Who is the Boy in the Box?

by longformphilly

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Sabrina Rubin Erdely | Philadelphia Magazine | November 2003

An old man sits on an aqua couch in a pink room. Soon he will visit a little boy’s grave. But first he leafs through the white binder in his lap, turning its plastic pages with a patient hand. Here is the typewritten autopsy report, dated February the 25th, 1957. Here are fading aerial photographs of the farms and woodlands surrounding the crime scene, taken with his own Speedgraphic camera. Here are photos of the battered boy laid out on a metal gurney, nude but for a white handkerchief draped over his groin for modesty’s sake. Here are copies of newspaper clippings from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and so forth, the past bleeding into the present. And here are snapshots of the old man himself, and of his police department colleagues, through the years. Black-and-white pictures of them in the ’50s, young and purposeful and efficient-looking in high-waisted pants and short ties. Color four-by-sixes of them today, in white slacks and baseball hats, thicker around the middle and a little worse for wear but still alive and kicking. Still searching for that thing—that one thing. It’s the thing they have yet to resolve, the one thing they still haven’t made right. It’s the one thing the old man needs to take care of before it’s too late.

The little boy would be 50, 51 years old if he were alive today, but in Bill Kelly’s mind he is still a child. Time has stood still for the boy, but not for the man. He has circulation problems now, and age spots on his skin, and white hair he combs neatly back each morning, and a plastic pillbox of medicines he takes daily, some with food, some on an empty stomach. He’s been living on God’s green earth for 75 years. He’s seen a lot during that time—some of which he’d rather forget, frankly—and yet Kelly remains singularly haunted by this case, by this one little boy, who has been on his mind for the better part of 46 years. It’s the one case he couldn’t close, the one mystery he couldn’t solve. Kelly knows time is running out. He leans in to study a close-up of the boy’s face for the umpteenth time. Who are you? he wants to ask. What is your name?

Time to go.

Writer bio: Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, served as a senior writer and writer-at-large at Philadelphia Magazine for a combined 13 years. She has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award twice. She is currently a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

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