Sep 6, 2011

Two Shots, a Bitter Twist, and a Splash: The Legacy of Charles Stuart

Before there was Scott Peterson, there was Charles Stuart.

Charles and Carol DiMaiti Stuart. Photo via The Boston Herald.
If you lived in Boston in 1989, you recall how Carol DiMaiti Stuart's murder preoccupied the community and fanned flames of racial disharmony throughout the city.

I remember mornings at my house, listening to the scratchy AM-frequency reports on our clock radio, WEEI’s newscast interspersed with the spritzing of my mother’s Niagra spray starch as she ironed her blue chambray shirt. The case played out like the 80s soap operas my parents would never let me watch, with what seemed to be a new plot twist unfolding with each morning’s bowl of Rice Krispies.

It all began on October 23, 1989, when Charles Stuart and his very pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, were on their way home from a birthing class. That’s when emergency dispatchers received a call from Charles Stuart stating that he and his wife had been shot by a Black man wearing sweats, who had also robbed them of their valuables.

Despite the fact that one-third of women murdered in the US are killed by their husbands, and despite the fact that Stuart had very recently taken out a hefty life insurance policy on his wife, police never investigated him as a potential suspect in the homicide.  From Time:

Instead of suspicion, Stuart was showered was showered with sympathy. The media apotheosized the couple as starry-eyed lovers out of Camelot cut down by an urban savage. Some politicians attended Carol's funeral; others called for the death penalty. Mayor Raymond Flynn ordered all available detectives to work on the case. Hundreds of men in Mission Hill whose only connection to the case was that they were young and black were stopped and frisked.

The massive manhunt in all the wrong places tied up police for weeks. No one had time to look for cracks in the smooth fa├žade of the husband who tended his rhododendrons, jogged with his wife and shoveled snow off an elderly neighbor's steps. Few of the leads were followed that might have revealed a psychopath who had taken out large amounts of life insurance on his wife, possibly to finance the opening of a restaurant, a pathetic aspiration that shattered two families and a city's racial peace.

Eventually, police arrested William Bennett, a 39 year-old Black man with a past criminal record that included shooting a police officer. Police claimed that Bennett’s nephew said Bennett had boasted to him about committing the robbery and murder (although the nephew later recanted that statement, saying police pressured him into making it). Also from Time:

According to the police, Bennett bragged to his 15-year-old nephew that he had robbed the Stuarts and taken their jewelry. In the warrant the police obtained to search Bennett's home, they underlined the recollection that Bennett said he told Stuart, "Don't look in the rearview mirror." Those words were almost identical to the ones that Stuart, in a brief interview with the police right after the shooting, claimed the killer used. Already in custody on a charge of robbing a Brookline video store, Bennett was placed in a lineup as soon as Stuart was well enough to come to the station. Stuart picked out Bennett as a man who resembled the killer. With that, hope vanished that the police might look for flaws in Stuart's story.

And with another bowl of Rice Krispies, the story was coming together in a package neater than Mayor Ray Flynn's glass of Maker's Mark "down the bar" at JJ Foley's.

What nobody counted on disrupting that packaging—least of all Charles Stuart and the BPD—was the conscience of a man named Matthew Stuart, brother of Charles Stuart.

In the days surrounding the December holidays, a near-suicidal Matthew Stuart, overwrought with guilt and anxiety, confided in his family that he had aided his brother in the murder of Carol DiMaiti. On January 4, 1990, Matthew Stuart went to the police, where he confessed.  He told authorities that Charles had planned to kill his wife so that he could cash out on the life insurance policy he had taken out on her, as well as to escape his impending fatherhood, with which he had grown greatly apprehensive. According to Matthew Stewart, his brother not only shot his wife, but also inflicted a gunshot wound to his own abdomen to make the scenario of a robbery more believable. On the evening of the murder, as Charles phoned for help, Matthew took the gun and the couple’s valuables and drove them to Revere, where he dumped them off the Pines River Bridge.

Matthew Stuart, at his brother Charles'
funeral in 1990. Image via AP.
Charles Stuart, aware that his brother was about to make this confession, drove to the nearby Tobin Bridge that same day. Within hours of Matthew’s appearance at the police station, Charles Stuart had jumped to his death, into the icy waters of the Mystic River.

And with that, the mystery was solved, leaving in its wake outrage from Boston’s Black community (as local journalists like the ethically challenged Mike Barnicle scrambled to defend the actions of the police), heightened racial tensions, distrust of law enforcement and, of course, Matthew Stuart. Oh, and in true Masshole-ian form, some predictably offensive but admittedly funny Charles Stuart jokes (thanks for reminding me of them, Franklin Davis):

Q: What's the difference between Charles Stuart and Larry Bird?
A: Larry jumps before he shoots.

Q: How do you make the new "Charles Stuart" drink?
A: Two shots, a bitter twist and a splash.

Q: What's the first thing Charles Stuart said when they pulled him out of
the Mystic River?
A: A big black guy in a running suit pushed me!

Matthew Stewart plead guilty to conspiracy, insurance fraud, and possession of a firearm. He was released from prison in 1995, but soon after was arrested on drug charges, which were later dropped.

This past Saturday, he was found in his room at a Cambridge homeless shelter, dead from an apparent intravenous drug overdose.

According to those who knew Matthew Stuart well, he found solace in the fact that few around him did.  Indeed, the conscience he sought to clear with his confession two decades prior haunted him, disabled him even, for the rest of his life.  From the Boston Globe:

Yesterday in an e-mail, a friend described Matthew as a man tormented over the killing, which aggravated racial tensions in the city and led police to initially focus on William Bennett, a black man who had a criminal record at the time of the investigation.

“In my opinion the ‘demons’ of that October night in ’89 never stopped torturing him,’’ said the friend, Steven Gerard.

Today, Michael Stuart, brother to Charles and Matthew, told the Boston Herald that "he fought for 22 years to save his tormented kid brother from the demons of his role in the murder of their pregnant sister-in-law".  He says that after Carol's murder and Charles' suicide, "his troubled brother 'never could shake' his battle with the bottle. 'He went through his trials with alcohol. We spent years trying to create opportunities for him. It always seemed like one step forward, two steps back.'”

I wonder, 22 years ago, could Charles Stuart have predicted the legacy his actions would leave on both the city and the families involved? Had he successfully carried out his diabolical plan, would the city’s race relations ignited in the way in which they did, and on as many different levels? Would the suspiciously shoddy investigation by the Boston Police Department ever have been scrutinized by the community, or caused such overwhelming distrust of law enforcement? And what would have become of the tortured Matthew, had he kept the secret and not sought redemption? 

Had the terrible secret been kept, would it have changed anything? Or would the only difference be that Charles Stuart "walked" instead of jumped?

What are the broader implications of one man’s evil? Or, perhaps more importantly, of another man’s conscience?

Carol DiMaiti Stuart
Charles Stuart
Matthew Stuart

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The Lazy Paperboy said...

Isn't true crime just the best? Obvious exceptions noted for those involved, of course.

It wasn't as dramatic as the Stuart case, but when I was little and not even a paperboy yet, a family friend was murdered very publicly. Lazy as I was, it took a long time before my sleepy eyes weren't popping open at the slightest creak of a door or the floor. Or my imagination.

tsada kay said...

Wow. Sorry to hear about that, TLP.

You know what was the most disturbing thing about writing this post? When I tried to find out what happened to Willie Bennett (the Black guy originally accused of the Stuart murder), I couldn't find anything. Just that he was released when Matthew confessed.

Is he dead? Is he alive? How did being framed in this case affect his life? Nothing. It's as if he never existed...

Anonymous said...

You're welcome. :)

Anonymous said...

Not sure how true this tea is, but I hear Willie is alive. I also heard he robbed a video store in 1990. Before that in the very early 80's, robbed and shot a cab driver who was a double amputee. In the late 60's or early 70's shot a cop.

Again, I cannot be sure how true any of this is. Could be bullshit.

You're welcome :)

Take care.

Anonymous said...

There was a similar case like this in Wisconsin, in which a (White) man named Jesse Anderson killed his wife and attempted to blame it on a Black man. However, in the Wisconsin case, the police were skeptical of his story, so they didn't suddenly ransack the state's Black community. In the end, Anderson was arrested. Ironically, he was killed in prison about two years later by the same man, who was Black, who beat Jeffrey Dahmer to death.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Yeah, murdered by a black racist in prison, but no one says a thing about that.

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