Albert DeSalvo was always friendly to Ellen Junger, except for one ‘incident’. She tells Nigel Farndale, in Belmont, about her terrifying encounter with the serial killer – and the murder mystery that has fascinated her family for decades
Forty-one years after his capture, the Boston Strangler still has a unique hold on the American psyche. Other serial killers may have been responsible for more deaths, but none haunts the collective imagination quite like Albert DeSalvo, the carpenter who confessed to raping and murdering 13 women in their own homes between June 1962 and January 1964.
It was partly to do with his efficiency. He worked quickly, on one occasion managing two murders on the same day – and he never left any sign of a break in. It was also to do with his calling card: his victims were strangled with their own clothes, usually their stockings, which he would leave tied with a bow under their chins. Supernatural powers were attributed to him. He was the inspiration for a Rolling Stones song, “Midnight Rambler”. For two terrible years, no woman in Boston felt safe.
Ellen Junger, a 77-year-old artist, has more reason than most to feel haunted by DeSalvo. For six months of his killing spree, she employed him as her carpenter, building a studio extension to her house in the sleepy Boston suburb of Belmont. Ellen was often alone with Al, as she called him – her husband, Miguel, a Harvard-educated physicist, being at work. The couple still live in the area, in a large, yellow-painted clapboard house. When I meet them there on an overcast April morning, I am struck by the almost fond tones in which they speak of DeSalvo. “He was quite likeable,” Ellen says. “He had an easy smile and a gentle manner and was… he was quite passive about starting conversations. I would go out and see how he was getting on every day. He was so strong, he could carry huge piles of lumber. When the weather was nice, we would have a sandwich and a chat with him out on the patio.”
Miguel leans forward and says: “There was one time, I was ill in bed with flu. Al came back after work with his children, to introduce them to me. He was so solicitous and kind, you know, asking: ‘Can I get you a glass of water, Mr Junger?’ He was so sweet. I was touched. I guess he must have had a split personality.”
Ellen is a handsome woman with erect posture, high cheekbones and steady green-blue eyes. She levels them at me now and says: “Yes, he was always friendly, except for one incident.”
Up to that point, the Boston Strangler had murdered six women, all elderly. The police assumed their suspect must be a mother-hater. That theory was to collapse a few weeks later when the Strangler murdered the first of his younger victims, a 22-year-old. But, at the time, Ellen, 33, did not fit his victim profile and so had no especial reason to feel afraid. The “incident” occurred in October 1962. It was the second day that DeSalvo had turned up for work and he had called up to Ellen from the basement, saying something was wrong with her washing machine.
“It was early,” she says. “Miguel had just left for work and I was still in my nightgown and bathrobe. I think he had been waiting to see Miguel leave. I went to the basement door and looked down at him and he was looking up at me with this frightening expression in his eyes, kind of intense and burning. It wasn’t anger it was more as if he was trying to mesmerise me, to compel me to come downstairs. It was like he was seeing right though me. I’ve never had anybody look at me like that. I was terrified.”
In 1965, DeSalvo described to a psychiatrist how, on the morning of a murder, he would wake up in a trance-like state, feeling hungry, yet he did not want to eat. It was more as if he had ‘little fires’ inside him. I ask Ellen if she could relate to that description. “Yes, it was as if he was possessed that morning. Bold. I got a strong sense of that. I guess not many women who witnessed that look of his survived to describe what it was like. Only at the last moment would his victims have seen it. I thought I cannot go down there into the basement because I’ll be harmed. I was completely frightened. I was shaking.”
For years, Ellen convinced herself that DeSalvo would not have been so stupid as to rape and murder the woman he was working for, thereby making himself the chief suspect. However, she later discovered that Al was not supposed to be at work that day. “He had a perfect alibi,” she says. “He and his workmates weren’t due back until the following day. Maybe the worst scenario would have been that he raped me, but he was smart enough to know you can’t leave witnesses.”
“Ellen never told me about that incident at the time,” Miguel interjects.
“That’s true, I didn’t,” Ellen says. “I thought about it. I did think: ‘I can’t have this man working here for six months.’ But then, the next day, Al turned up with his workmates and he was all “Good morning, Mrs Junger. How are you today?” – all cheerful and busy, and I thought, ‘Maybe I was overreacting. I don’t want to get a man fired because of the look in his eyes. I’ll just watch him today, keep an eye on him.’ ” She laughs and shakes her head. “And I was anxious to get the studio done. I knew that if I told Miguel, he would sack him and the studio would never get done on time!”
How did she react when she heard the news that DeSalvo had confessed to being the Boston Strangler? “I heard from Al’s old boss, Russ Blomerth. I collapsed. We had this white, rotary desk phone and, in front of that, a stool, and I just felt my knees go and found myself on this stool. I was speechless. Just speechless. It’s very hard for any man to understand what women went through in that period. We all felt so vulnerable. There was mass hysteria. Then to find out that the Strangler had been on my property all that time. It was unbelievable.”
She asks if I would like to see her old house, on Cedar Road. It’s only five minutes away. As she drives she talks about the peculiar fact that DeSalvo was never actually charged with murder. In 1967, he was sent to prison for life on unrelated rape charges, having confessed to being the Boston Strangler in exchange for immunity from prosecution and transfer to a psychiatric hospital. In fact, of all the murder cases attributed to the Strangler only one was officially “closed”, that of Bessie Goldberg. “Her murder especially frightened us,” Ellen says, “because she lived on our doorstep. We’re coming up to her house right now.” We pull up in front of a brick and wood-slatted house.
On March 11, 1963, the day Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled, a man named Roy Smith happened to be doing a cleaning shift here. Being the only black man in an all-white neighbourhood, Smith was easily spotted, by several witnesses, walking away from the house at 3pm. Bessie Goldberg’s body was discovered by her husband at 4pm. Though there was no evidence linking Smith to the murder, he became the sole suspect, and within months had been tried and found guilty by an all-white jury. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Ellen’s son, Sebastian, the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, grew up listening to his mother’s story, and has written a new book on the Boston Strangler. “Sebastian’s book has brought it all back to me,” Ellen says. “I think about it all the time now. I hadn’t talked about it for years.” In A Death in Belmont, published on Tuesday, Sebastian Junger raises the possibility that DeSalvo could have committed the Goldberg murder.
“[Roy Smith] was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Ellen says, as she leads the way to the back of the house. “It was pure racism that got him convicted. What the jury had not been told was that a man fitting Al’s description and wearing work overalls had been round the back here, that day, asking a neighbour if he wanted some painting done.”
In his confessions about the Boston stranglings, Al revealed that he had always gained admission to his victims’ premises under the guise of being an official checking for leaks, that or a decorator. “Here, let me show you something,” Ellen says. We get back in the car and drive towards some traffic lights. “See those? Al always used to complain about those lights. This was his route to our house, you see. The two houses are only a mile apart.”
We soon arrive at Ellen’s old house, a grey-painted wooden structure with the roof extending to the ground. It is surrounded by leafless trees and colonial-style houses, some with stars and stripes flapping lazily from their facades. “The jury in Roy Smith’s trial did not know that Al was working here unsupervised on the day of the murder,” Ellen says. “We were the only ones who knew that and we had no reason to suspect him at the time.”
Though DeSalvo never confessed to murdering Bessie Goldberg, Smith always professed his innocence and twice refused parole in exchange for a confession of guilt. In 1973, days after the 10th anniversary of Smith’s conviction for the killing, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison. Smith was finally offered unconditional parole in 1976, but died of cancer a few days before his release.
Ellen is now convinced that DeSalvo murdered Bessie Goldberg. “I think Al knew the Goldbergs because he lived right across the street from their business in Chelsea. They had a movie house, and he almost certainly recognised them. Bessie was strangled in the same way as the other Boston Strangler victims. Al would only have had an hour, but he killed very quickly. He may have been waiting for Roy to leave the house.”
Ellen shows me the studio that Al helped “The afternoon of Bessie’s murder, I came back here at about 4.30 or five and Al was back painting here, up a ladder. I had a phone call from our babysitter saying “Lock your door – there has been a murder on Scott Road”. So I hung up and locked the door, then went out to the studio to tell Al. I said this terrible thing has happened. There has been a murder in Belmont, and he said: ‘Yeah? That is terrible.'”
Ellen shakes her head and says, “I remember the last time I ever saw Al. It was right here, the day after the Goldberg murder. They had finished the studio and had come to collect their tools. We thought we would commemorate their last day with a photograph. Me with Sebastian, and old man Wiggins, and Al in the middle with his big hand across his chest. It turned out to be quite a poignant photograph.”