS News

What we know about Joseph Augustus Zarelli

"The Boy in The Box" Identified: The mystery of Joseph Augustus Zarelli
"The Boy in The Box" Identified: The mystery of Joseph Augustus Zarelli 28:16

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- For 65 years, a little boy had no name, just an unmarked grave at Ivy Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of Northwest Philadelphia. Until now.

"The Boy in The Box" has finally been identified as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

The Philadelphia police Department says they're still investigating Zarelli's murder and they need the public's help.

CBS3 has closely followed the investigation and kept the case on TV and online.

CBS3 Investigations was first to break that police had finally identified the boy.  

Here is a breakdown of what we know about who was once known as "America's Unknown Child."

Who is Joseph Augustus Zarelli?

Zarelli was born on Jan. 13, 1953.

Police said he lived near 61st and Market streets in West Philadelphia.

He has siblings, both on his maternal and paternal sides, police said. His mother and father are deceased.

William Fleisher of the Vidocq Society, which helped investigate the case, noted that "many of these men and women aren't with us anymore," but said he felt their presence in the room.  

Police declined to release their identities.

What happened?

Zarelli was found badly beaten and dumped along Susquehanna Road in Philadelphia's Fox Chase neighborhood in February 1957. Sources say his lifeless body was found placed in a bassinet box.

"The child had been severely beaten," Police Capt. Jason Smith said on Dec. 8. "He was unclothed, had been wrapped in a multicolored blanket and placed inside of a cardboard box."

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

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

Investigators believe the box came from a department store in Upper Darby, Delaware County.

"He appeared to be cleaned and freshly groomed with a haircut," now-retired homicide Det. Sgt. Bob Kuhlmeier said in April 2021.

According to police, Zarelli was never reported missing.

Police have suspicions about who's responsible for Zarelli's death, but Smith called it "irresponsible" to share them since it remains an ongoing investigation.

How did Philadelphia police ID him?

For decades, detectives worked to put together fine details to build Zarelli's identity.

Investigators used modern forensic techniques, including forensic genetic genealogy and DNA sampling to identify Zarelli.

This type of DNA processing differs from typical processing, said Ryan Gallagher, manager of the criminalistics unit in the Philadelphia Police Department's office of forensic science.

"With typical DNA processing, our scientists in the lab examined 24 areas along DNA to develop a profile. With advancements in DNA technology, it is possible to examine thousands of areas along your DNA," Gallagher said. "For standard DNA analysis, which we do every day, this expanded test is something not necessary."

A court order was obtained on April 24, 2019, to have Zarelli's remains exhumed in order to gather DNA.

How Philadelphia investigators identified Joseph Augustus Zarelli 04:49

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Arthur Washburn examined the remains.

Working with an outside agency, police learned about a genetic connection to Zarelli more than a year ago. A second cousin once removed from Zarelli had uploaded DNA to a public database, which was how investigators were able to ID him.

Forensic scientist Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick described the mission to CBS Philadelphia as piecing together "a big Sudoku puzzle."

Fitzpatrick said Zarelli's DNA was "like confetti." Since he was buried in 1957, she said his DNA was "basically shot, he had little pieces." But she went on to detail how the process worked.

"You sort of network them together in a self-consistent way like a big Sudoku puzzle," she said. "Once you get it, all the diagonals, all the straight lines -- the vertical, horizontal -- consistent with each other, the piece you're missing is the person you're looking for."

What's next?

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.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.