Thursday, April 24, 2003

Can DNA testing solve '30s mystery?

Can Ness' letters ID 'Torso' killer?

The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - Police hope that DNA testing of mail sent to Eliot Ness will provide clues to the unsolved "Torso Murders" that terrorized the city nearly 70 years ago.

From 1934 to 1938, pieces of seven men and five women were found in fields and alleys and floating in streams and the Cuyahoga River. Only seven heads were recovered and only three victims were identified.

The killings, which stopped as suddenly as they started, frustrated investigators and shook Cleveland as the city was recovering from the Great Depression.

At the suggestion of a documentary filmmaker, police plan to see if DNA material from the letters and postcards link the slayings to Dr. Francis E. Sweeney, who died in 1964.

"It's a huge lead," said Dave Holcombe, executive director of the Cleveland Police Historical Society. "This could turn out to be the biggest development in the case since those days."

Ness, the famed Chicago "Untouchable" who was Cleveland safety director at the time of the slayings, received postcards and letters for years afterward. They had various signatures, including an "F.E. Sweeney, M.D."

It has been speculated that the rambling postcards were written by the torso killer to taunt Ness for his failure to solve the case. He had a suspect but lacked enough evidence to file charges.

Sweeney lived and practiced near the Kingsbury Run area, where several of the victims were found.

Genetic material on the back of the postcard stamps could be compared to Sweeney, who is buried in a Cleveland cemetery.

The correspondence has been part of the Western Reserve Historical Society collection since Ness' death in 1957.

DNA testing plans will be outlined Saturday during a centennial celebration of Ness' birthday sponsored by the Cleveland Police Historical Society.

Mark Stone, a producer-director from nearby Lakewood, suggested the DNA testing when he shot scenes at the police museum two months ago for his documentary about the slayings.

Patrolman Tom Armelli, a museum member, took the suggestion to the police department, which hopes to arrange for transfer of the mail to detectives and the coroner.

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