Adrian Walker

Stuart case still felt

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / October 23, 2009

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Twenty years ago today - tonight, actually - as Charles Stuart drove his pregnant wife, Carol, home from a birthing class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he stopped the car in Mission Hill, pulled out a gun, and shot her to death. He also wounded himself, a key element in the hoax that would consume the city for the next three months.

The murder shocked the city from the start, but the shock intensified as Stuart’s story began to fray. There was no carjacking near Brigham Circle, no black gunman who accused Stuart of being a cop. In fact, there was no black gunman at all, a fact that wouldn’t become clear until after Mission Hill had been torn apart, and barely submerged racial suspicions had resurfaced to tragic effect.

As Charles Stuart jumped off the Tobin Bridge three months later, his hoax unraveled. The city moved on, uneasily. Now, it all feels, if not forgotten, like it was an awfully long time ago.

Ron Bell is one person who vividly recalls the Stuart case. At the time, he was the newly installed director of the Tobin Community Center in Mission Hill, wondering how to address the anxiety in his community.

“I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday, seeing young black men strip-searched outside the center,’’ he said yesterday. “There was a great deal of fear. I didn’t know what to do.’’

He had grown up in Mission Hill, but that didn’t prepare him to deal with suddenly seeing the place described as a hotbed of danger and violence, a description that was hugely exaggerated.

When we talked yesterday, Bell was preparing for an event tonight at the Tobin commemorating the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Dubbed “Harmony on the Hill,’’ it will include the screening of a documentary on the case and a panel discussion. Bracingly well-meaning, it is the latest effort at healing a neighborhood that has never had the luxury of moving on from the Stuart case. Like just about every news reporter who was working here at the time, I helped cover the Stuart story, and I can attest that Bell’s recollections of police overreaction are not exaggerated. The city was still emerging from the deep divisions of busing, and a scandal driven by racial stereotypes was the last thing it needed.

Nevertheless, that was what it got. Most of the parties involved would concede that it was not their finest hour. Mayor Ray Flynn, a genuine racial healer, did himself no favors by branding the supposed killer “an animal.’’ The police - whose tactics of the era were called to account just this week in the Shawn Drumgold case - seemed content to lay the crime at the feet of a black man with a record.

Despite a vast amount of superb reporting, The Globe, it must be said, was criticized for being excessively credulous in the weeks immediately following the murder.

A few years ago, on another Stuart anniversary, a television interviewer asked me about the “lessons’’ learned from the case. I said then, and still believe, that there has never been a consensus about any lessons. Unlike television dramas, huge life events don’t always yield obvious lessons. Sometimes, all that is taken away is the memory of needless pain.

Bell dealt with it by becoming a political organizer; a senor member of Governor Deval Patrick’s staff, he is on leave to run the City Council campaign of his cousin, Tito Jackson. Jackson, 34, was one of the kids who got searched outside the Tobin Community Center.

One person on the invite list tonight is Willie Bennett. Bennett, a Mission Hill resident who had a record, was once the prime suspect in the case, having been all but framed by the Boston police. He’s long since left the neighborhood, but his family is around.

“I really hope he comes,’’ Bell said. “He’s not a goody two-shoes. But this is about pain and redemption, and he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit. This is a Mission Hill story.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at