Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Death in Belmont

Sebastian Junger, best known as the author of the huge bestseller, The Perfect Storm, has one of the spookiest family photos that one can imagine. In that 1963 photo, baby Sebastian and his mother are posing in celebration with the construction workers who have just completed a project at the Junger home. What makes that photo so unusual is the fact that one of those workers is none other than Albert DeSalvo, the man who was soon to confess to the Boston police to being the infamous Boston Strangler.

That photo and the family's exposure to Albert DeSalvo became part of the Junger family folklore and it is the jumping off point for Junger's A Death in Belmont. The death referred to in the book's title happened just one mile from the Junger home and, although it bore all the earmarks of a Boston Strangler murder, a jury ultimately decided that it was the work of a black man, Roy Smith, rather than being another Strangler murder. Belmont, in 1963, was an all-white Boston suburb in which violent crime was unheard of so the murder there of Bessie Goldberg was something which its residents found hard to believe.

Naturally, the Junger family's brush with murder remained a family topic of discussion for years to come, and Sebastian Junger grew up believing that an innocent black man had been convicted of a murder that had actually been one of the more than a dozen that were committed by Albert DeSalvo instead. Some 40 years after the Strangler murders, Junger decided to see if it would be possible to determine which of the men was responsible for the Goldberg murder and A Death in Belmont is the result of his efforts.

Junger managed to find and interview in detail most of the still living members of Roy Smith's family and the reader comes to know and understand Smith well enough to judge for himself whether or not Smith was capable of the type of crime suffered by Bessie Goldberg. And much of the book goes into all the possible motivations that Albert DeSalvo may have had for confessing to the Strangler murders, whether or not he was the actual killer. Because anticipation of Junger's ultimate conclusion as to which of the men killed Goldberg and whether or not DeSalvo was, in fact, the Boston Strangler, is part of the fun of reading this book, I am not going to note his conclusions here, however.

A Death in Belmont is an extremely well-researched book and Junger's style makes it read more like a novel at times than the non-fiction speculation that it is. I listened to the audio version of the book and was impressed with Kevin Conway, its reader, who did an amazing job on the various accents of the many voices quoted throughout the book. Conway was able to shift easily from the Boston accent of DeSalvo to the southern black accent of Roy Smith and his family and his talents added much to my appreciation of the book.

Rated at: 3.5



    Journalist, Sebastian Junger, a native of Belmont, Massachusetts, has authored a purportedly true-crime mystery involving the strangulation murder of my mother, Bessie Goldberg, a Belmont resident. Albert DeSalvo, a worker at the Junger home, who once confessed and later recanted to the role of “The Boston Strangler” and Roy Smith, a black ex-con, convicted of the crime, are Junger’s two suspects.

    An old photograph is cleverly used as the foundation for this inaccurate and misleading tale. Posing for the camera are Junger, as a toddler, his mother, and two workmen one of whom is identified as the infamous Albert DeSalvo. Junger’s dishonest attempt to create a mystery by casting doubt on Smith’s conviction exploits the story of my mother’s tragic death. Manipulating the reader with incomplete facts and false arguments Junger denigrates the police and the jury as racist and unfair.


    On March 11, 1963 Roy Smith was sent to our home at my mother’s request by the Division of Employment Security, a state employment agency, as a day worker to clean our house. The interviewer at the agency, Mrs. Martin, later testified that she thought she had smelled liquor on Smith’s breath. When she asked him if he had been drinking, he replied, “No” and took a step back. Smith was given an identification card and instructions to 14 Scott Rd., Belmont. Although three witnesses testified that Smith arrived at our home between 12:45 and 1:00 p.m. Smith told police he had arrived before noon. Smith told police he knew he had left our home at about 3:45 because the clock at the nearby pharmacy where he stopped to buy cigarettes read “quarter to four”. Neighborhood children coming home from school at 3:05 p.m. saw Smith walking quickly away from Scott Road. Witnesses at the pharmacy testified that Smith made his purchase shortly after 3:00. Smith told police he had finished the cleaning, left the house in order and had been paid $6.30 ($1.50 per hour for four hours plus 30 cents for transportation).

    When my father arrived home at 3:50 he found my mother’s body and quickly called the police. The house was in disarray. Only one room (the sunroom) of the three rooms Smith claimed to have cleaned was actually in good order. The police found that the living room was in the process of being cleaned, as most of the furniture was in the middle of the room, the couch was pushed to one corner, living room ornaments were on the dining room table and the vacuum cleaner, with attachments was in the center of the room. Alfred King of the Belmont Police Department stated, “A broom with a cloth over the broom end was at the entrance.”

    Junger states on page 54, “Smith was refusing to admit to the murder, but neither could the police catch him in a significant lie.”

    On page 256 Junger says, “The cops wanted to know what time he left the Goldberg house, and he told them the truth.” “The fact is he never lied about what he did that day.”

    1. Smith lied about his time of arrival at 14 Scott Road

    2. Smith lied on two occasions about his time of departure from 14 Scott Road.
    He spent two hours at our home instead of the four he had claimed.

    3. Smith lied when he told police the house had been cleaned and everything was in order.

    4. Smith told police he had been paid $6.30 at a rate of $1.50 per hour. Had my mother been alive when he left he would have been paid for only two hours.

    5. Smith’s handprints were found on the vacuum cleaner, the living room mirror and the mantel over the fireplace. Smith said he never touched the mirror or the mantel.

    Before my my father left for work he gave my mother a ten dollar bill and five singles to pay the cleaning man. The day before, March 10th, he had left my mother $7.00, but she had not spent all of it.

    Smith told police he had $2.00 with him when he arrived in Belmont and he had been paid $6.30. When Smith was arrested on March 12th he had in his possession $3.20. Using Smith’s statements to the police and the testimony of his friends during the trial it was clear that Smith spent approximately $15.00 between the time he left Belmont and the next day when he was arrested. A salesman at a liquor store testified he saw Smith with a ten dollar bill, a five dollar bill and some singles on March 11th. Smith could not account for the $15.00 he spent plus the $3.20 found on his person.

    Smith spent the evening of March 11th drinking with friends in Cambridge. Smith’s friends offered to drive him to his home in Boston. As the car slowed down in front of Smith’s apartment house Smith noticed two plainclothesmen. Smith told the driver to “speed up”. After some drinks at a nearby bar Smith’s friends once again attempted to drive him home. They all returned to Cambridge after Smith told them, “Go faster, they are still here.”

    Smith spent the night in Cambridge with his friends. He was arrested in Cambridge on March 12, 1963.

    Smith was tried for 1st degree murder, rape and larceny in November, 1963. He was convicted of murder and robbery, but acquitted of rape. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated the day before the jury retired to reach a verdict.

    At no time did the authorities believe Roy Smith to be the Boston Strangler. We were told on the night of my mother's death that Smith, a career criminal, had been incarcerated during the time of most of the "strangling murders."
    The police told us it was a COPY CAT murder to cover up a robbery.

    In 1966 Smith appealed unsuccessfully to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The attached opinion upholding the conviction includes the strong circumstantial evidence.

    [350 Mass. 600]
    Middlesex. February 7, 1966. -- April 15, 1966.
    Present: WILKINS, C.
    2. There was no error in the denial of the motion for a directed verdict. The evidence was circumstantial. The jury could have found as follows: On the morning of March 11, 1963, the defendant walked from his apartment at 175 Northampton Street, Boston, to the district office of the Division of Employment Security on Huntington Avenue. Between 11:45 A.M. and 12 noon he left that office with an identification card introducing him to Mrs. Goldberg at 14 Scott Road, Belmont, and a slip directing him to that address. The interviewer at the employment office, thinking that she detected liquor on the defendant's breath, had asked if he had been drinking. He had "leaned a little backwards . . . [and] said no" and the interviewer, then thinking he had not been drinking, had sent him out. The defendant arrived at the Goldberg house about 12:45 or 1 P.M. He later told the police that he arrived before noon and left at exactly 3:45 P.M. The jury could have found, however, from the testimony of several other witnesses, that he left the house at about 3:05 P.M. Israel Goldberg the murdered woman's husband, telephoning from his place of business in Chelsea, spoke with his wife at about 2:20 P.M. Goldberg arrived home at about 3:50 P.M., found his wife's body in the living room and telephoned the police. They arrived in a few minutes and found Goldberg excited, nervous and hysterical. Mrs. Goldberg had been strangled with one of her stockings; the disarray of her garments and the bodily exposure (with the later report of a microscopic examination and related testimony of Goldberg) tended to show rape. The living room was in disorder, most of the furniture was in the middle of the room, the divan was pushed to one corner, living room ornaments were on the dining room table, and the vacuum cleaner, with attachments, was in the center of the living room.
    Page *605
    Palm or fingerprints, later identified as the defendant's, were, in due course, found on the mantel in the living room, on the mirror hanging above it, and on the vacuum cleaner. After his arrest, the defendant told the police that he cleaned several rooms, got all through with his work and left the rooms in order; also that he did not clean the mirror, that he "didn't have anything to do" with it and he did not recall seeing a mantel.
    Children coming home from school about 3 P.M. and soon thereafter playing ball in the street saw the defendant on the street near the Goldberg house and saw Goldberg come home; they did not observe anyone else in the street near the house in the interval. Their opportunity for observation extended over a good part though not all of the time between the defendant's departure and Goldberg’s return. A practical nurse employed in the house next to the Goldberg residence was watching the children in the street from about 3:25 P.M. until about 3:45 P.M. She saw no one around the Goldberg house other than the children. She saw Goldberg come home.
    The defendant spent the night of March 11-12 in the apartment of Mrs. Dorothy Hunt, in Cambridge, drinking with friends. When he arrived Mrs. Hunt observed that "he had had something to drink." She was then cooking supper; she has supper "between five and six." The defendant had most recently been with Mrs. Hunt in late October, 1962. On March 11 he brought liquor and beer with him and went out twice in the evening to buy more liquor. Later, at a time placed by one witness as between 12 midnight and 1 A.M., William Cartwright, one of the companions of the evening, drove the defendant, another man, and Mrs. Hunt to Boston in Cartwright's car intending to go to the defendant's house at 175 Northhampton Street. They did not stop at the house. In Northhampton Street the defendant directed Cartwright to "slow down" and then to "go faster, they are still here." Cartwright saw two men standing in front of the building that the defendant pointed out. Police officers were watching that building from
    Page *606
    11:30 P.M. on March 11, or midnight, to 5 or 5:30 A.M. on March 12. The defendant was with Mrs. Hunt on March 12, 1963, until arrested in the afternoon, going out with her and her daughter to an optometrist's and to a coffee shop in the morning.
    The defendant told the police that he had $2 with him when he went to Belmont on March 11 and that he was paid $6.30 for his work at the Goldberg house. He had $3.20 with him when arrested. Goldberg had left bills (one in the amount of $10, five in the amount of $1) on the night table in the bedroom before leaving home in the morning, after having a conversation with his wife. This was for her use in paying the expected cleaning man. He had given his wife $7 on March 10 for some purchases; she had not spent it all. In the afternoon of March 11 her pocketbook was found open on top of a bureau with the wallet missing. The money was gone from the night table. The defendant on the evening of March 11 was seen with a ten, a five and some one dollar bills when he purchased whiskey. He made other purchases and expenditures between 3:05 P.M. on March 11 and the time of his arrest on March 12. The total of these was in the range of $15.
    This evidence was sufficient to take the case to the jury. (FN 5) Commonwealth v. Richmond, 207 Mass. 240 , 243-245, 246-247. Commonwealth v. Smith, 342 Mass. 180 , 182-184. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 . Commonwealth v. Connors, 345 Mass. 102 . See Commonwealth v. Bonomi, 335 Mass. 327, 356, and cases cited. "Reasonable and possible" inferences were enough. Commonwealth v. Merrick, 255 Mass. 510 , 514. The jury could have found unusual opportunity, motive, possession after the crime of unexplained funds, incriminating action in leaving the house in disorder and the work unfinished, and subsequent conduct and false statements showing consciousness of

    Page *607
    guilt. Evidence of consciousness of guilt, while not conclusive, may with other evidence be sufficient to prove guilt.
    Commonwealth v. Curry, 341 Mass. 50, 55, and cases cited. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 , 713.
    This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact, such as Commonwealth v. Fancy, 349 Mass. 196 , 200.

    Leah Goldberg
    You can reach me for questions
    at lemargold at yahoo. All information is documented.

  2. Following is a review of “A Death in Belmont” published by the WALL STREET JOURNAL

    "The Perfect Muddle": Sebastian Junger's new book
    SATURDAY, APRIL 08, 2006



    APRIL 8, 2006
    Word Count: 1,379
    A Death in Belmont By Sebastian Junger Norton, 266 pages, $23.95
    The courtroom scene in Sebastian Junger's "A Death in Belmont" is one of the book's dramatic highlights. In 1963, a black man named Roy Smith is on trial in Cambridge, Mass., for murder. He has been falsely accused of the crime, Mr. Junger suggests, by a racist legal system that is overlooking the more likely killer: the Boston Strangler. When the all-white jury convicts Smith ...
    of murdering Bessie Goldberg, Mr. Junger reports, the victim’s daughter, Leah, is in the courtroom, thinking that the man who killed her mother “looked utterly impassive, as though he expected this and didn’t much care.”

    The shipwreck in Mr. Junger’s best-selling “The Perfect Storm” (1997) left no survivors, but many of the people involved in the story of Bessie Goldberg’s murder are still alive. For instance: Leah Goldberg (now Scheuerman). It turns out that she was not even in Massachusetts on the day Mr. Junger describes. She remembers exactly where she was, because the date was Nov. 23, 1963—the day after the assassination of President Kennedy. “I was in Connecticut, glued to the TV, like everyone else in America,” Ms. Scheuerman told me. She also recalls her mother’s age when she died: Bessie Goldberg was 63. Mr. Junger says she was 62.

    I called Ms. Scheuerman and other principals in the case, including prosecutors and Smith’s defense attorney, because so many of the book’s descriptions raised red flags that I felt compelled to get at the truth of the matter. I’m a district attorney, and reading “A Death in Belmont” seemed like going through the files of a bungled investigation.

    Roy Smith, an ex-convict with an extensive criminal record and a drinking problem, was sent by the Division of Employment Security to clean the home of Bessie and Israel Goldberg on March 11, 1963. Bessie was home alone in the upper-middle-class suburb of Boston. Witnesses saw Smith leave the house 45 minutes before the arrival of Israel Goldberg—who discovered his wife’s body and came running outside, shouting that his wife had been murdered. The house was in disarray; money was missing; Bessie Goldberg had been strangled and her clothes were torn.

    That night, Smith went on a drinking spree with more money than he could later account for, dodging the police until he was eventually arrested the next day. Although the crime occurred at a time when the city was in a state of high tension over killings that had been dubbed the “Boston Strangler murders,” Smith was quickly eliminated as a suspect in those crimes because he had been in jail on unrelated charges when most of the murders were committed.

    In the Goldberg killing, a wealth of circumstantial evidence convinced a jury that Smith was the killer (he was acquitted of a rape charge—which would seem to undermine the suggestion that Smith was the victim of a racist rush to judgment). Mr. Junger discusses the death penalty at length, creating the impression that Smith might well have faced execution, but Massachusetts had functionally abolished capital punishment, executing its last inmate in 1947. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

    MR. JUNGER WRITES that “the truly innocent are both a kind of prison royalty and uniquely damned, and for one reason or another, Roy Smith joined their ranks.” The wrongful conviction of this “truly innocent” man is core to the book, but the more I looked into the case, the more I realized that Mr. Junger had selectively chosen facts and quotes from sources that would tell the story he wanted to write. The author doesn’t use direct quotes from Smith’s long-time defense attorney, Beryl Cohen, or from the prosecutors in the case, or from any of the principal characters in the case. Leah Scheuerman told me that she spoke with Mr. Junger but then became so concerned about the direction of his story that she withdrew her cooperation.

    Mr. Junger maintains in the book that the entire prosecution was based not on catching Smith in a lie but on his truthful statements to investigators: “The logical problem with the state’s case … is that its core elements are known only because he told the truth.” Yet Smith’s own words to the police are damning.

    It would take a book in itself to address all the gaps and tangled thinking in “A Death in Belmont,” but let’s take one point: As Leah Scheuerman observes, if we do indeed accept Smith’s word that he finished cleaning the house and left at 3:45 p.m. (witnesses put the time at 3:05), then, given that her father arrived at 3:50, there would have been only five minutes for anyone other than Smith “to break down the back door, kill my mother, mess up the just-cleaned house, move the furniture around and somehow place Smith’s fingerprints on a mirror he told police he had never touched.”

    Smith’s case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court—a fact that would seem ripe for use in a book concerned with his wrongful conviction, but Mr. Junger does not mention it. The legal challenge didn’t center on malfeasance suggesting Smith’s innocence but on the contention that the jury should not have been deliberating with emotions running so high over President Kennedy’s assassination. As the court stated, rejecting the appeal: “This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.”

    “A Death in Belmont” is a story of personal importance to the author. When Mr. Junger was an infant living in the same town as the Goldbergs around the time of the murder, his parents hired a contractor who in turn used a worker named Albert DeSalvo—the man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler. But readers expecting Mr. Junger to have unearthed new evidence pointing to DeSalvo as Bessie Goldberg’s murderer will be disappointed; there isn’t any.

    RUTH ABRAMS WAS one of the two assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Smith. She went on to serve on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and retired in 2000. Mr. Junger interviewed Ms. Abrams, but she is not mentioned in the book. Ms. Abrams told me that she remembers the case well and that she never doubted Smith’s guilt. “Either Smith did it or her husband did,” she says, “and all the evidence pointed to Smith.”

    Though at some junctures Mr. Junger says he’s wrestling with the question of Smith’s guilt or innocence, the pose in unconvincing. “All governments are deceitful—they’re deceitful because it’s easier than being honest,” he writes. As a consequence, he says, “there are significant numbers of innocent people in prison.”

    That thinking conforms with the message sent by many popular books, movies and TV dramas. But a real-world study last year, led by University of Michigan Law Prof. Samuel Gross, documented just under 400 exonerations between 1989 and 2003—out of more than 10 million felony convictions. Mr. Gross says he suspects that many more exonerations went uncounted, but even if the actual number of wrongly convicted innocents is 10 times Mr. Gross’s count, the legal system is 99.998% accurate.

    Far from being later exonerated (as Mr. Junger implies and as publicity material for the book outright claims), Smith was simply the beneficiary of the generosity of Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts’s governor at the time, who commuted his sentence in 1976. (Prisoners “are getting out right and left,” Smith wrote from prison. “This year’s been like cake and honey for lifers”). Smith’s guilt or innocence was not addressed; the commutation was issued—as Smith’s defense attorney told me—strictly because of the convict’s good behavior and his failing health. Smith died of cancer three days after being paroled.

    In the afterword of “The Perfect Storm,” Mr. Junger tells of a dream he had in which a key character who died aboard the Andrea Gail comes up to him and says, “So you’re Sebastian Junger. I liked your article,” and then shakes his hand.

    I wonder if Bessie Goldberg will ever visit Mr. Junger in the deeps of his dreams.

  3. Sam - thanks for your review of this book. It is a book I've been thinking about reading because I've read other works by this author and enjoyed them. I've always been fascinated by the Boston Strangler case.

    Ms. Goldberg - the information you provided in your comments is interesting, especially for those of us who might pick up Junger's book. I can understand why you might feel compelled to set the record straight.

  4. Ms. Goldberg, thank you very much for your two long "comments." I had reached much the same conclusion for myself despite all of the doubts expressed by Mr. Junger about the identity of your mother's murderer.

    The alternative circumstances suggested by Mr. Junger would have had to fall so perfectly into place that I doubt that anyone other than Roy Smith was the killer. There are simply no other explanations, in my mind, as to why Smith would have left your mother's home before he had finished the cleaning that he was sent there to do for your parents. Junger, at least as I recall, never clearly addressed that issue at all.

    Again, thank you for your comments. They are much appreciated.

  5. Wendy, I do think that the book is well worth reading, primarily for all of the information that it provides about the old Boston Strangler case itself. As Ms. Goldberg said, her mother's murder may have been purposely made to look like one of the Strangler murders in order to cover the tracks of the real killer. The only thing that bothers me about that theory is the fact that Roy Smith impressed me as being a really stupid criminal. Maybe he had the "smarts" to think that far ahead, but it would have been one of the few "smart" crimes that he committed in his life. The book portrays him as in the running for the Top 10 list of dumb criminals.

  6. Actually, I was told by one of the prosecutors just before the trial
    that Roy Smith's IQ was very low.
    Junger says Smith took college courses in prison; I have never looked into the truth of that claim.

    Casey Sherman wrote "A Rose for Mary, the Hunt for the Real Boston
    Strangler". He investigates the death of his mother's younger sister who was murdered in 1964. I
    believe this book is carefully researched, although I am no expert
    on the subject.

    My only real knowledge is about my
    mother's death. My comments on this page were mostly concerned with evidence although the book is
    inaccurate and misleading all the way through.

  7. Thanks again, Ms. Goldberg, for your comments.

    I think that Roy Smith proved early on that he was not a very bright criminal when he stole cotton from a local cotton farmer and tried to market it at the cotton gin despite the fact that it was known that he was not sharecropping with any farmer in the area. Showing up at the gin with his car trunk filled with cotton shows just how incompetent a criminal he made. It's that type of thing that convinced me that he was stupid enough to commit the murder of your mother despite the fact that all trails would so easily lead directly back to him...especially not having even finished the cleaning job for which he was hired before leaving the home.

    Thanks, too, for the book title concerning the Strangler murders. I appreciate that.