You’re likely familiar with the tragic case of the Boy in the Box, an unsolved case of brutal child abuse that led to murder. This case occurred in Philadelphia four decades after that of the mysterious Boy but it had far less media exposure for this child was black and America is rife with racism. This child is known as Philadelphia’s Other Unknown Child. The four-year-old boy, who weighed only 41 pounds,was labelled The Boy in the Bag. It took nine years to identify the child and to solve the murder. In fact most people in Philadelphia were ignorant of the case.
In 2001, a woman from North Philadelphia arranged for the boy to have a funeral, and his ashes were buried in Juniata Park on Ash Wednesday, beneath a headstone saying “God bless this grave of this unknown boy.”
In March 2005 the case was finally solved after an uncle of the boy contacted police in February of 2005. Not surprisingly, like America’s Unknown Child the child’s life was horrendous. His last 24 hours “would make you cry.” The boy was beaten to death and stuffed in a duffel bag in Old City. His mother was a 32-year-old woman who was charged with abusing the boy’s corpse. The child’s skeletal remains were found on May 27, 1994, in the 300 block of North Lawrence Street. An autopsy showed that the boy had been beaten to death, with trauma to the head and torso. His remains were found, wrapped in bedsheets and a towel, inside a nylon bag underneath the Ben Franklin Bridge. A passerby found the skeletal remains, wrapped in bedsheets and a towel. The enclosed picture is a reconstruction based on the child’s skeletal remains.
After DNA testing, Alicia Robinson, 32, of the 6100 block of Reedland Street in Southwest Philadelphia, was arrested and charged. Alicia Robinson had nine children, all in the custody of the father of the two youngest. Robinson stated to police that she used public transit when she travelled to the bridge to deposit her son’s corpse. A “man of interest” was also a suspect in the little boy’s murder. The child’s name was unknown for a decade. The Rev. John McNamee said the woman who paid for the boy’s cremation and interment had even chosen a name for her “little fella.” Tarsicius, the patron saint of altar boys. He, too, was beaten to death. Tarsicius, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, was attacked by a group and beaten to death. Supposedly he was entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison but he preferred death at the hands of a mob rather than deliver to them the Blessed Sacrament.
Robinson finally revealed that her husband, Lawrence Robinson, was involved in beating the child to death. The little boy’s name was finally released: Jerrell Willis. For more than 10 years, relatives who had asked the Robinsons about the boy’s disappearance were given evasive answers. On the day of Willis’ murder, Alicia Robinson told investigators that she and her husband struck Jerell numerous times about the head in their apartment “around the time of a major snowstorm.” The boy became lethargic and then unconscious. His little body told a sad history. Numerous old fractures of the ribs were noted.
The local community was concerned about Willis and hadn’t turned a blind eye. The New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services had been in contact with the family before the slaying because of complaints about the boy’s treatment. Strangely, none of the complaints could be substantiated and the case was closed in 1993. Although the child’ identity and that of his killers was identified it hasn’t made the case any easier to bear. The mystery of Jerrell Willis’ murder lies in understanding how his parents could abuse and murder their own precious, helpless child. Just as bad, their efforts to disguise his horrific treatment and to fool relatives into believing the child was still alive remain unforgiveable.