The Burden of Proof
A DEATH IN BELMONT
By Sebastian Junger
Norton. 266 pp. $23.95
In his celebrated first book, the 1997 bestseller The Perfect Storm , Sebastian Junger set himself a considerable challenge -- to write a credible nonfiction work centered on a tragedy that left no eyewitnesses. The ordeal of the six men who died aboard the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Mass.-based swordfish boat that sank in the Halloween Gale of 1991, came equipped with all the elements of a gripping, real-life thriller. But since the boat's crew had lost radio communication with the outside world well before the storm's peak, the specifics of their final hours necessarily remained mysterious. To tell this part of the story, Junger had to resort to some heady conjecture, building his climax on a scaffolding of extrapolations, speculations and analogies from other shipwrecks. This expedient was hardly ideal, and it caused some justifiable upset among strict constructionists of journalistic ethics, but the book's phenomenal success spoke for itself. Junger had plausibly created, as he put it, "as complete an account as possible of something that can never be fully known."
With A Death in Belmont , his second full-length nonfiction work ( Fire , a collection of his magazine pieces, appeared in 2001), Junger is again trafficking in the unknowable. This account of a brutal sex murder that shocked the author's hometown of Belmont, Mass., in 1963 -- right in the midst of the 18-month killing spree of the so-called Boston Strangler -- again draws on material of undeniable drama. Once more, though, the principal characters in the story took their secrets to the grave long before Junger began his research. True, a man was ultimately convicted of the murder, but the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial, and today some people doubt that he really was the killer. So Junger has another tricky narrative to pull off. Without knowing who actually committed the crime, he can reliably infer only the broadest outlines of what happened in Belmont on the afternoon of March 11, 1963. The result is a book full of unanswered questions -- a book that is at once less satisfying and yet even more intriguing and unsettling than The Perfect Storm .
Junger's task in unraveling the Belmont murder is complicated by the fact that the crime so closely resembled those of the Boston Strangler, the shadowy predator who had been killing and sexually assaulting women all over the Boston area for months. Bessie Goldberg, an aging housewife, had been found sprawled on the living-room floor of her suburban home, strangled with one of her own stockings and apparently raped. Certain aspects of the perpetrator's modus operandi differed from the Strangler template (the victim was married rather than single, and she lived in a detached home, not an apartment), but such niceties were lost on a terrorized public. When police arrested a suspect for the Goldberg murder -- Roy Smith, an African-American ex-convict who had been cleaning the old woman's house that day -- most people were eager to believe that the fabled Strangler had finally been caught.
Certainly Smith looked good, as they say, for at least the Belmont slaying. A sporadically employed binge drinker with a criminal record that included grand larceny and assault with a dangerous weapon, he had been seen by several witnesses leaving the Goldberg home right around the time of Bessie's murder. And although -- to the public's disappointment -- it soon became clear that he could not have been responsible for the other killings ascribed to the Strangler (Smith had spent most of the previous year in prison), police were convinced that they had their Belmont murderer. If nothing else, Smith was a poor black male seen in a wealthy white neighborhood where a crime had been committed. For some in 1963, this was evidence enough.
Junger adeptly pulls together the various elements of this complex narrative, setting accounts of the Goldberg murder trial and Roy Smith's history against the backdrop of the Strangler hysteria that gripped the public for the better part of two years. It doesn't hurt Junger's cause that he has a startling -- and decidedly eerie -- personal connection to the case. Albert DeSalvo, the man who eventually confessed to the Strangler murders, was employed by the author's parents as a builder's assistant at the time the killer's first victims were being found; he was working at the Junger family home on the very afternoon Bessie Goldberg was killed. "My mother had come home that day to a phone call from my baby-sitter telling her to lock the doors because the Boston Strangler had just killed someone nearby. She had hung up the phone and gone in back to repeat the bad news to Al, who was painting trim on a stepladder. What could have possibly been going through Al's mind during that conversation?"
It's the type of question that A Death in Belmont repeatedly asks -- and necessarily leaves unanswered. The book is full of murders and perpetrators, but Junger can't say for sure how they all line up. And there is no one left to ask. Roy Smith died of lung cancer in 1976, a model prisoner who professed his innocence to the end. Albert DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison in 1973, denying responsibility not only for the Goldberg murder, but also for the 13 Strangler deaths he had once confessed to. Now many people -- Junger among them -- have serious doubts that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler after all. (As Junger points out, among convicted murderers later exonerated and released from prison, approximately one in five had falsely confessed to his crimes.)
But did Albert DeSalvo kill Bessie Goldberg? Did Roy Smith? Or was it someone else, perhaps the real Boston Strangler, who has never been caught because the police believed that they already had their men for those crimes? At least one person closely involved in the story -- Leah Goldberg Scheuerman, Bessie's daughter -- thinks that there's no mystery here and that Smith was undoubtedly guilty of her mother's murder. In recent statements to the press, Scheuerman has even accused Junger of distorting the evidence to support a preconceived belief that Smith was innocent. But for the rest of us, the questions linger unresolved. And as Junger suggests at the end of this shrewd performance, "Maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true." ·
Gary Krist is the author of the novels "Chaos Theory" and "Extravagance." His first nonfiction book, "Iron & Ice," will be published next year.