Penthouse Retrospective

by Joe Sharkey Originally Published: June, 1991

Chuck Stuart | 30 Years Ago This Month

Did the running suit have stripes? Most did.

Chuck nodded shakily.

“What color?”

“Red.”

With the cop still firing questions, the ambulance lurched off to Boston City Hospital, where a prior arrangement guaranteed the television crew access to the emergency room. The camera stayed with Chuck, whose agony would be excerpted the next evening on newscasts across the nation, as the emergency staff hurried to prepare the critically wounded young man for surgery.

“My wife,” Chuck muttered as he lay naked on the table with the commotion raging around him.

“She went to another hospital,” an intern told him briskly. “We can’t keep an update because we’re taking care of you, okay?”

“Okay,” Chuck replied softly. Chuck sensed now that he would live, but he was still terrified. What if she regained consciousness?

A voice startled him. It belonged to an admissions clerk, addressing him in a businesslike manner. “Charles,” she asked, “is there anyone you want us to call for you? Charles?”

“Yeah?” Chuck said, blinking into the bright lights. He hadn’t anticipated being asked such a simple thing.

“Is there someone you want us to call for you?” the woman repeated.

“No.”

“No?” Shrugging, the woman left.

Several nurses thought his response so odd that they began noticing other things about the handsome young man who had just been savagely attacked on the streets of Boston. For example, the way he kept licking his lips and mouthing words with his eyes closed, as if by rote. One nurse leaned in close enough to hear him repeating in a whispered monotone, “Shot me, shot my wife. Black male. Shot my wife. I ducked. Shot me.”

Carol died that night. Her baby, delivered prematurely by emergency cesarean, died two weeks later. Accompanied by screaming headlines and breathless television reports, the Stuart shootings seemed to underscore the theme of random urban violence that had been sounded for months during a circulation war between Boston’s competing newspapers, the Globe and the Herald.

Furious over the assault on “the Camelot couple,” as the Stuarts were referred to in the media, police poured into the Mission Hill neighborhood in search of the black killer Chuck had described. Hundreds of young black males were stopped, searched, and questioned. Finally, police believed they had found their man: Willie Bennett, a 39-year-old ex-convict who had once shot a cop. While the district attorney’s office built its homicide case, Boston’s media proclaimed Bennett as the primary suspect in the murders of Carol Stuart and her infant son. In December 1989, Chuck Stuart himself picked Bennett out of a police lineup.

As the new year dawned, Bennett’s indictment on two counts of homicide was anticipated within days. But on January 3, suffering from what were described as pangs of conscience, Chuck’s brother Matthew went to authorities and finally told what he knew. Stunned, District Attorney Newman Flanagan immediately switched gears and ordered the arrest of Chuck Stuart.

But the wily Chuck Stuart foiled him. Early on the morning of January 4, after hearing what his brother had done, Chuck drove to the Tobin Bridge over Boston’s Inner Harbor in a new Nissan Maxima he had just purchased with insurance money collected from his wife’s death. Hours later — just three weeks after his 30th birthday — Chuck Stuart was pulled dead from the icy waters.

For months afterward, amid allegations of racism and recklessness directed at both the police and the media, the Boston area seemed consumed by the implications of how readily the hoax had been accepted by white Bostonians. “Boston got hoodwinked,” Mayor Ray Flynn conceded, though he steadfastly defended the actions of police in the case.

But in mid-December 1990, the Massachusetts attorney general issued a scathing investigative report that documented a widespread pattern of “illegal conduct” by Boston police officers in stopping and searching blacks. “Repeatedly, the police appear to have threatened, coerced, and offered favors to obtain testimony that would implicate Willie Bennett,” the report concluded.

Willie Bennett never did get out of jail. In building their case, authorities also implicated Bennett in the unrelated robbery of a Brookline video store; he was convicted of that last October and sentenced to 12 to 25 years in prison.

Meanwhile, it appears likely that the criminal case will never be officially closed. At the district attorney’s stubborn insistence, the grand jury homicide investigation continued to sputter along well into 1991, investigating Matthew Stewart’s role in the case. But Matthew, protected under an eighteenth-century Massachusetts law that says people aren’t legally required to report knowledge of a crime committed by a blood relative, maintained throughout that he had known nothing more about the murders than what he said the day before Chuck’s death.

In an appropriate coda to the 1980s, the case appears to have ended among lawyers, in a fight over money. Early this year, the family of Carol Stuart filed a civil suit against the estate of Chuck Stuart, seeking “in excess of $500,000” for the murders of Carol and her infant son. The suit has since been settled, but the lawyers wouldn’t disclose the terms.

For more painful thoughts about the scope of the Chuck Stuart plot, consider it in terms of its ability to rely on a racist foundation. Think about that as you judge modern political movemments.

Sadly, the Chuck Stewart story has been going on for centuries and shows no signs of slowing going forward. Love can be a dangerous dance.

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