Last Thursday afternoon, the team of Globe reporters that recently reexamined the Charles Stuart case hosted an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit focused on the “Nightmare on Mission Hill” web series and the “Muder in Boston” podcast.
Below are some highlights from the AMA, which has been condensed and edited for clarity. Questions are in bold from Redditors who participated.
How long did it take to put this series together and how did you decide how to organize everything for the podcast?
Brendan McCarthy: We worked on this project off and on for about two years. The last five months were especially hectic.
The idea goes back to the spring of 2020, after George Floyd’s death. Globe reporters produced on several stories examining the practices and failings of the Boston Police Department. The stories highlighted longstanding problems around racial justice and police accountability.
They reflected the unresolved legacy of the Stuart case and its many unanswered questions. It became apparent that the lessons of the Stuart case had not been learned. The recommendations made to reform policing in the wake of the case had not been implemented. And the people whose lives were shaped by the case had never had a chance to fully tell their stories.
Is there anything included in the podcast that’s not in the web series?
Kristin Nelson: There are some things included in the podcast that are not in the web series. For instance, Tito Jackson and Ron Bell recall their interactions with the police in the second episode of the podcast, but they didn’t fit into the web series. There are different quotes and excerpts used on the different platforms. You hear a lot more from in their own voices in the podcast.
What was the most surprising discovery while re-investigating the case?
Elizabeth Koh: One of the most surprising findings was how many people knew Chuck was behind Carol’s murder before the truth came out. At least 33 people were told or found out Chuck was the mastermind, and some knew for months yet never went to police. We also found police ignored or dropped multiple tips that could have led them to Chuck much sooner, even while they were searching for the suspect in Mission Hill.
I was a young adult in 1989, I had just started practicing at a downtown Boston law firm. What is your assessment of the role of the media in the obsessive focus on this murder? My recollection of the wall-to-wall coverage and speculation was that the media increased the frenzy.
BM: The Globe, as well as the Boston media at large, helped fuel the hysteria around this case. Among the many mistakes: a lack of skepticism of Stuart’s storyline as well as the one proffered by police; inadequate newsroom diversity and connections to Boston’s Black community; the lapse of journalistic standards and rigor in a rush to publish the latest salacious scoop; a collective fawning over the grief of a white suburban couple shot in the city, which fed into racial tropes. The media didn’t just fan the flames, it helped light the fire.
I think Adrian did a terrific job in his column (and in Episode 8 of the podcast) examining the media’s role.
Adrian Walker: As someone who was involved in the original coverage, I don’t think there’s any question that the media contributed greatly to the frenzy. Remember that this was a time when homicides were tragically common in Boston, but this was treated right from the start as a crime like no other. The narrative of an innocent white couple attacked in a Black neighborhood proved irresistible (though untrue.) And with that, the rush was on, with terrible results Boston is still living with.
Who was the hardest interview to land for this project?
KN: Retired Boston police officer Billy Dunn was also a challenging interview to secure. Our colleague, Evan Allen, had many conversations with him before he agreed to sit down for a recorded interview. In the end, he talked for over five hours.
AW: The hardest interview to land was with Joey Bennett. He’s the nephew of Willie Bennett, who was one of the named suspects. He eventually agreed to talk with us after first making a licensing deal with HBO in exchange for an interview.
The one retired police officer who was interviewed (I forget his name) was really mask off with the racism and abuses of power. Were any other cops from the time interviewed or did they appear to understand what they did was wrong?
EK: Billy Dunn was the only police officer from this time who agreed to speak with us about this case. Everyone else in the Boston Police Department who we reached out to declined to participate in this project.
How much of a jackpot did it feel like to get Billy Dunn to agree to an interview and to have him answer the questions with the frankness that he did?
BM: It felt like a jackpot to get anyone who was close to the case. Initially, the reporting team put together a spreadsheet of about 400 people that were somehow involved, connected, or affected by the shooting. This was everyone from officers like Dunn to folks like DonJuan Moses. Unfortunately, nearly all of the officers around this case declined to talk. We certainly tried. We sent letters, knocked on doors, left messages.
It took some time for Dunn to agree to chat but I think he’d say today that he’s glad he did. His one ask of us was not to ambush him, to allow him to offer his take. That’s what we did.
AW: I’m certainly glad Dunn agreed to talk. His recollections drew some of the most powerful responses of anything in the series.
Do you think he [Billy Dunn] was avoiding any topics or holding anything back with the questions you did ask?
AW: Having listened to Billy Dunn’s five-hour interview, I don’t think he held back in the slightest.
Is there anyone who refused to talk for the podcast who wished they had after it was released?
AW: I’ve heard from a high-ranking police official who really liked the podcast and said he wishes he had agreed to talk to us.
First off, I watched the series. I was born in early 80′s so while this was a huge story it was all new to me. You touch on early in the documentary that there were two detectives that early on that immediately thought that it was Stuart but then got pulled off the case then we never really hear about or from them again. What became of them?
EK: Robert Ahearn and Robert Tinlin, the first two detectives assigned to the case, immediately had suspicions about Chuck but were pushed aside early on in the investigation. Ahearn actually got a tip a few weeks later that Chuck had asked one of his friends for help killing Carol — but dropped that lead after a brief phone call in which that friend refused to cooperate and denied knowing anything.Both Ahearn and Tinlin are dead — but we spoke to Tinlin’s son at length in our podcast and for our written series. (That’s not fully explored in the documentary, which we contributed to but was a separate production.) Matt Tinlin told us the case gnawed at both his dad and Ahearn for the rest of their lives. Ahearn also later told a grand jury in 1991 that he regretted not doing more to run down that tip.
Why did John McMahon assist in getting rid of the firearm? What was his relationship with Matthew or Charles Stuart? Also was it ever addressed why Matthew Stuart did not approach the police with the truth immediately? Were either of the two police officers who failed to take action on the killer’s identity punished in any way?
EK: John McMahon was a close friend of Matthew’s, so much so that Matthew had even discussed the planned insurance scheme with John before the night of the murder. Both men would later say they were surprised to discover a gun in the belongings Matthew had taken from the murder scene, and that they did not realize it had been used to kill Carol until after they’d disposed of the gun in the river near their homes.
Matthew waited for months before eventually going to the cops, in part because he was concerned about his own culpability in the insurance scam. In fact, when he and John McMahon did speak to police, they went with a lawyer they wrongly believed had negotiated a deal for them.Neither of the law enforcement officers — State Trooper Dan Grabowski and Detective Robert Ahearn — were disciplined over how they handled the tips they received. Ahearn, who had attempted to run down the information but eventually dropped the lead, would later say he wished he had done more to follow up. Grabowski declined to answer our questions about what he did with the information that Chuck was the killer.
Has the city of Boston reacted to this at all? What kind of reception are you getting?
AW: I would say the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. From the moment the series was posted I’ve been hearing from readers who are captivated by both the print series and the podcast. I’ll add that I’ve been surprised by how many people have told me they listened to he podcast after already reading the series because they were so caught up in the story.
BM: I’ve heard from friends and strangers from across this world. Everyone seems to have their own moment of reflection -- or occasionally humor. Just this morning I heard from someone who loved Adrian’s exchange with Eileen McNamara and the opening to Episode 3.
Is there anything you wish you could change about the series? Any additional reporting you would add or something you would take out?
AW: I think it was the most thoroughly reported story I’ve ever been involved with. Certainly there are people who didn’t give us interviews that I wish had talked to us. But beyond that there isn’t really isn’t anything that I wish were there, or anything I wish we’d left out.
To read the full AMA click here.
Jenna Reyes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @jennaelaney and Instagram @jennaelaney. Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him @Adrian_Walker. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @elizabethrkoh. Brendan McCarthy can be reached at email@example.com. Kristin Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.