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Of Boston Strangler and a book

By Mark Egan

india Updated: Apr 18, 2006 19:33 IST
Reuters
Reuters
None

Sebastian Junger's new book begins with a family album snapshot of the best-selling-author of

The Perfect Storm

sitting on his mother's lap as a baby.

In the background are two workers posing with them after renovating the family home. One of them is a handsome young man who became known as the Boston Strangler.

The image prompted Junger to write A Death in Belmont.

"I decided to find out more," Junger said in an interview about his book, which revisits a time when women in Boston were terrified by the Boston Strangler murders of 1962-1964.

But it was a seemingly unconnected murder on which Junger focused. On March 11, 1963, elderly Bessie Goldberg was raped and strangled in her house in Junger's home town, Belmont, Massachusetts.

Sebastian Junger, author of the Perfect Storm poses inside his bar in New York in this March 29, 2006 file photo.



Photo: Reuters

Roy Smith, a black man from Mississippi who cleaned Goldberg's home that day, was convicted of the brutal crime.

Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed and was convicted of raping and killing 13 women in the Boston Strangler murders, was working alone at the nearby Junger home.

DeSalvo, who never admitted to the Goldberg murder, subsequently retracted his confessions and was murdered in prison in 1973.

In the book, Junger pieces together the evidence and leaves the reader with a picture that suggests that DeSalvo was more likely Goldberg's murderer than Smith.

"It was the ultimate journalistic challenge to write about Belmont," said Junger, who made his name as a war reporter in such places as Bosnia and Afghanistan. "Belmont is the most placid, quiet, safe, protected little enclave. I thought, if I can write compellingly about Belmont, then I've earned my stripes as a journalist and as a writer."

At first Junger thought his book would consist of "digging up a 40-year-old case and showing that the guy didn't do it and someone else did. But pretty quickly I realised the story was much more complex than the tidy form it took in my family."

Instead, the book examines the terror in Boston during the stranglings and the type of justice facing a Mississippi black man in the early 1960s.

It was a time of national upheaval as America mourned assassinated President John F. Kennedy while a jury mulled Smith's fate,

Early reviews of the book are positive. Kirkus Reviews called the book "a meticulously researched evocation of a time of terror, wrapped around a chilling, personal footnote".

But ahead of the its publication this week by WW Norton, the victim's daughter has taken umbrage.

Leah Goldberg Scheuerman wrote on BarnesandNoble.com that key facts reported in the book -- such as the time Smith arrived at the house and, crucially, the time he left as well details about the physical evidence at the crime scene -- are incorrect. She still believes Smith murdered her mother.

Junger defends the book's integrity, saying his manuscript was submitted to both the defence and prosecution attorneys on the original case for fact-checking before being sent to an independent fact-checker, for which he paid himself.

"No one person upon reading all the material I gave them thought Smith was guilty. I could not find anyone who thought that," Junger said. "In fact one prosecutor said he doubted he could even arrest the guy based on the evidence they had.

"But I can't prove it, and there is some substantial doubt in my mind that he actually may have done it. I don't think anyone can prove one way or another who killed who."

Smith died of cancer in 1976 after his sentence was commuted for good behaviour and amid doubts about his guilt, although he was too ill to leave prison before his death.

Junger spent three years writing and researching "A Death in Belmont". And for someone who loves being a war reporter, that meant he was stuck at home as his country went to war with Iraq and continued fighting in Afghanistan.

"I was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch my country enter an incredibly turbulent, controversial era which sees us in two foreign wars, and I couldn't participate," he said.

"I felt like I had come to play in the championship and I was on the bench with a broken leg."

Once Junger is done promoting his book, he plans to travel overseas for more war reporting. And while he does not know yet where he will go, he says Iraq is just too dangerous.

At 44, Junger appears to have it all. His 1997 book The Perfect Storm about a fishing boat caught in a terrible storm sold millions of copies and was made into a movie starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

He travels on assignments for Vanity Fair magazine and even co-owns a trendy Manhattan bar popular with writers, journalists and photographers.

Junger has a reputation as a macho man. In his 20s he earned his living swinging on a harness 90 feet (25 metres) above the ground with a chainsaw in his hand chopping down trees before he gashed his leg with his chainsaw.

But just recently married, he's sounding a little less roughneck. Pressed further on which hell-hole he might report when he hits the road again in September, he says with a smile: "All of this is subject to the veto or approval of my wife."

And what remaining ambitions are left for a man who has already had more adventures than most people?

"I'd like to start a family," he said, rubbing his hand on the heavy stubble on his chin. "It seems like the ultimate experience and I haven't done it."

First Published: Apr 18, 2006 20:00 IST