Casey Sherman’s path to Hollywood started with a murder five years before he was born.
Mary Sullivan was just 19 when she was strangled in her apartment at 44-A Charles Street in Boston on January 4, 1964, the last of 13 victims attributed to the Boston Strangler. Sullivan’s sister Diane, then 17, would become Sherman’s mother, and the murder’s toll on their family would drive him to investigate the controversial case, starting with college journalism classes.
“My aunt was the reason I went to BU,” says Sherman (COM’93).
He went on to a career as a producer for WBZ-TV and an author who focuses on true crime. His first book, published in 2003, is the story of his aunt’s murder, A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler, which questioned the guilt of prime suspect Albert DeSalvo. Eventually, Sherman’s focus on justice expanded to include an appreciation for real-life heroes. His fifth book, 2009’s The Finest Hours, cowritten with Michael J. Tougias, describes a courageous Coast Guard rescue off Cape Cod in 1952. A film version, starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, was released in January 2016.
But that film was only the first Sherman had a hand in this year. Patriots Day, starring Mark Wahlberg and based in part on Sherman’s eighth book, Boston Strong: A City’s Triumph over Tragedy, published in 2015, opens on December 21. The book, written with Dave Wedge, chronicles the Boston Marathon bombings and follows the survivors as they grapple with severe physical and emotional injuries for months, and years, afterward. (A planned Boston Strong production was combined with another film on the same topic to avoid splitting the audience, a common Hollywood practice.)
“I never knew my aunt Mary, but I knew the hold her death had on my family,” the Hyannis native says over a lunchtime beer at a pub near his South Shore home. “The murder was never talked about. I knew Mary only as a portrait on the mantel at home. I heard whispers about it when I was growing up, but I never felt comfortable asking about it.”
As a teenager in the 1980s, Sherman watched the Tony Curtis movie The Boston Strangler on TV. “The next day, I said, ‘Mom, tell me about Mary,’ and she said, ‘Casey, Mary wasn’t just a statistic. She was my sister and my best friend.’” Her long-held façade gave way to tears.
“I said, ‘Mom, at least they got the guy.’ And she looked up at me and said, ‘I don’t think they did.’”
One of his first assignments at the College of Communication was a five-minute investigative report on the case. The late Jim Thistle (COM’64), a COM journalism professor and director of the broadcast journalism program, was Sherman’s advisor. “We would have these great conversations in his smoke-filled office, and he would say, ‘Behind every story is a real person, and don’t forget that.’ And he knew I wouldn’t because of what happened in my own family.”
DeSalvo had confessed to the Strangler murders, but was never tried; imprisoned for other crimes, he was stabbed to death in the maximum security prison MCI-Walpole in 1973. Inconsistencies in the investigation led many to suspect that DeSalvo was not the killer. In 2001, a team of forensic scientists exhumed Mary Sullivan’s remains and discovered what they believe was the killer’s DNA on Sullivan’s body. That DNA evidence did not match DeSalvo. A Rose for Mary recounts the adult Sherman’s investigation of the case, focusing on problems with the evidence and political maneuvering, and pointing the finger at another suspect. But in 2013, new DNA testing established a near certain match between DeSalvo and seminal fluid from the crime scene. DeSalvo’s exact role in Sullivan’s murder has never been determined. By then Sherman had written both novels and true-crime books and had sold Finest Hours to the movies.
A story worth telling
On April 15, 2013, Sherman was a few blocks from the Marathon finish line when the bombs exploded on Boylston Street. He didn’t face the carnage that took lives, limbs, and peace of mind, but like many people in Boston, he was gripped by the week’s events. Friends immediately suggested that his next book should be about the bombings. He had no interest in the project, he says, until he realized here was a story “about the goodness of people as opposed to the terror we’re watching on screen. It was hearing about the first responders and the people at the scene and these survivors and thinking, that’s a story worth telling.
“I know what murder is and what death is,” Sherman says. “I know what the impact is on a family. But I also understand people need to know the stories of real heroes.”
He and his friend Wedge, who covered the bombings and the aftermath for the Boston Herald, committed to collaborating on a book “that would tell the story as fully as we could, and not just what happened in those five days,” he says. “We wanted to imbed ourselves with those survivors and see what their life was like every day, the highs and the lows.”
“He really knows how to get to the heart of a story and tell it in a really compelling but compassionate way,” says Wedge, who met Sherman when he did a Herald story on A Rose for Mary. “We said, what’s going to matter here is telling the stories of the people that survived, and not only what happened to them, but how they moved on from it.”
Spending hours with the family of murdered MIT Police officer Sean Collier was an experience Sherman says he’ll never forget. “We went in there not asking questions about Sean Collier the police officer. I was more interested in Sean the brother, Sean the son. What music did Sean listen to? Sean was a little brother—was he a pain in the ass? Was he fun?”
He and Wedge joined 100 survivors on a healing cruise for survivors, first responders, and family members in France six months after the bombing, where meals and sightseeing alternated with candid talk about their struggles.
“That’s when we understood not only the devastation that the Tsarnaev brothers wrought, but also the incredibly tight bonds that were created because of it,” Sherman says. “Total strangers came together at the worst moments and are now inseparable.”
Sabrina Dello Russo was blown to the ground by the second explosion on Boylston Street, suffering cuts and bruises, a mild traumatic brain injury, and temporary hearing loss. She didn’t meet Sherman until the cruise, but now considers him a friend, “a kind person” who cares about the survivors.
Dello Russo was in front of the Forum restaurant on Boylston Street with her friend Roseann Sdoia, who lost a leg in the bombing, and she is still working to overcome PTSD from that day. She acknowledges that she’s anxious about seeing the movie, but she’s determined to go. “There are things that trigger all the memories of what happened that day—the trailer did,” she says. “But somebody was going to make a movie about it, and I would much rather it be based on my friend’s book.”
Boston Strong made the Boston Globe’s local best-seller list and topped Amazon’s true crime category. Sherman now has a few other projects in the works, including what he calls a CNN “true-crime travel show”—he recently shot a pilot for the show in Boston. He and Wedge have also started a production company for various TV and movie projects. But Sherman’s literary efforts remain the focus. The two men are working with local resident Pete Frates and his family on Challenge, a book about Frates’ battle with ALS and their creation of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised millions for the charity. And Sherman and Tougias are writing Above and Beyond, focused on two U-2 pilots caught up in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sherman expects both books to come out in late 2017 and hopes to develop both into films.
“I think we’ve got an entire generation that believes heroes only exist in Marvel comic books and Avengers movies, when in fact there are real heroes around us every day,” Sherman says. “Whether it’s 1952 and a small lifeboat off the coast of Cape Cod or 2013 on Boylston Street, you have ordinary people jumping into the fray, for the mission of saving somebody’s life. That, to me, is a story worth telling.”