The Charles Stuart case is one of the most seismic crimes in modern Boston history. The shooting death of Carol Stuart — and the chaos that ensued — forever changed how the city sees itself. Yet for decades, many have gotten key parts of the story wrong.
A team of Globe journalists recently reexamined the case, poring through thousands of pages of police reports and grand jury testimony, and interviewing hundreds of people. Reporters uncovered new truths about the botched police investigation, sought out the stories of many of those most affected, and took a deep look at the impact of the case and its legacy on Boston.
Early on, police ignored multiple tips that Chuck was the killer
To some, Stuart’s claim that he and his wife had been shot by a Black man immediately seemed suspicious. The first detectives on the case — Robert Ahearn and Robert Tinlin — found several holes in his initial story, from the path he took leaving the hospital to the description of the area where they were shot. It reminded them of a case they’d worked before, where a man had shot himself to deflect suspicion after robbing and killing a man in Boston’s red-light district.
But police brass sidelined Ahearn and Tinlin as pressure to find the shooter grew. Ahearn received a tip weeks later that Chuck had asked a friend for help in murdering his wife, but dropped the lead after the friend denied the allegations in a phone call.
A State Police trooper working dispatch on the night of the shooting also got the same tip within days of Carol’s death. But that trooper — Dan Grabowski — appears to have done nothing with the information.
At least 33 people knew the truth behind Carol’s death, long before the police
Stuart’s brother Matthew confessed to being an accomplice, helping get rid of the murder weapon and some of Carol’s belongings. Matthew maintained throughout his life that he was unaware — until after the shooting — that Chuck had planned to kill Carol.
Within hours of Carol’s death, Matthew began telling people in his orbit that Chuck was the murderer. Matthew’s friend John McMahon, who helped him get rid of the gun, also told several people in the following days.
The Globe ultimately found at least 33 people knew Chuck was responsible for Carol’s death before Matthew went to the authorities. Eleven of them knew the truth by the day of Carol’s funeral — two months before Chuck picked Willie Bennett out of a police lineup.
The case against Willie Bennett was flawed from the start
The police case against Willie Bennett largely centered on the testimony of two teenagers — Erick Whitney and Dereck Jackson — who reportedly heard that Willie was the shooter. Though the teenagers’ stories shifted multiple times and they attempted to recant just a day after making their statements, prosecutors used it as a basis for building the case against Willie.
Some of those prosecutors and detectives continued to believe for years Willie Bennett was involved in Carol’s death, despite evidence to the contrary.
Matthew Stuart may have played a larger role in the shooting
Though Matthew Stuart denied seeing Carol in Chuck’s car, there’s evidence that he or someone else may have played a larger role in the crime. Three witnesses said they saw a third person in or near the Stuarts’ car that night, around the time of the shooting.
The chief doctor who treated Chuck — and had seen hundreds of gunshot wounds in Vietnam — was also adamant that he could not have shot himself. The Globe spoke to two other doctors involved in Chuck’s care at the time who agreed it was implausible his gunshot wound was self-inflicted.
Lewis Gordon, an independent forensic consultant interviewed by the Globe, reviewed material collected by Globe reporters and determined that he couldn’t settle on an definite conclusion. “We just don’t have enough information to reach a conclusion one one way or the other.”
The crime and its aftermath shaped a generation of people in Mission Hill
The Stuart case may now be a part of the city’s lore, but it’s also stayed with many people. Walk around Mission Hill now and you’ll hear from people who still vividly remember the months after the shooting in 1989: when countless Black and brown boys and men were stopped by police, or questioned multiple times as detectives searched for the shooter.
Tito Jackson, a former city councilor and mayoral candidate, recalled being forced to strip outside the Tobin Community Center as a teenager and being humiliated in front of a crush. Because of his interaction with police, DonJuan Moses, who was an 11-year-old boy during the Stuart case, keeps a dashboard camera in his car today in case he’s ever stopped.
“Cops just ran through the projects and just ripped it apart,” Moses said. “That stopped everything.”
Willie Bennett’s sister, Veda, said she still dreams of the Stuart case decades later. “If I go to sleep, I might hear a knock again,” she told the Globe. “For people to say it’s over with... it’s never going to be over. They can say that because it didn’t happen to them. This is where it started, so I’m never going to forget.”