PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Patty Braxton winced as a priest led a few dozen mourners in prayer on a gray and rainy Friday at the graveside of a young boy found dead in 1957 and long dubbed the “unknown child.” of the United States” or the “boy in the box”.

His father, retired Philadelphia detective Thomas Joseph Augustine, worked on the high-profile cold case for most of his career. The family lived across the street from the potter’s field where the boy was first buried, and they placed flowers there on holidays.

But Augustine died in October, just six weeks before advances in DNA and online genealogy records yielded the boy’s name. So Braxton, his sister and their families took their places Friday at Ivy Hill Cemetery as investigators who spent decades on the case unveiled a new headstone bearing the boy’s name, Joseph Augustus Zarelli, on what would have been his birthday. number 70 of the abused child.

representation of the "boy in the box".
A representation of the «boy in the box».National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

“In her heart, she knew she would never live to see the child identified, and she didn’t, which is crushing. But we are very grateful to everyone who helped to make this come to fruition, to end it,” said Braxton, 53, of San Jose, California.

With the mystery of the boy’s identity solved, the police now hope to learn how he died, even if it is too late to arrest him. Both of the boy’s parents are dead, although he has living siblings, police said in announcing the identity of the skinny 4-year-old last month.

The breakthrough joins a spate of cold cases being reexamined and sometimes resolved across the country in recent years, including the Golden State Killer, through the emerging field of genetic genealogy.

It’s a confluence of great detective work, cutting-edge science and the careful art of genealogical research, retired city detective William Fleisher said in his graveside remarks Friday.

The revelations and truths they tell can be hard to listen to, especially for those learning long-buried family secrets. Most of the boy’s paternal relatives on Zarelli’s side have refused to speak to the press as they grapple with news of his link to one of the city’s most troubling homicides. Police have yet to identify the boy’s mother or say who was raising him.

But the clues they revealed at the press conference last month have thousands of detectives online in a frenzy trying to unravel Joseph’s life and lineage.

Her badly bruised, naked body was found on February 25, 1957, in a wooded area of ​​the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia. They wrapped him in a blanket and placed him inside a large bassinet box from JCPenney. Police say he was malnourished and had been beaten to death.

Fleisher believes that the rest of her story and our shared history as a society must be revealed, no matter the pain involved.

“We are humans, and humans have evolved, in this country and elsewhere, on bumpy roads. It hasn’t always been pretty, but we continue to evolve and hopefully become more civilized,» said Fleisher, who has spent years on the case since retiring in 1996 as a member of the Vidocq Society, a group of retired investigators dedicated to investigating cold. cases.

“You have to know the history and understand the history to do better now,” said Fleisher, who recited a Jewish prayer for the boy during the brief service as his own young grandchildren squirmed nearby.

Joseph’s photo was placed on billboards in the late 1950s and inserted into utility bills, as police worked to identify him and catch his killer. But the answers eluded them.

“It’s a big part of the history of our city, a big part of the history of the Philadelphia Police Department. It was the history of the country,” he said. “Everyone knew about this case. So this is everyone’s win.»

Police now believe the boy lived in West Philadelphia, miles across town from where his body was found.

“My mother and uncle grew up with their grandparents (in West Philadelphia), just a few blocks from the Zarellis. When I was a cop, I patrolled that neighborhood,” Fleisher said. «The coincidences are unbelievable.»

Augustine’s daughters also marvel at the similarities between the child’s name and their father’s. Maybe they met in heaven and decided to «end this together,» they said.

“This has been our whole life, with this kid, our whole life, since we were kids,” said Kim Augustine, 56, Braxton’s sister.

“We played softball next to the potter’s field where he was buried and we visited him at parties, with flowers and prayers,” she said. «He has never been forgotten.»