Is the real Boston Strangler still alive?

Published Sept. 4, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

He is considered to be among the most dangerous men in modern-day Massachusetts, a matter-of-fact killer with a stratospheric IQ who has been locked in prison for 50 of his 67 years on earth.

And many knowledgeable people consider George Nassar to be something even more chilling than the diabolical genius he is often said to be. They insist he's the real Boston Strangler.

In an extraordinary telephone interview from MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole, Nassar rejected the persistent suspicion that he, not Albert DeSalvo, his long-ago friend, was the serial killer of 13 women from 1962 to early 1964. And he offered to provide police a sample of his DNA.

At the same time, Nassar acknowledged his plight with a laugh of tired resignation, saying that as long as people believe he's the strangler, he will never see the light of freedom again.

"I had nothing to do with it," he said. "I'm convicted under the table, behind the scenes." He will never be granted parole, he added, because "it would be: The person accused of being the Boston Strangler is released from prison."

The suspicion against Nassar is striking and the vehemence with which many people hold it, jarring. The long-held suspicions become noteworthy as Boston police use their new DNA laboratory to answer one of the most enduring questions in the annals of American crime: Is DeSalvo, murdered in prison in 1973, the Boston Strangler?

In asking the question, just the name Nassar still raises blood pressure. A 1995 book broadly hinted that Nassar was a better suspect than DeSalvo, and the former Essex district attorney was said to believe Nassar was the killer of at least some of the women. "The real Boston Strangler," George Higgins, the novelist and former state prosecutor, says of Nassar.

Adds Ames Robey, the former prison psychiatrist who analyzed DeSalvo and Nassar in 1965: "With his psychological profile, he fit, right down the line. I suspect he was involved."

Nassar was 15 when he first committed murder, the shooting of a Lawrence, Mass., store clerk in 1948. He was paroled in 1961, remained free for the reign of the Boston Strangler, and was charged in October 1964 with shooting an Andover, Mass., gas station attendant to death as the man begged on his knees for mercy. After killing the attendant, Nassar approached a woman and her daughter parked at the filling pumps, stuck his pistol in their car window and fired. The gun, though, was empty.

In 1965, the last of the stranglings already committed and the murders having mysteriously stopped, DeSalvo and Nassar formed a bizarre bond at MCI-Bridgewater, Massachusetts' prison for the criminally insane, inseparable even when DeSalvo met with his lawyers. Soon enough, Nassar said, DeSalvo confessed to the stranglings.

Nassar said they would pace along a concrete recreation room hallway known as "the flats." Television sets blared, inmates screamed and noise from a bowling alley echoed off the walls, all as DeSalvo sniffed nervously at the air and became visibly excited telling his morbid tales of murder and mutilation.

"He began describing a crime and watching my reaction to see if it was too abhorrent to listen to," Nassar said. "Some of it was horrible, particularly the crimes of stabbing a woman under her breasts in Cambridge. But I wasn't there to condemn."

Ultimately, Nassar introduced DeSalvo to his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey. Bailey summoned authorities to MCI-Bridgewater with word that he had found the Boston Strangler. DeSalvo was convicted of an unrelated armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison.

DeSalvo confessed to 13 killings in mind-numbing detail, even recalling room dimensions at the crime scenes. But many detectives were dubious, having regarded him as a rapist incapable of murder.

Notably, at least two women who had escaped the Boston Strangler were brought to MCI-Bridgewater to identify DeSalvo, but instead pointed to Nassar as their assailant.

What many skeptics believed was that DeSalvo, resigned to jail, desirous of glory, and desperate for money, confessed to crimes more likely to have been committed by two or more murderers, in hopes of earning a book deal to support his family.

In a rare client meeting in which Nassar was absent with the flu, "Albert said he wasn't the strangler," said Tom Troy, a DeSalvo lawyer. "He said I knew the strangler well."

Brian McGrory is a Boston Globe columnist.

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