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‘They were treated like animals’: The murder and hoax that made Boston’s black community a target 30 years ago

Pallbearers exit St. James Church in Medford, Mass., on Oct. 28, 1989, after the funeral of pregnant shooting victim Carol Stuart. Her husband, Charles, falsely blamed the attack on a black man. (Steven Sene/AP)

Thirty years ago, on Jan. 4, 1990, Charles Stuart leaped to his death off the Tobin Bridge in Boston after he was named the prime suspect in his pregnant wife’s murder. The suicide put an end to an ugly hoax that unleashed months of fear and fury from Boston’s officials, police, the media and the public.

The story of Charles and Carol Stuart, who were described by Boston media as a “Camelot couple” leading an idyllic life in the suburbs, was a national sensation. It’s been covered over the past 30 years in newspapers, magazines and TV shows, including an episode in CNN’s 2019 series, “The Dead Wives Club.”

Charles falsely claimed that a black man jumped into his car one night in October 1989 and shot him and his wife, Carol, after they attended a Lamaze class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the city’s Mission Hill neighborhood. The supposed gunman, described by Stuart as an African American man in a track suit with a raspy voice, then shot Charles in the side. Carol was taken back to the hospital where she gave birth to a premature son, Christopher, and then died on the operating room table. The injured baby died 17 days later.

News stories and TV reports portrayed the horrific murder as a symbol of a violent, drug-ridden inner city, playing on the fears of white suburbanites and fueling a public backlash against African Americans in Boston.

But one issue that often comes up as just a side note to Charles Stuart’s hateful act of deceit is the police force’s widespread use of stop-and-frisk in its search for the alleged murderer.

The controversial tactic has long been used by police departments across the country, bolstered by a 1968 Supreme Court decision that police could stop and frisk a citizen based on “reasonable suspicion” that a crime had been committed. (Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg apologized for using it during his three terms as New York mayor).

In November 2019, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke about stop-and-frisk at one of New York's largest African-American churches. (Video: Reuters)

But the Stuart case was one of the first examples of its misuse on a mass scale.

The day after Carol Stuart died on Oct. 24, 1989, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn issued a furious statement calling for a massive manhunt for the alleged killer. He ordered more than 100 extra police officers to comb the city’s black neighborhoods.

“It was like a police riot,” said Frederick Johnson, a Roxbury resident then and now. A businessman and community advocate, Johnson said in a phone interview that he saw dozens of young and middle-aged men stopped and searched that fall.

During those first few days, African American men were lined up on street corners with their pants pulled down as officers searched their trousers and underwear for drugs, guns or any excuse to arrest them, Johnson said.

“There were swarms of police on the streets,” Johnson recalled. He and a colleague, both dressed in suits and ties, were driving to Johnson’s home in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood, one night that first week. When he turned onto a nearby street, a police car pulled in front of his car and another stopped behind him. He was ordered out and the officers demanded ID.

“They told me that we matched the description of the suspect and began harassing us,” Johnson said, even though Charles Stuart had said the killer was dressed in a gym suit. He remained polite, and they finally let him go but it underscored the siege mentality of the city.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says he favors "stop-and-frisk." Here's what that means and why the policy is so controversial. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

The use of stop and search during the manhunt “was a humiliation tactic,” said Leslie Harris, an African American former judge in Boston’s juvenile courts who was a public defender at the time.

Boston City Councilor Bruce Bolling described the city like a war zone with every black man the enemy. “The situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War,” he told the Boston Herald on Oct. 25, two days after Carol’s murder. “The only question now is what is the body count.”

Playing to a fearful public, some officials began calling for the return of the death penalty in Massachusetts. Many in the media compared the case to the Central Park attack six months earlier in New York, where five black youths were indicted in the rape of a white female jogger. (The five were exonerated in 2014.)

‘When They See Us’ tells the important story of the Central Park Five. Here’s what it leaves out.

About four days after the manhunt started in Boston, police arrested a potential suspect. Alan Swanson was homeless and squatting in an apartment building in the Mission Hill housing projects, near where the Stuarts were found in their car. Police found a black sweatsuit soaking in water in the apartment, which matched Charles Stuart’s description of the killer, and arrested Swanson.

Harris was called to defend Swanson who, he said in a phone interview, was an “easy target” for the police. Convinced of Swanson’s innocence, Harris began investigating the case himself.

He said that when he visited Swanson in the city jail, Swanson complained that guards were harassing him. He had to be kept separate from the prison population because he was accused of killing a pregnant woman and word spread that he’d actually done it. He couldn’t eat because guards spit in his food, he couldn’t sleep because they also banged on his cell door throughout the night to startle him.

Harris said that when he was announced as Swanson’s public defender, death threats started flooding his office. “It got to the point where my secretaries wouldn’t answer the phone any more,” he recalled.

Police officers gave him a bulletproof vest and told him to wear it at all times, even in his home.

Meanwhile, despite the arrest, the use of stop-and-frisk continued. And police were banging down apartment doors in the Mission Hill projects without knocking, and barging in to arrest young black men, Johnson said.

“At first I didn’t believe it, but then residents I knew kept telling identical stories over and over,” he said.

Johnson said he can’t forget a night when he was coming home from work two weeks after the killing. He saw police lights near Tremont Street in Mission Hill and drove over to see what was happening.

There he saw it: A group of at least 30 African American men, young to middle aged, were lying on the ground, stripped naked, their arms handcuffed behind their backs. Groups of women were gathering around the handcuffed group to protest what the police were doing as they continued to round up and haul away more men.

“The scene reminded me of how they shackled slaves into ship galleys, one on top of the other,” Johnson recalled. “They were treated like animals.”

He wanted to complain to the police department, but then he realized: Stop and frisk was not illegal.

Community leaders estimated that starting in October 1989 there were more than 150 stop-and-frisk searches in the neighborhood each day through November, according to a report in The Washington Post.

Swanson was finally released on Nov. 20 after police arrested a new suspect, Willie Bennett, a resident of the Mission Hill projects who had previously served time for shooting a police officer.

But the egregious use of stop-and-frisk didn’t end after Bennett’s arrest.

In fact, it didn’t even cease after Charles Stuart’s suicide and after his brother, Matthew, told police that Charles had murdered his wife for insurance money.

After Stuart leaped into the Mystic River to his death, African American leaders in the city protested police actions and media reports during a saga they claimed cast the entire black community as criminals.

On Jan. 5, 1990, the day after Stuart’s suicide, Flynn said the city owed Mission Hill an apology. He went to Bennett’s mother’s house to apologize. But the family was disappointed that Flynn stayed just for a minute and didn’t sit down.

A commission was formed to investigate the police use of excessive force during the manhunt for Carol Stuart’s killer. In December 1990, a year after the killing, a report was released by Massachusetts Attorney General James Shannon that said police coerced witness statements from residents during the manhunt.”

“The most disturbing findings are those of public strip searches,” Shannon said at a news conference. “There is no excuse for forcing young men to lower their trousers or for police officers to search within their underwear on public streets,” he added.

Despite the harsh condemnation, the police force didn’t altogether do away with the policy.

In fact, 25 years later, in 2015, the Massachusetts ACLU released a report noting that the practice was still being used to discriminate against African American and Latino men in Boston.

Focus dials show negative response to Trump's stop-and-frisk plan (Video: Hofstra University and Dialsmith)

The Stuart case remains a source of racial tension in the city.

One act of healing came from Carol Stuart’s family, the Dimaitis. Carl Dimaiti, Carol’s brother, set up the Carol Dimaiti Stuart foundation. For 25 years the foundation was run by volunteers who financed and guided Mission Hill high school students to attend college, many the first in their families, Carl Dimaiti said in a phone interview.

“We always felt that we were victims and so was the black community,” Dimaiti said. “What better way to reach across and acknowledge their pain.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the female jogger in Central Park had been killed. She was raped.

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