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Wife Killing Puts Boston in Worst Racial Crisis in Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The full story of the murder of Carol Stuart and the son she was carrying may never be known, because Charles Stuart Jr. is dead now too, apparently having jumped from a bridge last Thursday upon learning that he had become the chief suspect.

But even as Boston police untangle the latest bizarre twists in a crime that has riveted the nation, this city is grappling with its anger and confusion.

“Boston got hoodwinked. There’s no question about it,” Mayor Raymond L. Flynn says.

Was Stuart’s suspected plot to kill his wife so extraordinarily cunning that an entire city cannot be faulted for having been duped? Or did Boston also fall victim to its own prejudices and stereotypes when it ignored inconsistencies in Stuart’s story and launched a manhunt that tore apart a racially mixed neighborhood?

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Last October the crime seemed to bring a suburban nightmare to life: Charles Stuart called police from his car phone to report that he and his pregnant wife had been shot by a black assailant who had forced his way into their car when they left a hospital birthing class. His frantic pleas--replayed over and over again, in print, on local broadcasts, even on national network news--compounded a perception that the inner city had become a violent wasteland.

In the end, it was not the investigative work of law enforcement agencies or journalists that brought Charles Stuart’s story tumbling down. It was evidence produced by Stuart’s brother Matthew, who reportedly did not want to see an innocent man sent to jail for the crime.

With this additional twist, the case has sent Boston into what Mayor Flynn calls its worst racial crisis since the court-ordered school desegregation sparked riots in the mid-1970s. Blame is now being hurled in all directions--at elected officials, investigators, the media and the city itself.

That Charles Stuart could send the city on such a misdirected stampede is “bizarre, but in Boston, not unbelievable,” says Bill Owens, the black state senator who represents the Mission Hill section in which the crime took place. “The racism in this city is so deep and ingrained that they wanted to believe who they believed, because they depicted the people in our community as animals.”

Still, Chuck Stuart’s account of the events of Oct. 23 was so compelling that even many of those who live in Mission Hill were taken in, ashamed at the idea of harboring a desperate killer in their midst. Indeed, Mission Hill residents themselves provided some of the evidence that made an innocent man from their community the focus of suspicion.

To understand the paranoia and hysteria that surrounded the murders of 30-year-old Carol Stuart and her prematurely delivered son, Christopher, it is important to consider the backdrop against which they occurred. In the 40 days that preceded the tragedy, Boston had been saturated with news reports of an unprecedented wave of 170 shootings that had left five dead and more than 100 injured in the inner-city neighborhoods that police identify as Area B. That area includes heavily black Roxbury, where the diverse enclave of Mission Hill is located.

These violent images were the only ones that many Bostonians had of daily life in the city’s minority neighborhoods. It seemed that there were “huge areas of urban Boston populated by crack-crazed black people running around with semi-automatic weapons,” says Mark Jurkowitz, media critic of the weekly Boston Phoenix.

“On day one (of the Stuart drama), all of us were willing to suspend disbelief and say it’s perfectly logical. It had this fundamental visceral appeal to everybody who could envision themselves in the Stuarts’ shoes.”

Black community leaders speculate that Stuart must have counted on these perceptions, and on an underlying racism, when he turned his car into Mission Hill that night after the birthing class at a nearby hospital.

“Here’s a man who is trying to get rid of his wife. Chuck Stuart didn’t drive into a white neighborhood to do it. He understood very clearly the mentality of the public. The emotional construct of white female endangerment by black male is such a strong emotional force,” says Chuck Turner, director of the Center for Community Action of the Episcopal City Mission in Roxbury.

If it had happened in a white neighborhood, Turner and others insist, the police and the media might have been more reluctant to accept Stuart’s story at face value.

Sure, there were nagging questions from the start. Why, for example, were the Stuarts taking an indirect route home? Why did the gunman kill the woman, rather than the man who would have been the bigger threat? How was it that she was shot in the back of the head, but he was wounded in the abdomen?

But no one was going to press these issues with a man who had been hurt so seriously that he was in the hospital for more than a month, a man grieving for his slain wife and the premature baby that died 17 days after being delivered by Cesarean section from her unconscious body.

Now there are reports, for the most part unconfirmed, that Stuart took out several large insurance policies on his wife, that he had previously plotted with his brother to kill her and make it look like a burglary of their house, that he was romantically involved with a striking 22-year-old blonde figure skating instructor whose picture is being splashed across television screens and newspapers here.

Divers Tuesday pulled a gun from a river that police suspect may be the murder weapon. The Boston Globe, citing unidentified sources, reported today that its registration numbers matched a pistol reported stolen from the fur shop where Charles Stuart worked. Stuart’s brother Matthew, 23, has said he met his brother at the crime scene, where Charles gave him some of Carol Stuart’s belongings and a gun. Matthew said he threw them into the river.

But there seemed to be little mystery in the days following the shooting. Charles Stuart, the 29-year-old manager of a posh fur store, and his tax attorney wife were idolized as a “Camelot couple” by the Boston Herald. The Boston Globe breathlessly described them as living a “shining life” and having “a relationship that by all accounts was so loving it warmed even those at its edge.”

Even now, some of those close to them have trouble letting go of the myth. “They didn’t argue. They seemed very happy,” Carol’s brother, Carl DiMaiti, said in an interview with a local television station. To the end, he added, Charles Stuart had played the role of grieving husband and father to the hilt.

Stuart had even arranged to go over to his in-laws for dinner last Thursday, the day he instead went to his death in the waters of Boston Harbor.

Following the murder, there was both sadness and anger in Mission Hill. Residents felt the killing had painted an unfair portrait of their little neighborhood, where the crime rate had actually declined 18% over the past year. Although Mission Hill is no stranger to drug dealing and other urban problems, only four murders had been recorded there since 1987.

They watched as more than 100 police officers fanned out over Mission Hill. At one point, city trucks even began digging up the sewers searching for clues.

“They were coming around here going crazy. The cops were checking everybody,” recalls George Brown, 27, a black resident of Mission Hill’s public housing project, a sprawling complex of worn red-brick buildings with grassless lawns.

The issue of random searches was already a touchy one in the black and brown community. Only weeks before the Stuart shooting, Owens and other black officials had obtained a court order demanding that the Boston Police Department abandon a policy of frisking young black males even when there was no evidence that they had done anything wrong.

State Superior Court Judge Cortland A. Mathers had likened the so-called stop-and-search procedures to “a proclamation of martial law in Roxbury for a narrow class of people, young blacks.”

In the wake of Carol Stuart’s death, however, “people in my own community got angry with me,” Owens recalls. “Some of them said they would be willing to give up their constitutional rights to have some activities stopped in their community.”

Other black leaders wanted to know why it took the murder of a white woman to bring such resources out to find a killer.

Mayor Flynn insisted that he was reacting as he would to any crime. However, James Moody, a 20-year-old black man, had been shot to death the same night as Carol Stuart, and “no mayor called about my loss,” his girlfriend, Sandra Williams, told the Globe.

The Stuart case became fuel for the causes that some politicians had already been pushing. Flynn tried to marshal public outrage to win support for his drive for higher taxes, pointing out that those taxes would provide more money for public safety. It did not work, and he was roundly criticized as having tried to exploit the crime for political purposes.

Others made it their rallying cry for reviving the state’s death penalty--an ironic move now, in light of the fact that an innocent man seems to have come within inches of being charged with the crime.

The performance of the police is also coming under scrutiny. Under intense pressure to solve the crime, police and district attorney investigators made it known they had a suspect. He was William Bennett, a 39-year-old black man who had spent most of his life in trouble with the law and who had served two terms in prison for threatening and shooting police officers.

Part of the case against Bennett was built on testimony from three neighborhood teen-agers who said they had heard the man make incriminating statements. Another Mission Hill woman said she saw him on the night of the murder holding a gun and wailing: “It wasn’t meant for the woman; it was meant for the man.” All these stories have since been discredited.

Bennett was arrested on unrelated charges, and was never publicly implicated in Carol Stuart’s death. However, unnamed police sources told local news media that Charles Stuart, seeing Bennett in a police lineup two weeks ago, had definitively identified him as the killer.

“I’m positive that had not these new revelations occurred, William Bennett would have been charged, convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his natural life,” Owens says.

Boston news organizations are on the defensive regarding their coverage, saying it was all based on investigative sources proven reliable in the past. But some journalists here acknowledge that they should have more aggressively pursued rumors that had begun to circulate suggesting that parts of Charles Stuart’s account did not wash.

PUBLISHERS SCRAMBLE--Publishers and literary agents scramble to develop books on the Stuart story. E1


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