In October, 1989, Charles Stuart murdered his wife and son. The hoax he used to try to get away with the killings was Goebbels-like in its design. For several critical weeks he deployed a community’s most deeply held fears to divide and deceive it. Charles Stuart was no innovator. He did not invent racial hatred and fear. We gave him the context. Stuart just used the materials we made to manufacture his crimes in the Devil’s laboratory that was his mind.
Today, police continue to seek ways to better understand the importance of legitimacy nd ways to burnish that legitimacy with all communities. The infamous Stuart Case reminds us of the importance of context and code words.
A refresher on the details. The Stuarts and their full-term unborn son left a birthing class at the Brigham on the evening of Monday, Oct. 23, 1989 and within minutes Charles called 9-1-1 to say a Black man high-jacked them and forced them to drive to the nearby Mission housing developments. There, a badly wounded and entirely convincing Charles told the operator, the Black man shot husband and wife and left them for dead. (I served as Boston Police director of media relations in those bad old days and got called around 9 pm as the Browns and Bears were kicking off. My wife’s due date was about the same time as Carol DiMaiti’s and as one of the first to buy the hoax I found myself unable to tell her where I had to go or why. Like a sitcom character I opened my mouth but no words came out.)
Sadness, remorse, anxiety: for several weeks in the end of 1989 they hung over Greater Boston like a shroud. Many suburban white people can recall having suburban Black friends and acquaintances all but apologize to them, so deeply did they feel about this crime against family and maternity.
We learned by January 4, 1990 that in fact Charles Stuart shot and his killed wife and son and shot himself in pursuit of criminal verisimilitude. He had the active assistance of one of the other members of the Greater Boston Evil Bastards Hall of Fame, his brother Matthew. (Eventually the whole family followed “Chuck” and “Mattie” into the Hall).
Charles Stuart understood context. Here is what we gave him to work with.
A still-unresolved history of racial fear and mistrust. When gang firearm violence erupted in Roxbury in the Spring of 1988, the BPD’s first response was to try to adapt its successful anti-crime tactics to the new phenomenon. They failed terribly. Beef-ups and crackdowns always got us a day’s reprieve in the media but only exacerbated the actual problem. The 95% law-abiding folks in the community wondered if the same aggressive approach would be used if the problem had emerged in a white neighborhood. The good guys felt middled by the cops on one side and the fresh — and freshly-armed — bastards on the other. They condemned the violence. They were afraid. Segregation had pushed the Black community into the three areas that branched off the trunk of Blue Hill Ave. as it runs from Dudley Street down to the Milton town line. In the context of segregation, and with a history of mistrust and racial warfare, they did not know where to turn.
An explosion of violent crime n the Black community, On Sunday, October 22, 1989, the frustrated police commander for the historically Black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester west of Dorchester Avenue and Mattapan held a news briefing at District 3 in Mattapan to summarize the weekend’s crimes and injuries. Dep. Superintendent Bill Celester told reporters, “People have to understand. This a war zone out here.” Billy grew up in that “war zone.” He spoke not to castigate his neighbors for that condition but to protest it on their behalf.
A flailing response to the violence. Boston did what every city does when first confronted with an emerging gang violence problems: deny it. Call it something else: groups, drug wars, whatever. In May, 1989, Deputy Celester and the captain in District 3, Bobbie Johnson, once again without the guidance of a constitutionally-sound strategy on the part of the City’s leadership, said they would sanction whatever it took for their personnel to reduce the killing, the dying and the fear in Black Boston. The get-tough tactics that emerged from this non-strategy strategy led a vainglorious Superior Court judge to issue a written opinion (read: press release) in a gun case announcing that because Boston Police followed a policy of unlawful searches of Black suspects, an officer could not have found the gun he testified to finding. He dismissed the indictments against two of the city’s original “impact players,” Melvin Woody and Lamar Phillips. The SJC later reinstated the indictment but essentially ordered suppression of the gun evidence.
On the heels of the Mathers announcement, October brought Boston its first month with double-digit homicide victims, of which DiMaiti mother and son were two. That trend would rage on through 1990 until February 1991.
When late in the night of Oct. 23 Mayor Ray Flynn said “every available detective” would join the investigation of the killings and shootings, Black residents heard that as “here comes 5-0 to kick in our doors.” Indeed the kicking down of doors in the Mission developments became urban legend right away. It did not matter that no evidence or photos of evidence exist anywhere of any door “kicked-in” by police nor that the Housing Authority was never asked to replace a single door or window. Suspect Willie Bennett, implicated by his own family members, was never held on suspicion of the Stuart shootings. He was arrested by Brookline Police on an arrest warrant for a video store robbery in that town. That fact did not matter. In the context of racial mistrust, Bennett was held as a suspect in the Stuart murders.
Have we learned from the that debacle in 1989? I think so. But every October we should remind ourselves.