Skip to content

Boy in the Box Joseph Augustus Zarelli identified by at-home DNA kit


It was nearly Christmas in 2017. Justin Thomas was doing some holiday shopping on Amazon when he saw a deal of the day for Ancestry.com and decided to buy a DNA Activation kit for his girlfriend as a gift. But soon after the kit came in the mail, they broke up and Thomas figured, why not try it himself?

After taking the test, Thomas said he learned a little bit about his family’s lineage – many of his distant relatives hailed from Italy. He didn’t think much more about it, he said.

» READ MORE: After nearly 66 years and thanks to DNA advances, Philly’s ‘Boy in the Box’ has a name: Joseph

Then, last year while he was at work, Thomas said he got a “random phone call” from a woman who identified herself as Misty Gillis, a forensic genealogist and cold case liaison with Identifinders International. She said he was a match to a “cold case in Philadelphia” but she needed more DNA to crack the case. Thomas called his mom who agreed to provide a sample.

“I walked my mom through it,” said Thomas, a 40-year-old engineer who lives in Northeast Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, Thomas said his sister texted him to say that Philadelphia police had just released the name of the “Boy in the Box”: Joseph Augustus Zarelli.

“I feel sick,” Thomas said his sister wrote.

“I saw ‘Zarelli’ and my mouth kind of hit the floor,” Thomas said, recognizing a close family name.

» READ MORE: What we know and don’t know about Joseph Augustus Zarelli, also known as the Boy in the Box

Thomas said his family believes that the boy is likely a first cousin to his mom. The last name of his mom’s uncle is “Zarelli.” His grandmother’s brother is a Zarelli. The Zarelli family lived in West Philadelphia before moving to Delaware County, he said.

Thomas, who is married with 3-year-old twin girls said he was stunned and heartbroken after reading more about the boy and the horrific injuries he sustained.

“Now that I have two young girls and seeing his pictures and hearing the story, I’m really upset about it,” Thomas said. “It strikes home. It’s horrible. I can’t imagine.”

» READ MORE: How DNA sleuths identified the ‘Boy in the Box’ after six decades

He said he was still processing the revelation. “I want to talk to everyone in my family to try to understand,” he said.

As for his hand in cracking the nearly 66-year-old case, Thomas said, “I’m glad to be part of the puzzle in helping them solve it. It’s good to get some closure and I guess the next step would be to try to figure out the wrongdoing.”