REVERE, MASS. -- The investigators on the Dizzy Bridge stare into the Pines River as though they are expecting an answer to emerge from its waters. There are about 20 of them, peering down at low tide, as rubber-suited divers alight from patrol boats and plunge toward a bottom that has yielded a handbag, but has not yet given them the gun.

Their vigil has become a staple on the evening news in these parts, along with Charles and Carol Stuart's wedding portrait, photos of the couple's slate-blue suburban home and the siren-lit scene outside a Boston housing project last October. Rescue workers arrived that night to find Carol Stuart seven months pregnant and soon to be dead, slumped in the passenger seat of the couple's car with a bullet in her head, and Charles behind the wheel with a serious wound to the abdomen.

Across the river from the investigators, in the parking lot of the Wharf Restaurant, three people cluster around a man in a Red Sox cap who has his binoculars trained on the bridge. The distance between the observers and the observed on this chilly gray afternoon is telling, because until last Thursday, most everyone in the Boston area felt personally involved in the murders of Carol Stuart and Christopher, her prematurely delivered son. But that morning, after learning that he had become the prime suspect in the case, Charles Stuart, 29, leaped to his death and left a confused and self-alienated community in his wake.

The alarming story of a white couple terrorized by a black marauder was reduced to the level of domestic intrigue, yet the city could take no comfort in that because it had believed so deeply in the wrong person and expended such passion on the wrong narrative.

When Stuart's body hit the surface of the Mystic River below the Tobin Bridge, the nexus of evil in this case shifted from a primarily black housing project in the Mission Hill neighborhood to the slate-blue split-level in Reading. With it shifted the burden of guilt, passed from the black community onto the white, not merely because so many people were willing to take Stuart's word over that of a black ex-convict named Willie Bennett, but because police investigated the minority community with a state-of-emergency-like zeal, engendering a fury in Mission Hill that is probably yet to play itself out.

As reports of Charles Stuart's involvement with another woman and his role in previous scams filled the newspapers, rumors circulated throughout Boston that he had a cocaine habit and extensive gambling debts. Meanwhile, the phone lines at radio call-in shows were jammed with people venting their rage at Mayor Raymond Flynn, District Attorney Newman Flanagan and the media, which for six weeks used unnamed sources to characterize Bennett as "the prime suspect."

The city's anger seems inexhaustible. That may be because it is impossible not to feel sullied by the Stuart case. Either one was duped by a fabrication with racist overtones, or one was impotent as police focused their investigation on a succession of innocent black men.

"I'm sick of hearing about it," said a middle-aged waitress working the counter at Ted's Pub in Chuck Stuart's old Revere neighborhood. "I don't know who to feel sorry for anymore." Then she asks, "What did the news say about it?"

Her conversation, as well as the scene at the Dizzy Bridge, illustrates the anguish here. The people of Boston are fascinated, yet repelled. They want answers, but they want distance. So they watch the waters and, through binoculars, they watch themselves watching.

This is how it was supposed to have happened:

Carol and Charles Stuart left Lamaze classes at Brigham and Women's Hospital at about 8:30 on the night of Oct. 23 and pulled up to a stoplight at the corner of Huntington Avenue and Francis Street, a busy intersection in Mission Hill, a diverse inner-city community that features nationally known hospitals, the city's best art museum and a large low-income housing project.

As they sat at the light, a black man wearing a black sweat suit with red stripes, black open-knuckled gloves and a baseball cap jumped into the back seat of their 1987 Toyota Cressida, pulled out a silver, snub-nosed pistol and demanded, in a raspy singsong voice, that Charles Stuart drive to an isolated corner beyond the project. There, the assailant, 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing about 160 pounds, took Carol Stuart's Gucci bag, her rings, $100 and the car keys. He asked for Chuck Stuart's wallet, and when Stuart could not produce one, the man became suspicious. Tipped off perhaps by the car phone and thinking that Stuart's wallet contained the badge of an undercover cop, he said, "I think you're Five-0," and opened fire. Carol Stuart was hit first in the back of the head. Her husband "ducked" but nonetheless suffered a stomach wound that nearly killed him. The assailant fled on foot.

This actually did happen: Charles Stuart punched the state police number into his cellular phone and reached dispatcher Gary McLaughlin. The conversation that followed was replayed on news broadcasts throughout the country the following night. Stuart told McLaughlin he and his wife had been shot and that he didn't know where they were. He claimed his assailant had stolen his keys but that he would start the car with a spare set and drive around in hopes of spotting a landmark. After turning onto St. Alphonsus Street near the Mission Hill project, Stuart apparently blacked out, yet McLaughlin was able to direct police to the car by having them turn their sirens on and off and gauging which cruiser was closest.

The theatrical quality of the rescue was augmented by the presence of a camera crew from the CBS program "911" in the ambulance that arrived at the scene. Dramatic footage of the Stuarts' car and Charles Stuart's rescue appeared the following night on the "CBS Evening News."

It was in the ambulance on the way to Boston City Hospital that Charles Stuart began to unfold his story. At Brigham and Women's Hospital, the Stuarts' 3 3/4-pound son Christopher was delivered by Caesarean section. The baby's mother, age 30, died before morning.

There are several improbable turns in the story Charles Stuart told and several inconsistencies in the way he behaved the night of the murder.

That an assailant would shoot a woman before shooting a man seemed strange to several investigators. So did Stuart's refusal to identify street signs, call to passersby or simply return to the hospital during his 13-minute conversation with McLaughlin. The fact that he never spoke his wife's name or tried to comfort her also raised suspicions of several people following the investigation.

But for police authorities, these misgivings were overridden by several factors, chief among them Stuart's own wound, which, they now believe, was much more severe than he intended. The bullet damaged his liver, urological tract, bowels and major blood vessels and cost him his gall bladder. The damage required two extensive operations and kept Stuart in intensive care for five weeks.

During that time Stuart played the grieving husband with aplomb, penning a farewell note to his wife, which reduced the 800 mourners to tears when a friend read it at the funeral Stuart was too weak to attend.

"Good night, sweet wife, my love," he wrote. "God has called you to his hands, not to take you away from me -- all the happiness that God has brought you -- but to bring you away from the cruelty and violence that fill this world."

He also asked to be wheeled to his son's bedside when he was told, 17 days later, that the baby was about to die.

Stuart also benefited from coincidence. The tape of his conversation with McLaughlin and the fortuitous arrival of television cameras made his lie more believable by turning it into a multimedia presentation.

Gov. Michael Dukakis, who has learned about the political risks of underreacting to black-on-white crime, attended the funeral. So did Mayor Flynn, Police Chief Francis Roache and Cardinal Bernard Law.

The story had created a sensation nationwide, but Boston was just beginning to feel the consequences.

Crime in Mission Hill fell 18 percent last year, but the neighborhood -- a lively mixture of blacks, whites and Hispanics -- is consistently identified as one of the most dangerous parts of town. Charles Stuart apparently knew that and figured it would work in his favor.

In the days following the shooting, police descended on the neighborhood with appalling zest. Community leaders estimate that from Oct. 24 through 28, there were upward of 150 "stop and frisk" searches in their neighborhood each day. Black men throughout the city complained of public strip searches and repeated interrogations. "I got stopped three times one night just walking from here to my apartment," said a clerk at an expensive Back Bay Hotel. "We were all suspects."

The authorities' eagerness for an arrest was fueled by mounting public outrage that was in turn fueled by the beatification of the Stuarts by the media. The Boston Herald called them the "Camelot couple." The Boston Globe described their relationship as so loving, by all accounts, "that it warmed even those at its edge."

The Stuarts' romance began some years ago while both Carol and Chuck worked at the old Driftwood restaurant where she was a waitress, he was a cook, and her father, Giusto DiMaiti, tended bar.

Chuck was the oldest of six children from a working-class family in the quintessentially blue-collar town of Revere, a place dominated by corner bars and modest old homes sitting closely side by side. His father, Charles Sr., was active in the Knights of Columbus and tended bar at the Dublin. Chuck was a popular, athletic kid, who, his re'sume' claimed, won a football scholarship to Brown University, a school that does not award such scholarships. He claimed that he injured his knee and transferred to Salem State.

His career in business flourished at Kakas Furs, a posh Back Bay shop where he had become general manager and a confidant of the Kakas family.

Carol, the younger of two children, was intensely devoted to her family in suburban Medford. Her father was said to carry her report cards around in his wallet, and friends say that she called home every night, even on her honeymoon. She attended Boston College, then graduated cum laude from Suffolk Law School and was taking classes at Boston University to become a CPA.

A tax specialist, she worked for Cahners Publishing Co. in nearby Newton where, friends say, she was something of an unofficial social director.

The couple was married four years ago at St. James Church in Medford by the Rev. Francis Gallagher, under whom Chuck had once served as an altar boy, and moved to a small house in Medford. Two years ago, they bought the slate-blue home in Reading where they hosted pool parties in the back yard.

Friends remember them speaking to each other by phone three or four times a day, and neighbors say they kissed in the driveway before leaving and upon returning from work. They had just returned from what Carol told friends was a "wonderful" weekend in Connecticut where they celebrated their fourth anniversary. Stuart's brother, Mark, told the Globe, "Carol saved the strip from the pregnancy test she had when she found out she was pregnant. She showed it to us back then."

The district attorney's office now says that it never completely discounted the notion that Charles Stuart may have killed his wife, but they weren't actively investigating him either. They were actively investigating a variety of black suspects and felt so sure of their progress that within a week of the shooting, police Superintendent Joseph V. Saia said the list of suspects had narrowed to "a chosen few."

The first of those men was never even identified publicly because his attorney was able to convince prosecutors that the case against him was so weak. The second, Alan Swanson, was arrested on Oct. 29 after police found him living in a supposedly abandoned apartment and soaking a black sweat suit, albeit with white stripes, in the sink.

Swanson was arrested for burglary for simply being in the apartment and was immediately identified in the media as the prime suspect in the Stuart case. The burglary charge was later reduced to trespassing, a misdemeanor, but Swanson was acquitted of that too.

The Suffolk County district attorney's office then brought a second charge against Swanson, accusing him of robbery. At that trial, Swanson's accuser said police had pressured him into bringing the charges. That case was dismissed and Swanson was finally released on Nov. 20. By that time, police had arrested Willie Bennett, 39, of Roxbury.

Bennett had served two sentences for altercations involving policemen and gunplay. The first occurred in 1973 when he shot an officer in the leg. The second took place in 1981 when he pointed a shotgun at a cop, removed the man's service revolver and used it to shoot out one of the tires on his police cruiser.

When officers attempted to arrest Bennett for that offense, they found him crouching in the living room of his home, gripping a .357 Magnum. He shouted, "You are not going to take me alive," before a quick-shooting officer wounded him in the hand, forcing him to drop the gun.

Bennett was arrested on Nov. 11 for a motor vehicle violation and subsequently charged with a video store robbery in Brookline. He was identified immediately in the media as the chief suspect in the Stuart murder case.

Several witnesses testified against Bennett before a specially convened grand jury. One person claimed to have seen Bennett carrying a gun and jewelry in the area where the shooting took place on the night of Oct. 23. Another said that Bennett admitted to the shooting, saying Charles Stuart owed him money for drugs. Several teen witnesses testified they learned of Bennett's involvement through his nephew.

Whether this evidence was manufactured wholesale, came from people currying favor with the authorities or resulted from some ill-advised bragging on Bennett's part is one of the unresolved questions in the case. Whatever the answer, the case against Bennett grew stronger after Charles Stuart was pronounced healthy enough to view police photographs.

On Nov. 21, Stuart, who may well have seen Bennett's picture in the newspaper, reportedly had a "strong physical reaction" when he was shown the suspect's mug shot. Then, on Dec. 28, three weeks after he was released from the hospital, Stuart told investigators at a lineup that Bennett looked "most like" the man who shot him and his wife. This exceedingly tenuous identification was portrayed by some sources as "positive."

Bennett's lawyer, Robert George, said that if Stuart had not jumped from the Tobin Bridge, he was expecting his client to be indicted this week.

Much of what the people of Boston thought they knew about the Stuart case is wrong, and much of what is most important remains unknown. In the Dublin, the bar where Charles Stuart Sr. once worked, a woman said to her friends one night this weekend, "You know what's weird is that we are sitting here talking about this, trying to figure it out, and everybody else in this bar is doing the same thing."

Through a variety of anonymous sources, the local media have developed the following scenario:

Charles Stuart first raised the possibility of killing his wife with a drinking buddy from Lowell more than a month before the shooting. He is also reported to have asked a family member at roughly the same time to help him kill Carol.

When that didn't work, Stuart apparently decided to commit the murder himself. At that point he sought the help of his youngest brother Matthew, although it is still not clear if Matthew, 23, knew what he was agreeing to. Reports since the wedding indicate that he and Charles had cooperated previously in several fencing and insurance scams at Kakas Furs and in their own homes.

Several weeks before the murder, according to unnamed police sources, Matthew staged a robbery of Charles Stuart's home at his older brother's request. The plan, apparently, was for Charles to kill Carol while making it appear that she had walked in on an intruder.

But the Stuarts came home early that night. Matthew had to hide in a bathroom and escape without Carol's knowledge and Charles apparently changed his mind.

The Mission Hill plot was better rehearsed. Speaking through his lawyer, John J. Perenyi, Matthew said he and his brother actually took a dry run for their rendezvous the night before Carol was murdered. Matthew claims that Charles led him to a secluded spot and instructed him when to be there. He also told Matthew to leave his car window rolled down. The next night, Perenyi says, Charles Stuart pulled up beside Matthew's car and tossed through the window a bag that Matthew thought would contain the receipts of a robbery of Kakas Furs.

Matthew Stuart claims he could not tell if his dying sister-in-law was in Charles's car when the transfer occurred. He told police that he drove home to Revere, opened the bag and found Carol's handbag, some jewelry, her engagement ring and a snub-nose .38 caliber pistol. Matthew said he and a friend threw the purse and the gun off a low railroad crossing (nicknamed the Dizzy Bridge) on the Pines River.

After four days of fruitless searching for the pistol, police now question whether this is where the pistol lies. They are also investigating whether Matthew's friend was with him in Mission Hill and whether Matthew may have purchased the gun.

Matthew Stuart was one of the pallbearers at his sister-in-law's funeral, after which he disappeared on a six-week trip to California. A close friend said that he seemed depressed on his return, particularly when drinking. When Matthew contacted the authorities on Wednesday, he brought Carol Stuart's engagement ring with him.

Since Charles Stuart's suicide, shocking reports have broken in Boston with each successive news cycle. Naturally they are damaging to Stuart's reputation, but some are no more reliable than the reports that built it up. One day he is said to have had huge gambling debts and undergone a cocaine detoxification program during his hospitalization. The next day friends deny the former and his surgeon denies the later. A rumor spreads via call-in shows that he knew Willie Bennett, but officials discount that too. By the weekend most of Boston had seized on the case as a justification for whatever cure they were prescribing for the world's ills. Mayor Flynn pushed for higher "public safety" taxes. A priest at the Mission Hill Church said the murder made the case for stricter divorce laws. And a variety of radio debaters said this showed the need for a) the death penalty, b) gun control, c) the establishment of higher paying jobs in the Mission Hill neighborhood and d) "the need for some real soul-searching on the part of each and every one of us."

The most intriguing (and seemingly reliable) reports include one from the local ABC affiliate that Stuart confessed to a close friend that he killed his wife for the insurance money. People seem to believe that.

At the convenience store near the Stuarts' Reading home, a man behind the counter said, "He can escape criminal justice but he's in God's hands now and he's probably getting his butt kicked from here to the end of the universe."

Meanwhile, yesterday's Boston Globe reported that police were investigating Stuart's relationship with a "striking blonde" Brown graduate student who worked summers at Kakas Furs and used Stuart's telephone credit card to call him while he was in the hospital. Authorities believe some of the jewelry Stuart purchased recently may have been for this woman, whose birthday was last week. They are also investigating whether, last fall, Stuart booked a cruise for this month, only several weeks after his son was to have been born.

The Globe also reported that another of Stuart's brothers and both his sisters knew within three days of the shooting that he had killed his wife and that they met to discuss it.

Along with these developments have come calls from the black community for the resignation of Mayor Flynn, the firing of Police Chief Roache and the resignation of district attorney Flanagan. An investigation into the murder investigation seems likely as do continued conversations about how to improve the racial attitudes of the police force and district attorney's office.

What effect all this will have on easing the tensions in this city is unclear. And those tensions are everywhere in evidence. In a Revere bar where Chuck Stuart used to drink, the televised complaints of black leaders are greeted with jeers. The word "nigger" is heard a time or two and Willie Bennett's police record is discussed at some length.

Meanwhile on Mission Hill, a Muslim cleric says apologies are not enough and demands restitution. And all the while the call-in shows buzz with the worst sort of rumors. Having been duped into believing the best about the Stuarts, people are now in the process of thinking the worst, not only of Chuck, but of Carol too. Callers raise the question of whether Charles was the baby's father, whether the child's father was black, whether there was cocaine in his system, whether she must not somehow have known of whatever nefarious activities they assume her husband was involved in. There is not an ounce of evidence for any of this conjecture, but it seems to make people feel better because it makes evil easier to understand and makes everyday life a less uncertain proposition.

Carol DiMaiti Stuart's family knows differently. They visited Chuck Stuart in the hospital. Two days before Stuart killed himself he had dinner at their home. They do not mind admitting that they never suspected him. They do mind the way his suicide has affected people's image of Carol.

"With all the stuff that is being reported," Giusto DiMaiti said yesterday, "I wish somebody would say something about what a wonderful daughter we lost."