Joseph Augustus Zarelli’s parents identified as a movie theater cashier and West Philly mason
Betsy – that’s what everyone called her – loved to skate and dance, and swooned over the Italian boys, needle-worn on Frank Sinatra records at her home in Philadelphia’s Tioga neighborhood after the Second World War.
“She was a real beauty,” a close family member recalled this week.
Gus was a concrete and stone mason, a hard worker in a proud Italian immigrant family in West Philly.
Augustus J. “Gus” Zarelli and Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Abel conceived a child in the spring of 1952, and the boy’s short and painful life became one of Philadelphia’s greatest unsolved mysteries. The Inquirer, based on interviews with members of both families and sources familiar with the investigation, now knows that police believe Zarelli and Abel are the parents of Joseph Augustus Zarelli, a child known for just 65 years as name of “The Boy in the Box”. ”
Betsy would have been 21 when Joseph was born on January 13, 1953. The next of kin, who asked not to be identified, said she could have had him adopted as she had done so before, with a daughter. The Inquirer was unable to confirm whether anyone adopted Joseph.
A police spokesperson declined to comment on The Inquirer’s findings.
Mary Elizabeth “Betsy” Abel graduated from Murrell Dobbins Career & Technical Education High School in North Philly in 1949 and, like most graduates of the time, rose quickly into adulthood. A few years after planning proms, she was facing a pregnancy. A daughter was born in 1950 and immediately put up for adoption. The parent thinks a Catholic organization took care of it.
Abel then became a cashier at the Goldman Theater, one of the last major downtown movie theaters on 15th Street. John J. Plunkett, a man she would later marry, according to her obituary, was the director.
The relative does not recall her pregnancy at the time but expressed doubts about her involvement in Joseph’s abuse or death.
“Betsy? No way in the world,” the relative said. “There was no cruelty, no malice or cruelty that swelled in her heart and soul.”
Joseph’s body was discovered in a crib box in a Fox Chase lot, far from West Philly, in February 1957. Investigators said the child died of blunt trauma, and for six decades no one did not come forward to identify him.
On December 8, 2022, police announced the boy’s name for the first time, citing DNA evidence from the paternal and maternal side, as well as a birth certificate which slightly misspelled the father’s name. Police told a news conference the boy lived around 61st and Market, they had their ‘suspicions’ about his final days, but nothing else, and while they didn’t named neither of their relatives publicly, the surname Zarelli is rare in Philadelphia.
The media, along with internet sleuths and genealogists, quickly discovered the small, tight-knit family in the area. Gus Zarelli’s four children did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but on Thursday Dan Bush, a West Chester lawyer representing them, said in a statement to The Inquirer that Gus and his family had been “attacked in all possible social media. , suggesting the most horrible things, all of which are baseless.
“Each of his children is extraordinarily sympathetic to the death of this young boy and horrified by the events in question,” Bush said in the statement. “However, until recently, they had never heard of any of this. They have never been shown anything that connects their father or any family member to this.
The Inquirer confirmed that Gus Zarelli’s niece submitted DNA that matched Joseph’s. Prior to this, Abel’s relatives had uploaded their DNA for genealogical research. Misty Gillis, a forensic genetic genealogist and liaison with Identifinders International, built Betsy’s extensive family tree.
Eventually, the police came knocking on the doors to talk to her relatives. They asked about the five Abel sisters, including Betsy. Who was pregnant and when? What connection, if any, did they have with West Philly?
Betsy’s next of kin, who declined to be identified, said the Abel family learned the Boy in the Box investigation was only 48 hours before the press conference.
“I was stunned,” the parent said. “I remembered the story. We used to get utility bills with his face on it, asking if anyone recognized him.
The Zarellis, according to Bush, received “little” information from the police and they “continue to investigate whether there is merit in Augustus John Zarelli being the father of this boy.”
“There have been no credible allegations from anyone, including the Philadelphia Police Department, that their father knew of the birth of this child or had anything to do with the life of this child, and certainly nothing remotely suggesting that he knew or had anything to do with the harm caused to this child,” the attorney said.
While police say Joseph lived in the 61st and Market District in West Philly, directories show the Zarelli family lived in the 6300 block of Callowhill Street.
What remains unclear, for now, is how and where Zarelli met Abel, if he knew she was pregnant and had a child. Zarelli was five years older than Abel and still lived in the Callowhill Street home with his family in 1950. A relative of Abel said one of his sisters may have lived in West Philadelphia. Abel did too, the relative said, on the second floor of a walk-up apartment with Plunkett and their daughter, born in December 1956. The couple later moved to Ruffner Street in Nicetown. Plunkett was driving a taxi. They had four children together, one of whom died in childbirth.
Gus Zarelli married in 1958, leaving Callowhill Street. The family businesses grew into a lucrative real estate and construction operation in Chester County, where most of his children still live. Clearly, he was loved by his children, highly respected by his peers, and showed signs of grace in difficult times.
In 2014, when Zarelli died aged 87, tributes on Legacy.com mentioned his “strength and character”.
“The world is one less good soul,” wrote one mourner.
On January 13, paternal relatives of Joseph attended a rededication of his headstone at Ivy Hill Cemetery. Some of them are trying to do their own research on the case.
“Our family was blindsided by this,” a family member said at the grave. “We want to pay tribute to him by discovering his whole story. We want to put a real closure on the story.
A relative of Abel said she later worked for the Crown Can Company and other warehouses on Erie Avenue. She died in 1991 as Mary E. “Betsy” Plunkett after a “prolonged illness”, according to her obituary. Her relative said she died of lung cancer, likely due to asbestos exposure.
“She was kind and calm,” the parent said.
The death of 4-year-old Joseph A. Zarelli remains an active homicide investigation.