STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A man who confessed to multiple murders is at the center of a story by Sebastian Junger. The author of The Perfect Storm researched a story from his own childhood. That true story begins in a quiet suburb outside Boston in the early 1960s. Junger calls his latest book A Death in Belmont.
Mr. SEBASTIAN JUNGER (Author): Boston was in the middle of a really terrifying time. There was someone out there who was known as the Boston Strangler. The consensus was it was one man who was killing women in the most horrifying and brutal ways. No sign of forced entry, and they were usually women who lived alone.
And in the middle of this terrifying time, in safe little Belmont, there was an identical kind of murder, a rape strangling of an elderly woman. And it absolutely paralyzed the town. And we were living there then. I was one year old. And my mother immediately got a call from my babysitter saying, lock the doors to the house, because the Boston Strangler has just killed someone down the road.
INSKEEP: Who was arrested for that crime?
Mr. JUNGER: A black man named Roy smith, from Mississippi. He had cleaned her house that day, and had left at around four o'clock in the afternoon. And, in the intervening time, no one was seen going into the house. And when the husband came home, he found his wife of many years raped and strangled on the living room floor.
INSKEEP: It turned out that somebody else was the Boston Strangler.
Mr. JUNGER: That's right. When Smith was arrested, there was--for a heady few hours, I think--the idea that he was the Boston Strangler, because it was such a classic killing. But in fact, several years later, a man named Al DeSalvo confessed to killing 13 women, confessed to being the Boston Strangler.
What's interesting about Al DeSalvo is in 1963, my parents were doing renovations on the house--again, I was one year old--and there was a workman named Al. And, my mother was alone with him in the house many, many times. They were working there every day. Sometimes, Al was there by himself with me and my mother. And, in 1965, I believe it was, Al DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler--the same Al DeSalvo who was working at our house. And, all the sudden, my mother thought, my God, did he do the murder down the road?
INSKEEP: This must be a story that got passed down through your family that gets repeated at holidays, and again and again and again.
Mr. JUNGER: Yes, it's a story I grew up with. I mean, there were, sort of, two parts to the story. One part is, my God, that poor black man who was from Mississippi, Roy Smith, who was convicted of the crime of killing Bessie Goldberg, and no one knows that Al DeSalvo was at our house that day. Maybe Al did it.
And the other part of the story was more personal. As I said, my mother was alone with Al in the house many times while he was working, and there was one incident when he was in the basement, and he tried to get her to come down into the basement, and when she stood at the top of the stairs and looked down the staircase into his eyes, she realized that she was in mortal danger.
INSKEEP: What saved her, do you think?
Mr. JUNGER: Her instincts saved her. He had called her down into the basement by saying, Mrs. Junger, the washing machine's not working. And she thought, how odd, I mean, the washing machine's not even on, and he's the carpenter working in another part of the house. It's not even his business.
And, so she opened the door and looked down the staircase and saw the look in his eyes, and it's what she described later to my father as a look that was just, in her mind, filled with violence and evil intent. She could tell it instantly. And she said, Al, I'm busy, I'll check it out later, and she closed the door, and Al rushed out of the house and drove away. She did not see him for the rest of the day.
INSKEEP: So, you have a man who, in later years, confessed to being the Boston Strangler. You had this killing, though, in your neighborhood that was seen, perhaps, as one of the Boston stranglings, and another man was convicted for that crime.
Mr. JUNGER: That's right. What I found with the book--without DNA, you could not prove one way or another who killed Bessie Goldberg. I could not absolutely exonerate Smith. I couldn't absolutely prove he was guilty, and the same for Al DeSalvo.
INSKEEP: What if I asked you to apply your instincts to the question of who's guilty and who's innocent?
Mr. JUNGER: You know, every morning I wake up, sort of, thinking something different. I mean, some mornings I wake up and I think, God, Roy did it. I mean, I spent three years writing a book and the guy actually did it. I can't believe it.
And then, other mornings I wake up and I think, nah, he didn't do it. And, I honestly, I do not know. And that was the value of the book, is in exploring something that you can't know for sure, and then you get to examine the ways in which you examine evidence--the ways in which you try to come to a decision the way juries must.
INSKEEP: I gather that the victim's daughter has, as written, that she has questions about the facts in this book, and still thinks that Smith is the man that killed her mother.
Mr. JUNGER: There is no book I could've written on the topic that would've been okay with her.
INSKEEP: Did you interview her for the book?
Mr. JUNGER: I did. I met with her four times. I mean, again, she lost her mom and she has staked--apparently, staked 40 years of grief on the idea that Roy Smith was the killer. I think it's almost emotionally impossible to dismantle the ideas you have about this terrible murder and start all over again decades later.
INSKEEP: Sebastian Junger is the author of A Death in Belmont. Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. JUNGER: Thank you.
INSKEEP: In the pages of 'A Death in Belmont,' Junger explains how he came to be photographed with Al DeSalvo, the confessed Boston Strangler. You can read an excerpt and see that photo at NPR.org.