Presumed Innocent

  • The appalling truth is out, although a tantalizing portion of it vanished forever when Charles Stuart jumped to his death into the icy waters of the Mystic River. A stunned city is left to wonder which is worse: the ease with which it embraced Stuart's lie that a black mugger murdered his wife for a bit of jewelry, or the knowledge that evil can wear an expensive suit, hold a respectable job, own a house in a pleasant suburb?

    By identifying the killer of his seven-months-pregnant wife as a raspy- voiced black man dressed in a jogging suit, Stuart tapped into assumptions about race and crime so powerful that they overwhelmed skepticism about his tale. His fabrication raised the curtain on a drama in which the press and police, prosecutors, politicians and the public played out their parts as though they were following the script for the television movie that CBS will make about the case.

    Instead of suspicion, Stuart 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 facadeof 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.

    Stuart's story was made more believable by the media. First came broadcasts of the tape of his frantic call from his car phone to the police dispatcher as he fought off unconsciousness to summon aid for his dying wife. Then came videotape of the crime scene, recorded by a television crew that just happened to be traveling with emergency workers on the night of Oct. 23. Too gruesome to be broadcast in its entirety, it showed 30-year-old Carol Stuart, her head blasted open, her abdomen bulging, being pulled from the bloodstained front seat of the couple's Toyota.

    Stuart's story gained even more credibility because of the severity of his wound. Though he apparently meant to shoot himself in the foot, he somehow ended up with a bullet in his abdomen. It was hard to imagine that anyone would inflict injuries so severe that he would need two operations, ten days in intensive care and six weeks in the hospital, that he would damage his bowels, gall bladder and liver merely to deflect suspicion from himself.

    Stuart, 30, played the role of tragic victim with the boyish charm of a Ted Bundy, the dazed innocence of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. His farewell letter to his wife, composed in his bed at Boston City Hospital and read at the funeral by his best friend, was a tour de force of grief. "You have brought joy and kindness to every life you've touched. Now you sleep away from me. I will never again know the feeling of your hand in mine." Many at the crowded funeral at St. James Church in Medford, the very church where he had been married four years earlier, sobbed out loud. Among those who attended: Governor Michael Dukakis and the mayor. Lying in the hospital with tubes running in and out of his body, Stuart asked to hold his son Christopher one last time. Delivered two months prematurely by caesarean section, the baby died after 17 days. Every emotionally wrenching moment made the newspapers and nightly news.

    Stuart was also protected by the enormity of his crime. Statistics show that almost a third of all women who are murdered are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Yet the mind recoils from the notion, from the all but inhuman possibility, that a man would slaughter his pregnant wife and unborn child, whose birth he had been preparing for in childbirth class only minutes earlier.

    Before Stuart was out of the hospital, the police dragnet found a suspect: William Bennett, 39, an unemployed black who had spent 13 years in prison for crimes that included shooting a police officer. 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.

    But what Stuart did not count on in his perfect crime was that Matthew Stuart, 23, could break down. Matthew admired his brother's quick rise from slinging hash in a Revere restaurant at little more than the minimum wage to manager of a fashionable fur store on Newbury Street selling expensive coats to Back Bay dowagers. Charles may have thought that his younger brother would always be as grasping and pitiless as he was. Matthew seems to have borne out Charles' faith for two months.

    No one yet fully understands the pact between the two brothers. According to some reports, they planned various schemes for moving faster up the ladder both yearned to climb. One source says that Charles had a plan to kill Carol while Matthew faked a burglary of their house.

    Whatever transpired, by New Year's Day Matthew reportedly become distraught and worn down. At Reardon's pub in Revere after a concert in Boston, Matthew was so depressed that a friend thought he was considering suicide. "I've got to do it, got to get it over with. I'm destroying myself," a friend recalled him saying. Matthew explained he wasn't talking about killing himself. "You don't understand. That's not what I mean. When it happens, you'll all know. The whole world will know."

    Before the whole world would know, Matthew warned his family. It is still not clear what the Stuarts knew or when they knew it. According to Richard Clayman, attorney for Matthew's brother Michael, within three days of the murder Matthew confided to Michael that Charles had been involved. And Clayman, who presented four of the Stuart siblings at a press conference in his Chelsea office last Thursday, said Charles may have approached Michael weeks before Carol Stuart's death in an unsuccessful effort to enlist him in the murder plot.

    On Tuesday, Jan. 2, Michael telephoned his half sister Shelley Yandoli from the Revere fire department. She told him that all of Charles' siblings, including Matthew, would meet at their parents' house. Like all calls to and < from the fire station, it was recorded:

    Shelley: We're going to tell Mom and Dad.

    Michael: What are you going to tell them?

    Shelley: We're going to tell them we know that Chuck was involved. We're not going to say that he killed her.

    Michael: Yeah, right.

    Shelley: O.K.

    Michael: Wow.

    Sometime after that family meeting, Charles learned that Matthew planned to go to the police. At around 4 p.m. on Jan. 3, a neighbor spotted Charles pulling into the driveway and going into his Harvest Road house for a few minutes. A short time later, he arrived at the office of his family's lawyer, John T. Dawley, where he spent the next three hours.

    Dawley had spoken to Matthew earlier. Now he told Charles it would be a conflict to represent either of them. Dawley gave Charles a list of four defense attorneys and suggested that he go to a nearby phone booth and call one. Instead, between 9:30 and 10 o'clock that night, Stuart checked into Room 231 of the Sheraton-Tara in Braintree, a Boston suburb. The clerk remembers that he had no luggage, used a credit card and asked for a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.

    At 2 a.m. on Jan. 4, Stuart left his room and walked to a nearby all-night mini-convenience store attached to a Mobil station. The clerks, who pay attention to late-night customers out of fear they might be robbed, remember that he was dressed in a black pullover sweater with white trim and black slacks and purchased soda and a snack. "He was grinning from ear to ear," says Stephen Newcomb. "He was very up, very bubbly and very friendly, but very weird." As Stuart left the store, he turned, still smiling, and asked if the store was open all night. The attendants answered yes. "O.K.," Stuart answered. "I might see you in a while. I might get hungry again."

    Those may have been his last words. He never went back to the store. Sometime after his wake-up call, he left the hotel, drove ten miles to the Tobin Bridge in his new Nissan Maxima and jumped. When police fished him out of the water, he was dressed in blue jeans and a parka, suggesting that he may have picked up a change of clothes after leaving the convenience store. Stuart left a brief note on the passenger seat of his car that said, "I love my family . . . the last four months have been real hell . . . all the allegations have taken all my strength." Later, police searching his hotel room found an ashtray filled with change, the uncalled list of defense attorneys and one of the colostomy bags Stuart was forced to wear after his surgery.

    Leaping from the bridge was the end for Charles Stuart, but it was just the beginning of the soul searching, self-recriminations and finger pointing by the police and the press. Outraged blacks, many of whom had swallowed Stuart's story as readily as had their white counterparts, let loose a torrent of protest at police mishandling of the case. They were also outraged by the saturation coverage the crime had received, which to them seemed to indict the whole black community.

    Mayor Flynn visited Bennett's mother to apologize for the suspicions that had been focused on her son. Flynn devoted half of his 22-minute State of the City address last week to what he called "a giant fraud on this city." Said he: "It turned out that we were all victims of a sinister hoax . . . especially the residents of the good Mission Hill community."

    Matthew Stuart may be the only hope of finding out what actually happened that night. Even after his meeting with police, his exact role is far from clear. He has not been arrested, perhaps because of a Massachusetts statute that immunizes blood relatives from prosecution as accessories after -- though not before -- the fact.

    Matthew has reportedly told police he expected to receive $10,000 for helping his brother in a vague insurance scam. After a dry run the night before the murder, Matthew showed up at the designated rendezvous point. He took Carol Stuart's Gucci bag from Charles. It contained her wallet, makeup and engagement ring as well as the gun. Matthew then went to the home of his best friend, John McMahon, who traveled with him to a railroad bridge in Revere. After removing Carol's engagement ring from the purse, Matthew flung the bag into the river. Then McMahon, at Matthew's bidding, heaved the pistol 25 ft. away from the bridge into the muddy Pines River. That part of Matthew's story proved true. Police divers recovered the bag at the location Matthew, and then McMahon, described. Six days later, divers found a nickel-plated, snub-nosed .38 revolver whose registration number matched that of a pistol missing from the safe at Kakas & Sons furriers, where Charles worked.

    But some of Matthew's story raised a new set of unanswered questions. How could Charles, suffering from such a severe wound, pass a heavy bag to Matthew? How could Matthew, as he claimed, not have seen his sister-in-law's body slumped in the front seat of the car? Even his motive for going to the police seemed in doubt. Matthew's attorney asserted that he came forward out of concern that an innocent man might be prosecuted for Carol's murder. But on Friday the Boston Herald reported that he broke only after his girlfriend informed her parents about his involvement and they in turn took her story to an attorney on the day before Christmas.

    The Stuart family seemed an unlikely source for a monster like Charles to spring from. Charles and his siblings grew up in Revere, a blue-collar, predominantly white suburb north of Boston. Charles Sr., an easy, gregarious man, tended bar at a tavern called the Dublin and often served as toastmaster at Knights of Columbus banquets. He had two daughters by his first wife. Charles Jr. was the first of four sons of a second marriage. Always attractive and popular, Charles was never much of a student. He went to Immaculate Conception school, and then Northeastern Metropolitan Regional Vocational in nearby Wakefield, a school for boys who weren't college material. He played basketball and baseball, was a member of the gourmet club. A picture in his yearbook shows him standing under a white chef's hat. He graduated in 1977 and soon got a job as a cook, first at Reardon's, a local pub owned by a cousin, and then at the Driftwood restaurant, where he met Carol DiMaiti, a dark- haired, lively waitress and the only daughter of Giusto DiMaiti, who tended bar there.

    While the Driftwood was a rung on Charles' career ladder, it was just a summer job for Carol, who had been an outstanding student at Medford high school and a member of the National Honor Society. An honors graduate of Boston College, she was working at the Driftwood to help pay her way through Boston's Suffolk Law School.

    A difference in aspirations and temperament did not keep them from falling in love. Carol was cheerful and outgoing, while the always smiling, ever gregarious Charles kept friends guessing about what he was really thinking. On Oct. 13, 1985, they were married.

    By then, Charles had become general manager of Kakas furs. He had lied on his application, saying he had won an athletic scholarship to Brown University (which awards none), but the managers were so impressed by Stuart's composure and charm that they would have hired him anyway. Stuart seemed to enjoy his job, or at least the things his eventual $100,000-a-year salary could buy. The Stuarts purchased a slate-blue clapboard house in suburban Reading. In the back was a heated pool that the Stuart brothers, a world away in dingy Revere, loved to use. Several times Carol invited co-workers from Cahners Publishing, where she worked as a lawyer, for weekend pool parties. To neighbors, the Stuarts were a devoted couple, jogging together around a nearby lake, kissing each other at the door as they went off to work each morning. Colleagues recalled that Carol always ended her frequent phone calls to her husband by saying she loved him. Carol's brother Carl called the marriage the "perfect relationship."

    Just ten days before the shooting the couple traveled to an inn in Connecticut to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary. If there had been any trouble in the marriage, says a friend, "she would not have kept it to herself." Adds another: "She was the kind of person who would tell you what she had for breakfast -- and how it tasted." In hundreds of interviews with people who knew the Stuarts, only one seemingly minor complaint has emerged. Carol once confided to Maureen Vadjic, who sometimes jogged with her on Saturday mornings, that she objected to Charles' staying out late on Friday nights. Says Vadjic: "She'd tell me, 'He came home late last night. I yelled at him, why do you go out? I'm pregnant. Don't you have any concern for me?' "

    There is some evidence that Charles did not want to have a baby. The Suffolk County grand jury last Friday heard testimony from a truck driver from Lowell who was a classmate of Charles' at Northeastern Vocational. According to the witness, Charles asked him to help do away with his wife. Interviewed earlier by a Boston television station, the classmate said that Charles considered Carol's pregnancy a hindrance to his plans to open a restaurant and wanted her to have an abortion. "He had plans to go into business for himself," he said. "He didn't want to spend his life busting his ass for somebody else."

    The portrait of the marriage is as incomplete as the picture that has so far been painted of Charles' siblings. One of Charles' brothers was involved in a scheme that led to Carol's murder; another, who appears to have known three days after the shooting that Charles was the killer, never told the police. They all grieved publicly over Carol and the baby. Matthew even helped carry Carol's coffin to her grave. The news of Charles' suicide initally elicited ^ sorrow from his in-laws, who had been expecting him for dinner that very night. They thought he did it out of grief. Mrs. DiMaiti had planned to cook chicken because it would be easier on Charles' mangled intestines.

    A psychopath requires no motive for his horrendous deeds, but that has not stopped the search for one. Looking around for some love interest, investigators stumbled upon Deborah Allen, 23, who worked with Stuart for two summers at the fur shop. After Stuart's suicide, police discovered that she had used Charles' credit card to telephone him almost daily at the hospital. They also learned that several weeks before he killed his wife, Stuart and Allen visited her former prep school.

    The day before Allen's Jan. 3 birthday, Stuart bought a $250, 14-karat gold brooch at a jewelry store in Peabody. He made the purchase about the same time his family was meeting to discuss how to handle Matthew's confession. Allen says she never received the brooch and that the calls were made only after a mutual friend said Charles complained that she had never contacted him. She used the credit card so the calls would not show up on her parents' telephone bill, because they had warned her not to get involved. She, in fact, has a steady boyfriend who goes to Brown (the school Stuart faked on his resume). She was more important to Charles than Charles was to her, perhaps because she fit into Stuart's deluded vision of himself as a fashionable restaurateur -- he the proprietor and chef, she the Waspish blond out front.

    In hindsight, all the holes in Stuart's story look painfully obvious. Why did Stuart, who had been to Brigham and Women's Hospital several times before, drive to Mission Hill instead of toward his house after the childbirth class? Why did the robber not shoot him first rather than his less threatening wife? After the assailant jumped out of the car, why didn't Charles head back toward the hospital instead of driving around aimlessly? During the 13 minutes he was on the phone with the dispatcher, he could not identify any street signs or landmarks in a city where he had lived and worked all his life. During the conversation with the dispatcher, he never tried to comfort his wife, never called her name. In the ambulance to the hospital, he only asked about the seriousness of his own wound, and never about his wife's condition.

    Days after Stuart left the hospital, he picked up an insurance check for $82,000. He immediately purchased a $22,000 Nissan Maxima, trading in the | bloodied Toyota and paying with a $10,000 cashier's check. Besides the brooch, he purchased a $1,000 pair of diamond earrings at the Ostalkiewicz Diamond Importers. There may have been more insurance money to come, from additional policies on her life.

    Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg writes of the psychopath who can perfectly mimic a human personality without having one: "They obtain very little enjoyment from life other than from the tributes they receive from others or from their own grandiose fantasies, and they feel restless and bored when external glitter wears off and no new sources feed their self-regard." Stuart had tired of selling minks and perhaps of his wife, who was about to realize her own dreams of a family, dreams he did not share. As stupefying as it seems, Stuart apparently carried out his monstrous deed only to remake himself into a glamorous restaurateur. Against such vanity and deceit, as Carol Stuart -- and Boston -- found, there is no protection.