Hitting Close to Home

One autumn day in 1963, the mother of a yet-to-be best-selling author was invited into her basement by a yet-to-be convicted serial killer. Something was wrong with the washing machine, he claimed, with a look in his eyes she later said was “indescribable” -- like, in a bad way.

The man was Albert DeSalvo, part of a small construction crew working on the house belonging to the parents of Sebastian Junger, who three decades and change later wrote A Perfect Storm. Mrs. Junger’s instinct told her not to venture down the basement stairs. And since nothing happened, she did not report the incident. The following day Bessie Goldberg was raped and murdered a few blocks from the Jungers’ home. The killing bore the signature of similar crimes that plagued Boston for two years – popularly thought to be the work of an individual the press dubbed “The Boston Strangler.”

Nabbed by police on an unrelated rape charge, DeSalvo confessed he was the Boston Strangler, though no evidence surfaced to support his claim. He never admitted to the Goldberg murder and was killed in prison in 1973. Roy Smith, an African American from Mississippi with a criminal history, was convicted of killing Goldberg and spent 23 years in prison pleading his innocence.

A Death in Belmont is Junger’s exhumation of the strangler case. He claims, though not with absolute conviction, Smith did not kill Goldberg – and DeSalvo likely did while working at Junger’s childhood home.

“My family’s experience is minimal and was just a starting point,” the globetrotting Vanity Fair contributor tells the New Times. “I know about all of this because it touched my parents. My interest is not based on that.”

The book covers a lot of ground, from race relations in northern cities (Roy Smith was reported to the police before the murder even took place simply for walking in a well-heeled white neighborhood), to the flaws in a court that put Smith away under questionable circumstances and procedures. DeSalvo’s guilt in the Bessie Goldberg murder has never been proven, and since the DNA evidence has been destroyed, it probably never will. On a local level, speculation still thrives even though all the victims and perpetrators are dead.

“I think there’s a controversy that lives on: Was he or wasn’t he?” says Junger. “In Boston you can still get into arguments in bars about whether DeSalvo did it.” Beyond the whodunit, however, is a larger critique of a justice system the author believes is the best in the world yet still totally fallible.

“I feel that the book in its broadest sense isn’t about DeSalvo or Roy Smith or Bessie Goldberg; they’re all dead,” he says. “It’s about approaching an unknown logically. From a jury decision to a government decision like, Are there WMDs in Iraq? when we can’t know absolutely for sure.” Meet Junger tonight at 7:30 at Coral Gables Congregational Church. Call 305-442-4408, or visit www.booksandbooks.com.
Mon., May 15

 
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