On March 29, I had the opportunity to speak for the dead — as well as the living. I testified at the parole hearing for Rod Matthews, the convicted murderer of Shaun Ouillette.
As a police officer for 24 years and chief of police for more than 11 years, I have testified many times, but few cases have elicited such strong feelings as this one. Although I welcomed the chance to be Shaun’s voice, I also felt some trepidation. Matthews brutally crushed Shaun’s skull with a baseball bat, but he was only 14 years old and was still someone’s son. Thirty years ago, this case made national headlines for numerous reasons — the heinousness of the crime, the youth of both the victim and the murderer, the motivation, and the total lack of remorse displayed by Matthews at the trial. It was also the first time in Massachusetts that a juvenile was tried as an adult.
This unspeakable crime occurred in Canton in late November 1986. Shaun had recently moved into the community. Matthews targeted and stalked him as his victim because he “did not think anyone would miss him.” Matthews invited Shaun to his house after school with the promise of selling him firecrackers. After taking the school bus to Matthews’s home, the two classmates played pool and were served snacks by a Matthews family member. Soon after, Matthews asked Shaun to join him in the woods close to his house. When they reached a secluded part of the woods, Matthews hit Shaun in the head with the baseball bat he had brought with him. He left this unsuspecting, beloved son in the snow to die.
For three weeks, Matthews left Shaun’s lifeless body in the woods to be eaten by animals while Shaun’s family and law enforcement desperately searched for him. Matthews had shared his evil intentions with two classmates before the attack and immediately after the senseless killing; Matthews rushed to one of the boy’s homes and told him what he had done. Matthews also demanded that the boy return to the crime scene with him so he could see Shaun’s body. Upon arriving at the “viewing,” Matthews told his friend he would be next if he ever divulged what Matthews had done.
Should Rod Matthews be given parole?— Boston Globe Opinion (@GlobeOpinion) April 21, 2016
I listened intently to the experts speaking in favor of Matthews, now a grown man at 43. The testimony painted a picture of a changed man. I listened to how he was a model prisoner and had had only a single altercation during the time he had been incarcerated. A forensic psychologist testified to a battery of tests that indicate the “low risk” Matthews posed to kill again if released. A noted academic testified that Matthews had been jailed for close to 30 years, longer than the average killer’s sentence. He went on to say that Matthews is truly remorseful and has earned a second chance. Matthews himself testified that he was driven to kill by his family’s dysfunction and his desire to impress his two close friends. When pressed by the parole board chairman, Paul Treseler, as to why he had killed, Matthews still failed to give a substantive or definitive answer.
Matthews’s mother, Janice, later spoke about how he was not the angry young teenager she had known and that she was impressed by the loving son he had become. She said that if he was granted parole, he could live with her. She testified that she would be part of his support network. She also stated that her older son, Kenny, had agreed to hire him to work for his floor covering business.
When it came my turn to speak, I tried to describe the pain and anguish that this unspeakable crime had caused our town and our department. Having studied the case thoroughly and having lived for many years close to where Matthews lived, I had a very good understanding of the intricate details leading up to and surrounding Shaun’s senseless murder. I also knew many of Matthews’s neighbors and classmates, Canton Police Department personnel who had investigated the crime, Shaun’s family, and one of the witnesses who was shown the body.
After speaking to these people, I noted several recurring themes. Even from a young age, Matthews was very different. He had craved attention. Classmates and Matthews himself said he was a class clown who constantly sought attention.
Most telling, however, was how often I heard that he did not show any respect for living things. I spoke with neighbors who relayed a story about how they had spent hours planting flowers and then left to run an errand. When they returned home, all the flowers were ripped up and piled in front of their garage. As they walked around the house trying to figure out what could have happened, they heard uncontrollable laughter from the adjoining yard. When they looked over, they discovered young Matthews watching them with amusement. Still others, including Matthews himself, told stories of catching fish at a local pond at an age where most kids were still scared to take the fish off of the hook. Not only was he willing to take the fish off the hook, he was also eager to blow them up. He was obsessed with starting fires and even testified that he attempted to start a fire at a Canton mall while his own mother was working inside. Fortunately, the fire went out on its own.
After thoroughly examining the reports, one could only conclude that this crime was not impulsive but rather well planned out. Matthews’s own admitted actions included making a detailed list of potential victims, borrowing a bat that would become his murder weapon, and postponing the execution due to a snow day. He concocted a story of selling fireworks to the “new kid” as a way to lure him first to his house and eventually into the woods. All these factors are proof that this was not a crime of childhood impulse but rather a premeditated, sadistic murder.
Leading up to the killing, Matthews had Shaun walk ahead of him while he walked in Shaun’s footprints to avoid detection. In the first several hours after the murder, the police questioned him for what would be the first of five times; yet the 14-year-old did not crack in the face of interrogation by seasoned investigators. In fact, he told stories such as the one where Shaun had run away back to his previous town. He remarked to a classmate that if Shaun wasn’t found soon, he would be seen on milk cartons. For the three weeks between the murder and the police finding Shaun’s body, not only did Matthews go to school every day, but he also took another friend to see the body. In all my years as a police officer, I have never encountered a 14-year-old so devoid of emotion as to pull this off.
It’s also important to keep in mind that this was not an armed robbery that had gone awry, a crime of passion, a fight over a girl, a battle over turf, or even a senseless drive-by shooting. This was the action of a sick young man driven by obsessive homicidal thoughts.
In terms of punishment, I would say that Rod Matthews should be set free when the pain of Shaun’s mother, Jeanne Quinn, subsides. When Shaun’s beautiful sister, Yvonne, only 13 at the time of the murder, is no longer afraid to return to the state where her big brother’s killer resides. When the two classmates who were taken to view the body are no longer traumatized or fearful of Matthews’s retribution.
I am a police officer, not an academic and certainly not a therapist. So I speak from experience alone when I say I have no doubt in this case that Matthews has displayed predatory, diabolical tendencies as well as psychopathic traits. I feel that these factors are at the core of his very existence. After witnessing firsthand the pain his actions have brought to Shaun’s family, our department, and our community, I can’t support having him walk our streets or anyone else’s streets again.
Even, after nearly a quarter of a century of policing, I am still somewhat of an idealist. I believe that most people are good, and most people should have a chance to reenter society after they have paid their debts. However, I have come to realize that there are some individuals who cannot function in society. No matter how much counseling, treatment, and medication we afford them, they are still too big of a risk to reoffend. Rod Mathews is one of those people.
Kenneth N. Berkowitz is the chief of the Canton Police Department and president of the Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council.