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Court TV

Tossed away: The boy in the box

By Matt Bean
Court TV


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(Court TV) -- In February 1957, a man walking through an abandoned lot in Philadelphia stumbled upon the naked body of a boy wedged inside a corrugated J.C. Penney's carton marked "Fragile, Handle with Care." The bruised and battered child, covered with a cheap flannel blanket, soon became known as "The Boy in the Box." As stark as it may seem, the moniker summed up what little investigators had to work with.

The coroner determined that the child, about 4 years old, had been beaten to death and died from massive head wounds, but could not answer the question that swept the city. Why was he killed? And who had dumped him in the lot? Hoping to identify the boy as a missing child, officials kept his body in the morgue as visitors from more than 10 states filed through, scanning his small, bruised body for familiar markings.

A group of Camden, New Jersey, residents were convinced he was the child of Camden local Charles Speece (he wasn't). A Marine with 17 siblings falsely claimed the child was one of his brothers. Others thought he was Stephen Damman, a child with a similar L-shaped scar under his chin who was snatched in 1955 in Long Island, New York. But it was another dead end.

Philadelphia police had little to go on except for the limited physical evidence. The carton the boy was found in once held a baby's bassinet and was one of only 12 units shipped to a store in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

A blue corduroy "Ivy League" cap found in the debris-strewn field near the boy was traced to a store in South Philadelphia. Scars on the boy's body suggested he had been hospitalized before his death, so investigators canvassed local hospitals to see if any had treated the boy in recent months. They even singled out his freshly cut hair, theorizing that he may have met his end at a barber shop.

Five months after he was found, the Boy in the Box was buried in a potter's field. His tombstone read "Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy." The official investigation eventually languished, but the boy's unseemly end had burned an indelible image into the minds of a few investigators and citizens who would spend the rest of their lives wondering: How does a child turn up dead and no one come to claim him?

The Boy in the Box became the original poster child for what are now known as "Child Does." According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are 1,000 to 1,200 of these unidentified children at any given time. Some remain anonymous forever, buried in unmarked graves. Others may be identified, often thanks to the work of a diligent few who keep their cases alive.

When a Doe becomes a life's work

Philadelphia medical examiner Remington Bristow kept up the search for the identity of the Boy in the Box for more than 36 years, long after the story had disappeared from the headlines. Without Bristow's work on the case, it would have faded forever, says the lead detective now working on the case, Tom Augustine.

"Bristow was number one," said Augustine, a detective in the Philadelphia Police's homicide division. "Absolutely. Without him, we'd never be here today."

Though Bristow had encountered more than 100 unidentifieds in his career, the Boy in the Box haunted him. He spent thousands of dollars of his own money and countless hours of his free time working to identify the child.

He plastered his workspace with photos and newspaper clippings of the boy. He traveled as far as Arizona and Texas. He visited a psychic who attempted to gather clues by holding staples from the bassinet box in her hand. He even carried a death mask of the child in his briefcase.

Bristow's chief theory was that the Boy in the Box was abandoned, but not murdered. His fresh haircut and carefully clipped nails suggested he had been well cared for, and perhaps died in an accident at home. The family may have stayed mum because they didn't want to be charged with murder.

Three years after the boy's body was found, Bristow felt he was close to an answer. Following up on a psychic's "vision" that the boy lived in a Philadelphia foster home run by a couple out of an old mansion, Bristow found just such a family. In fact, the police had already interviewed them.

Bristow spoke with the family, looked over the old police interviews, contacted a child who once stayed at the home, and even attended an estate sale in 1961 after the couple moved. There he found a bassinet that could have been the one packed in the box. Bristow suspected that the Boy in the Box belonged to the couple's unwed daughter, who might have ditched the body to avoid being exposed as a single mother.

Bristow died in 1993, frustrated by the failure of Philadelphia police to pursue his theory. But he left a trove of materials for investigators still pursuing the case today.

Another flurry of investigation

The case was reopened in 1998, more than 40 years after it began. Piqued by an interview Remington Bristow gave to Philadelphia-area writer Ron Avery, as well as a flood of leads from a broadcast of an "America's Most Wanted," segment on the case, Philadelphia Police Captain Pat Dempsey placed it in the hands of Augustine, a 35-year veteran.

Dempsey asked Augustine to follow up where Bristow left off in 1984 -- the foster home angle. The captain hoped to match DNA from the boy to the woman Bristow claimed was the mother.

On February 23, 1998, Augustine, accompanied by a member of the Bucks County police department, coasted down the driveway of an old farmhouse lined with signs warning, "BEWARE OF DOGS-STAY IN CAR." He reached out of the window to ring a bell hung from a pole, and Arthur Nicoletti, head of the nearby foster home until the 1960s, greeted them from the porch.

With him was a woman he identified as his wife, Anna Marie. She wasn't just his wife. She was also his stepdaughter -- the same woman whom Bristow had suspected of ditching the Boy in the Box and who, in a curious familial commingling, married Nicoletti after his wife died. "It was movie stuff," Augustine says.

Augustine got right to the point, asking Anna Marie if she'd had a child who died around 1957. Anna Marie said yes, but explained that her son had been electrocuted while seated in a malfunctioning nickel ride in front of a Philadelphia store. Records from the morgue, where Bristow worked for three and a half decades, confirmed her story.

In November 1998, the boy was exhumed and samples of his bone and teeth were removed for DNA analysis. But with nothing to match it against, the police were again at a dead end.

A poster of a missing boy

In 1957, a few months after the Boy in the Box was found, a 10-year-old New Jersey boy named George Knowles visited a local police station to register the bicycle he had received for his birthday. As he was waiting, he glanced at the public bulletin board.

"There was this poster of the unknown boy. Three shots of his head, and the blanket," he recalled. "I was just totally enthralled by the case, and it just kind of stayed with me. I was mesmerized by the story."

But Knowles largely forgot about The Boy in the Box until the October 3, 1998, airing of the "America's Most Wanted" segment . "It was like a sign from God," recalled Knowles, who is now 55 and lives in Edison, New Jersey. He was determined to help out.

In 1999, Knowles created a Web site devoted to the boy's mystery. More than a million people have visited the site, leaving thousands of tips that Knowles has passed along to the Philadelphia police.

The boy is named

But by May 2002, Augustine was feeling like he was back to square one. He'd received thousands of tips from Knowles and the America's Most Wanted segment. But none of them had panned out. But then he got a phone call from a psychiatrist in Cincinnati.

The night before, one of her patients had phoned the doctor at 2 a.m. demanding she contact Philadelphia homicide. She wanted to talk about the Boy in the Box. So Augustine, accompanied by two retired investigators close to the case, Joseph McGillen and William Kelly, flew to Cincinnati to track down the lead of a lifetime.

The men met the woman, whom Augustine would only identify as "Martha," at the psychiatrist's office, a converted house. Over three hours, the woman opened up gradually, painting a grim portrait of the little boy's life.

In 1955, when Martha was 11, she told the investigators, her librarian mother drove her to a home, where she picked the boy up in exchange for an envelope which she assumed contained money. The child, called Jonathan, then came to live with them in their Philadelphia home.

There, he was raised in squalor in the basement, with a drain for a bathroom and a makeshift bed amid coal bins and discarded cardboard cartons. Martha claimed that her mother regularly sexually abused her and had purchased the child to do the same to him.

The boy's death, Martha claimed, eventually came when her mother, in a fit of rage, slammed him down on the floor after he vomited in the tub. That day, her mother drove her into Philadelphia to dump the child.

Augustine was amazed, but skeptical. "This is the best lead we've ever had on this case," he explained. "But until we have proof that [the boy] is who she says he is, she can talk all day long -- we're not closing it."

At issue is whether Martha, who has a history of mental problems, could have fabricated the story. Her psychiatrist claimed to have first heard the tale in 1989, but protected her client's privacy until she chose to come forward. No notes of that original discussion exist, says Augustine.

"If we had notes, that would be a different story," he said. "If we could just prove one thing about it, we'd have it solved. And if we could just disprove one thing, we'd throw her tip in the garbage."

To corroborate her story, Augustine is arranging to search the Philadelphia house where she used to live. Was the drain in the basement where she said it was, for example, and did houses in that area have coal bins as she described? But these minor details will not seal a case that, for Augustine, has become a life's work.

"I want to get this case to be sewn up as if the mother was still alive and we got an arrest warrant and a conviction in court," he said. And he plans to continue speaking with Martha, hoping she'll provide more details that can be corroborated.

Until then, the real story will remain buried with the boy, under a new headstone inscribed "America's Unknown Child" in Philadelphia's Ivy Hill cemetery.

"I wish I could put a name on that tombstone," Augustine said. "Aside from my children, this is the biggest, most important thing in my life."



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