Philadelphia 'Boy in the Box' Finally Identified 65 Years After He Was Found Beaten to Death

"We have our suspicions for who may be responsible," said police, before warning that they still have an "an uphill battle" ahead of them.

It’s a case that has sat unsolved by the Philadelphia Police Department since 1957, but this week, authorities announced a huge break in the murder of the child who has, until now, been known only as the “Boy in the Box.”

On Thursday, Philly PD held a press conference in which they confirmed the boy’s identity as 4-year-old Joseph Augustus Zarelli, closing at least one chapter in one of the city’s oldest unsolved homicides. Zarelli was previously dubbed “Boy in the Box” or “America’s Unknown Child” after his badly beaten remains were found in a large JCPenney bassinet box in February 1957; his identity remained a mystery, however, as nobody ever reported him missing.

He was buried in a potter’s field before his remains were exhumed in 1998, when DNA samples were taken and he was reburied. The child was then given a memorial with both a headstone reading “America’s Unknown Boy” and a marker which says “Heavenly Father, bless this unknown boy” at Ivy Hill Cemetery. In 2019, his body was exhumed again and, following advancements in DNA testing and with the assistance of genealogists, detectives were only recently able to locate and make contact with possible relatives on his maternal side after identifying his birth mother.

On Thursday, authorities said they would not be releasing the name of the child’s birth parents at this time, but confirmed Joseph had a number of siblings on both his mother and father’s sides who are living “and it is out of respect for them that their parents’ information remain confidential.”

“The other question is obviously going to be, do we know who is responsible for Joseph’s death? The answer at this time is, unfortunately, no,” said Philadelphia Police Captain Jason Smith. “We have our suspicions for who may be responsible, but it would be irresponsible of me to share these suspicions as this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation.”

“It’s going to be an uphill battle for us to definitively determine who caused this child’s death,” he added. “We may not make an arrest. We may never make an identification (of the killer). But we’re going to do our darndest to try.”

He explained that, at this time, 65 years later, many who would have any memory of any incident leading up to the murder are now “long gone” — though he remained hopeful someone in their 70s or 80s, like a possible neighbor, could remember “whatever was occurring at that particular household” now that the boy’s identity has been revealed.

Authorities also confirmed the child was born January 13, 1953. His body was discovered shortly after his fourth birthday naked, wrapped in a blanket and left inside of a cardboard box in February of that same year. He was malnourished, with signs of what police said was “recent and past trauma,” and died of blunt force trauma.

“In his very short life, it was apparent this child experienced horrors no one — no one — should ever be subjected to,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said during Thursday’s press conference.

“Despite the fact that Joseph Augustus Zarelli’s entire identity and rightful claim to his own existence was taken away,” she added, “he has never been forgotten.”

Anyone with information has been asked to call 215-686-TIPS(8477) — and a $20K reward is being offered for anyone whose information leads to the arrest and conviction of a suspect.

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