Personal ties to Boston Strangler case cloud efforts to tie him to another killing

Review Crime

May 07, 2006|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN BOOK EDITOR

A Death In Belmont

Sebastian Junger

W.W. Norton / 266 pages / $23.95

In 1962, when Sebastian Junger was just a year old, a swarthy and charming workman named Al was on a contracting crew building an addition to the Jungers' suburban Boston home. One morning, Junger's mother heard a noise in the basement and looked down the stairs to see the carpenter staring intensely back at her. Finally, Al, who must have entered through the bulkhead, told her that the washing machine seemed to be broken. The implication was that she should come down and have a look.

There was no reason for Al to be in the basement, and besides, the washing machine wasn't even running. Ellen Junger sensed danger. "Clearly, he wanted to get her down in the basement," Junger writes in A Death in Belmont, "and clearly if she did ... things could go very wrong." Instead, she made some excuse, closed the basement door and bolted it shut.

How wrong things could have gone didn't become plain for a couple more years, until Al - whose full name was Albert DeSalvo - was arrested and confessed to the murders of 13 women, many of whom had also been raped. By then, the newspapers had another name for him: The Boston Strangler.

Ellen survived, but not so another Belmont woman, 62-year-old Bessie Goldberg, who was raped and killed in her home during the period in which the Junger addition was being constructed just over a mile away. (According to Junger, Ellen actually relayed the news of Bessie Goldberg's murder to DeSalvo after her babysitter called to tell her the Boston Strangler had struck nearby).

Though Bessie Goldberg's homicide occurred during the Strangler's reign of terror, bore some of his signature touches - strangulation with stockings and sexual assault - and happened at a time when DeSalvo was in the immediate vicinity, that killing was pinned not on him but on a black, alcoholic petty criminal from Mississippi named Roy Smith who had worked in the Goldberg house that day as a cleaner.

Because of the close brush with DeSalvo, in Junger family lore, Smith was always remembered as the innocent black man wrongly convicted of someone else's crime. And, in A Death in Belmont, Junger does what he can to give credence to his family's suspicions, or at least to suggest that there was an equal chance that Goldberg rightly belonged in DeSalvo's tally of victims rather than Smith's only homicide.

Junger certainly manages to muddy the waters, but that doesn't mean he deserves congratulations. Instead of real reporting, real knowledge, he substitutes hunchwork, innuendo, analogy and supposition. These are precisely the questionable techniques used in his mega-selling The Perfect Storm, in which he employed educated guesswork to try to cover what he couldn't possibly know actually happened aboard the doomed Andrea Gail.

In that case, at least, there was no harm done. He (and the resulting movie) conferred brief fame on a crew of fishermen tragically lost. But here, Junger, with no new evidence - nothing close to a smoking gun - bats around the idea that the wrong man paid for Bessie Goldberg's crime, a conclusion that has understandably upset Goldberg's surviving daughter enough that she has mounted a public protest against Junger's book.

To demonstrate his intellectual honesty, Junger admits that absent DNA evidence - unavailable in this case - it is impossible to definitively conclude who killed Bessie Goldberg (thereby casting into doubt any murder conviction prior to DNA analysis). With that, he pieces together bits of information and conjecture to suggest a miscarriage of justice.

And, in fact, the case against Smith was purely circumstantial, with no physical evidence linking Smith to the murder. A government employment office had sent him over to the Goldberg house that day to help Bessie clean the house. Neighborhood kids remembered him leaving the house (a black man on the streets of lily white Belmont was unusual then) around 3 p.m., about 50 minutes before they saw Bessie's husband, Israel, arrive home from work and, moments later, burst back out his door shrieking about the gruesome discovery he had made. And later that night, when the cops staked out Smith's house to arrest him, he attempted to avoid them.

That, Junger says, was essentially the case against Smith, and it was enough to convince the jury of his guilt.

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