True Tales of Murder and Mayhem

Boston's 25 most sensational, notorious, infamous, and sometimes just downright weird crimes of all time.

By | Boston Magazine |

Edited by Chris Vogel and S.I. Rosenbaum

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true crime boston

Photo via AP

Boston is a city of many facets. Not all of them sparkle. While our burg has a rep for high culture and higher learning, anyone can tell you it’s not all duck boats and sunshine around here. Boston has a seamy underbelly.

What is it about the city, for example, that produces such devious serial killers? Albert DeSalvo, a.k.a. the Boston Strangler, and his lesser-known predecessor, the murderous nurse Jane Toppan, both left a trail of bodies before anyone caught on to their dark compulsions.

Only Boston, with its casual corruption, could have nurtured a sociopath like Whitey Bulger, coddled by an FBI office that thought it was using him when, in fact, the opposite was true. Even as federal agents dismantled the Italian mob, they were doing Whitey’s dirty work.

And only a city as racially contorted and partitioned as Boston would have fallen for Charles Stuart’s nonexistent bogeyman, or provided Bush—the first Bush—with so potent a weapon as Willie Horton.

It’s not exactly that we love these monsters—but we’re proud of having survived them. And we never, ever shut up about them.

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The Poisonous Nursemaid

Morphine and atropine. Mixed up in a glass with a splash of mineral water. That was one of Jane Toppan’s favorite methods to snuff out the lives of dozens of people—patients, friends, coworkers, even her own foster sister—in the hospital wards and bedrooms of Victorian Massachusetts. Around the same time Jack the Ripper was disemboweling streetwalkers in Whitechapel and Lizzie Borden was allegedly hacking up her parents in Fall River, Toppan was carrying on a quieter rampage—eventually killing more people than both of them combined. In fact, Toppan was one of the most prolific serial killers in American history—at least on par with Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy in her death count. And yet, she is barely remembered today, perhaps because she killed her victims not at the point of a knife or the edge of an ax, but at the rim of a glass.

They called her “Jolly Jane.” A chubby Irish spinster with dark eyes and big rosy cheeks, she could always be counted on to liven up an occasion with jokes and family stories—like the one about her brother, the hero of Gettsyburg, or her beautiful sister who had married an English lord. Who cared if they were true? In fact, Jane—born Honora Kelley—had been raised in the Boston Female Asylum, an orphanage on Washington Street in the South End, after her violent and abusive father had abandoned her there.

At age six, she was contracted out as a domestic servant to the Toppan family, where she was informally adopted. While she seemed cheery enough on the outside, on the inside she seethed against her privileged foster sister, Elizabeth Brigham, who acquired the family fortune along with a marriage to an upstanding, if homely, deacon. Toppan, on the other hand, was jilted by a suitor who called off an engagement. After that, her resentment of Brigham turned to hatred.

In 1885, she began working as a nurse, training at Cambridge Hospital on Mount Auburn Street. Walking the wards at night, she began to conduct what she later called “scientific experiments” on patients. Her favorite tools were morphine—which causes pupils to contract and breathing to slow, eventually leading to coma—and atropine, a drug derived from the belladonna plant that has the opposite effect: An overdose dilates pupils and causes a giddy exuberance that ends in death by painful spasms.

Mixing the two drugs, Toppan alternately sank her victims into a stupor, and then roused them to heights of delirium, toying with them until she was ready to administer a final dose. All the while, she whipped herself into a sexual frenzy. One patient who barely survived the poisoning later described how Toppan climbed into bed with her and pressed against her, stroking her hair and caressing her through her bedclothes as she tried to give her a last sip of mineral water.

Toppan soon moved on to Mass General, where she continued her experiments on patients, and continued to get off on their death throes. After too many patients died in her care there, she was dismissed from the hospital by administrators who thought her careless with her dosages. Toppan simply moved on to an even better position from which to kill, starting work in 1891 as a private nurse to some of the most distinguished families of Cambridge and Boston.

At the same time, she began expanding her list of victims beyond her patients. She poisoned her landlords to avoid paying rent. She killed a friend in hopes of getting her job at a seminary. Finally, on a warm, sunny day in 1899, she walked with her foster sister, Elizabeth Brigham, down to the beach on Buzzards Bay for a picnic. Dressed in white frocks and sailor caps, the ladies snacked on cold corn beef and saltwater taffy. The next morning, Elizabeth was unable to get out of bed. Two days later, she was dead.

The doctor at the scene said the sudden death was from a “stroke of apoplexy.” Brigham’s distraught husband, Oramel, could only thank Toppan for caring so tenderly for his wife in her last moments. In her eventual confession, Toppan said her sister was “really the first of my victims that I actually hated and poisoned with vindictive purpose.”

After that, Toppan became even more brazen, wiping out the entire Davis family, owners of the cottage where she stayed in Buzzards Bay in 1901. First, she killed the mother of the family, Mattie, when she traveled up to Cambridge to confront Toppan for not paying her rent. Then, traveling down to Cataumet, Toppan offed the youngest daughter, Genevieve, spreading rumors that she’d killed herself with insecticide. The patriarch of the family, Alden, went next. Finally, Toppan poisoned the older sister, her friend Minnie. As the other woman lay dying in the house that night, Toppan held Minnie’s 10-year-old son in her arms.

Though Toppan had managed to get away with her murders for years, the coincidences around these deaths were too great to ignore. Toppan returned to Cambridge, where she poisoned Oramel’s sister in the hopes of getting him all to herself to marry. Meanwhile, authorities on Cape Cod were exhuming the Davis family’s bodies under suspicion that they had been poisoned. They arrested Toppan that fall, and tied her to the murder weapon when a local pharmacist told them he’d sold Toppan enough morphine to send into eternal rest “a score of persons.”

Toppan eventually confessed to her crimes—counting 31 people she knew she’d killed, along with at least a dozen more nameless victims in her nursing years. Estimates of the number of victims during her 15-year career range as high as a hundred. Newspapers blanketed their pages with stories of her crimes for months, putting her on par with Lucrezia Borgia and Catherine de Medici as one of the most ruthless women in history. The Boston Globe went farther, branding her the “greatest criminal in the country,” while the Boston Traveler called the crimes the “most horrible case of degeneracy [the] world has ever known.”

People from all around New England descended on the Barnstable County Courthouse for Toppan’s trial in June 1902. When the jury emerged from deliberations, they declared her not guilty by reason of insanity. Toppan remained completely unmoved. In her last confession, printed in the New York Journal, she boasted about fooling doctors for years, and regretted only that she tipped her hand by poisoning “four people in one family almost at once. That was the greatest mistake of my life.”

The only person for whom she consistently expressed sorrow was herself, blaming her crimes on the fiancé who jilted her decades before. After that, she wrote, “I still laughed and was jolly, but I learned how to hate, too. If I had been a married woman, I probably would not have killed all these people.” Toppan lived out the rest of her days in the Taunton Lunatic Asylum—becoming increasingly deranged and paranoid as the years went on. In letters to lawyers and doctors, she repeatedly accused hospital staff of trying to poison her.

—By Michael Blanding

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Doctor Death (1849)

It was a chilly day in November 1849 when George Parkman, a noted Harvard surgeon, entered the chemistry lab of his colleague John White Webster, never to be seen alive again. A janitor discovered the remains of Parkman’s dismembered body hidden in the walls of the lab a week later, prompting Webster’s arrest and spurring an international media frenzy the likes of which the city had never seen. The ensuing murder trial made history when the presiding judge, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, instructed the jury that the prosecution had to prove Webster’s guilt only “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a precedent now known as the “Webster Charge.” The subsequent conviction was the first based on this new guideline, as well as on testimony provided by medical experts. —Andrea Timpano

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The Killer Child (1874)

Some called him a fiend. Others called him a degenerate. Everyone called him a murderer. Jesse Pomeroy became the most famous—and youngest—sociopathic killer in America, confessing at the age of 14 to the grisly murders of two children. A troubled teen, Pomeroy was well known to local police at the time of his confession, having been arrested previously for using a knife to torture other kids in his South Boston neighborhood. Though he was sentenced to death for the murders, Pomeroy was never hanged. Instead he was incarcerated at the state prison in Charlestown for more than 50 years, serving much of that time in solitary confinement. —A.T.

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The Brinks Bank Job (1950)

It was almost the perfect crime. On the night of January 17, 11 masked men used stolen security plans to break into the Brinks armored-car depot in the North End. Thirty minutes, five tied-up employees, and 14 canvas bags later, they made off with more than $2 million in cash, checks, and money orders. They eluded capture for nearly six years before Joseph James O’Keefe, one of the gang, gave up his accomplices to the FBI—just days before the statute of limitations was to expire. To this day, the stolen money has yet to be recovered in full. —A.T.

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Murder by Mail (1912)

They called him the “Postcard Killer.” John Frank Hickey earned the moniker after sending anonymous messages to police detailing his crimes and the locations of his victims’ bodies. Detectives used the messages to trace Hickey, eventually apprehending him at a home for inebriates in New Jersey. The Lowell native copped to the murders of one man and two young boys, as well as assaults on numerous children, over a period of nearly 30 years. He claimed his violent acts were fueled by liquor-induced rage, and argued the insanity defense at his trial. The jury found Hickey guilty of second-degree murder. —A.T.

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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (1892)

Immortalized in what may be the most disturbing rhyme ever taught to children, the story of Lizzie Borden’s alleged involvement in the ax murders of her father and stepmother has intrigued the nation for more than a century. Borden was charged with the gruesome crime after her parents, Abby and Andrew Borden, were found dead in their Fall River home—their heads bludgeoned to pieces. Borden was later acquitted, but the suspicion of her guilt followed her for the rest of her life. —A.T.

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Ponzi’s Scheme (1919)

Before the scandals of TelexFree and Madoff Investment Securities, Charles Ponzi earned his unfortunate claim to fame when his multimillion-dollar fraud operation collapsed in 1920. The Italian immigrant convinced investors to buy international reply coupons for redemption in the States, promising as much as a 100 percent return in just 90 days. To help sell the scam, Ponzi founded the Securities Exchange Company in Boston, drawing in thousands of new investors. A watchdog journalist alerted regulators to Ponzi’s operation, which ended in the collapse of six banks and the loss of about $20 million, or $230 million in today’s dollars. —A.T.

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The Bugging of the Underboss

The fashionably dressed threesome looked like late-night revelers in the North End—just two men and a female companion, clutching a bottle of scotch and one another as they weaved across Prince Street on a frigid January night. In fact—while one man had gargled the scotch to put the odor of liquor on his breath—all three were stone-cold sober. Their overcoats concealed bulletproof vests and .38-caliber handguns, and their goal was to pull off a stunt no other FBI agents had ever managed: planting a bug in the Mafia’s nerve center, a location at 98 Prince Street known as “the Office” that had seemed impenetrable. The conviction in law enforcement was that mob boss Gennaro Angiulo had an insurmountable home-court advantage, with loyal eyes and ears all around the old and tightly knit Italian neighborhood.

It was 1981. It would be another 15 years before the public became aware of the FBI’s collusion with gangster Whitey Bulger. Nobody—least of all La Cosa Nostra—knew that Whitey and his sidekick, Stevie Flemmi, were ratting out the Italian mob in exchange for being given free rein to terrorize the region. Most notably, John Morris, an FBI supervisor, and FBI agent John J. Connolly Jr. were at the sordid center of the corruption. As Morris plotted to plant a bug inside Angiulo’s HQ, he claimed Bulger was a key informant. We now know this was just another obfuscation by Morris to keep his favorite thug in the agency’s good graces.

Angiulo, the son of a grocer, had grown up in the North End and risen to underworld power in the 1950s as a master of numbers who knew how to squeeze the most out of the Mafia’s illegal gambling and loan-sharking franchises. He had a few run-ins with police, but came out unscathed, beating the charges brought against him during the 1960s. By the late 1970s he was at the top of his game, deciding when men lived or died, stockpiling millions in ill-gotten gains, and strutting around the city like a Caesar.

For more than a year agents staked out the North End, tracking Angiulo from a mansion in Nahant to his North End office. They leaned on informants, mostly bookmakers. The FBI legwork was painstaking, full of agonizing stops and starts. There were times Angiulo seemed to know their every move. Agents finally assembled the probable cause they needed for a bug. The only thing left was the hardest part of all: getting it into “the Office.” Two weeks later the three FBI agents executed their ruse as partygoers to arrive undetected at the Mafia’s front door.

Huddled in the alcove, the FBI locksmith went to work. Seconds later the agents were inside, breathing the stale air of the overheated office, with its tacky vinyl furniture and cheap wood paneling. They radioed Morris. Several minutes later a second team—three electronics specialists lugging satchels of equipment—hustled in. By dawn everything was in place, the recording machines ready to roll.

Over the next months, the FBI recorded an earful, as Gennaro Angiulo and his associates ate, drank, argued, and schemed, setting underworld policy and plotting crimes and murders. With those tapes, 22 top mobsters were eventually convicted—helping put to rest the mob’s claim that its own existence was a myth. The operation became a high-five moment, a singular achievement for a Boston FBI office tainted forever now by the corruption with which it was surrounded.

When Angiulo was arrested during dinner at a North End restaurant, the wiseguy mob boss snapped at agents, “I’ll be back for my pork chops before they’re cold.’’ But he never made it back; Gennaro Angiulo was sentenced to 45 years in prison after his 1986 racketeering trial, and 23 years later, in 2009, he died at the age of 90.

—By Dick Lehr

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The Vanishing Hitchhikers (1972)

It happened in broad daylight. Ellen Reich, a 19-year-old student, disappeared after she hitched a ride to Emerson College on a November morning in 1972. Her body was discovered in an abandoned building in Roxbury several days later. Damaris Gillespie, 22, also went missing that November while hitchhiking to her weekly job at a Boston jazz club. She was found dead in Billerica three months later, her body nude and decomposing. Police counted the deaths of Reich and Gillespie among a string of unsolved murders later attributed to Anthony J. Jackson, the “Hitchhike Murderer.” Jackson was found guilty of three homicides, and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. —A.T.

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The Child Killer (1970)

Boston Police were unpleasantly surprised when Kenneth Harrison, suspected of strangling nine-year-old Kenneth Martin in a deserted South Station office, casually revealed that it was not his first murder. During questioning, the Dorchester native told detectives that he was also responsible for the deaths of three others—including six-year-old Lucy Palmarin, who drowned after Harrison threw her into Fort Point Channel. —A.T.

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Murder at 30,000 Feet (1970)

It was St. Patrick’s Day when John DiVivo attempted to hijack Eastern Airlines Flight 1320 on a trip from Newark to Boston. After failing to pay the $21 onboard fare, DiVivo pulled out a revolver and demanded to speak with the pilot. DiVivo fatally shot copilot James Hartley Jr. during the ensuing cockpit scuffle, though Hartley managed to grab the gun and return fire, striking DiVivo twice before succumbing to his own injuries. Hartley’s death marked the first skyjacking-related killing in American history. Pilot Robert Wilbur Jr., also wounded, landed the plane at Logan safely. —A.T.

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The Strangled Aunt

I never knew my Aunt Mary. The chilling black-and-white portrait of her, frozen in time at 19 with her warm smile and Black Irish complexion, hung above the fireplace in my grandparents’ Cape Cod home. As a boy, I felt her eyes staring back at me.

Mary Sullivan was strangled to death on January 4, 1964, in her bed at 44A Charles Street. She was found naked, propped up against the headboard, two scarves and a nylon stocking around her throat, a broomstick protruding from her body. There were no fingerprints, only a sadistic calling card by her left foot. “Happy New Years,” it read.

My mother, Diane, adored her sister. But in our repressed Catholic household, no one ever talked about what had happened to Mary. As a child, all I ever heard were whispers of the “Boston Strangler,” the bogeyman of my youth. For years I feared the monster would come back and finish us off.

As a teenager, I remember watching The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis, hoping the movie would fill in the blanks. But it only raised more questions. In 1967, Albert Henry DeSalvo, a Chelsea native, handyman, and serial rape suspect, confessed to Aunt Mary’s murder, along with a dozen other vicious killings. But my mother doubted DeSalvo was the killer, and indeed, the police had never charged him with the Strangler’s crimes; his confession was ruled inadmissible.

As a student at Boston University, I studied journalism and dug deeper into the case. While my buddies went bar-hopping, I would stand alone outside Aunt Mary’s apartment, trying to visualize that horrific January day. I pored over police files, autopsy reports, and photos, spending late nights in my dorm comparing Mary’s murder with the Strangler’s other work. I interviewed DeSalvo’s prison psychiatrist, his former attorney, and retired detectives who had doubts about his guilt.

In 1999, I unearthed the long-lost tapes of DeSalvo’s confession, tucked away in a dusty barn on Cape Cod. I was shocked to find that DeSalvo’s narrative did not match the evidence of the case. He claimed, for instance, to have killed Aunt Mary with his bare hands. But she was actually strangled with the two scarves and the nylon stocking found still wrapped around her neck. There were other discrepancies: DeSalvo claimed he killed Mary in the late afternoon, but investigators believe she died much earlier. He even told the cops false details lifted from the newspapers.

In November 1973, in prison for a series of rapes, DeSalvo told his family he was about to recant his Strangler confession and “blow the lid off this whole thing.” But he was fatally stabbed the night before his planned announcement. His death remains unsolved.

By 2000, I was a news producer for WBZ-TV. I was newly married, with a baby, struggling to balance my home life with my quest to find the real Strangler. I gathered a team of forensic experts to exhume Aunt Mary’s remains and look for DNA evidence. They did find foreign DNA, but it did not match DeSalvo’s.

That same year, I learned that police had fingered another suspect in 1964, a man who failed two polygraph tests but then disappeared. When I tracked him down, the suspect was working as a golf pro at a resort in northern New England. I confronted him on the course. He was cagey, claiming he was watching college football on television at the time Aunt Mary was killed. But his story didn’t check out: No college or professional football games were televised on January 4, 1964. Did he kill Mary? I didn’t know for sure, but I was finally convinced DeSalvo wasn’t the Strangler, and wrote a book in 2003 detailing my discoveries.

Then, in July 2013, everything changed. I got a call from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office requesting an emergency meeting. At the DA’s office, officials showed me that seminal fluid on my aunt’s remains and on a blanket taken from the crime scene contained a unique genetic profile from an unidentified male. Police had exhumed DeSalvo’s body and extracted three of his teeth and a 6-inch chunk of his femur. The DNA was a match.

I was stunned. For a moment, my own throat tightened and I could not speak. All the evidence I had gathered had pointed away from DeSalvo being Mary’s killer, the infamous Boston Strangler who haunted my childhood. This new evidence seemed definitive, but still, the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit. Why was DeSalvo’s confession so flawed? Why did he try to recant years later? Was the Boston Strangler one man? I may never know the answers.

Today, in my own home, there are no walls of silence or secrets. I’ve talked with my two daughters about the Boston Strangler case. Like me, they stare at the black-and-white picture of Aunt Mary that now rests over my fireplace. It still haunts us all.

—By Casey Sherman

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Get Whitey (1970s–1980s)

If there’s one name on this list that everyone in Boston will recognize, it’s Whitey Bulger. The Hub’s most notorious criminal dominated the underworld in his South Boston headquarters for decades, dabbling in everything from racketeering to drug trafficking and murder. Bulger happily ratted out his Italian Mafia rivals to the FBI, which both eliminated the competition and secured his protection by corrupt federal agents. An impending indictment in late 1994 sent Bulger running, earning him a spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. After almost 17 years on the lam, he was arrested in California with girlfriend Catherine Greig. Convicted of 11 murders and a slew of other charges last summer, he was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. —A.T.

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The Girl on the Mailbox (1988)

Tiffany Moore was just 12 years old when she was killed near her Roxbury home. As she sat on a mailbox talking with friends, she was struck by three bullets allegedly intended for a nearby gang member. Shawn Drumgold was given a life sentence for the crime. He maintained his innocence, and his conviction was vacated in 2003 when a court found evidence of police misconduct. The city settled for $5 million this May. —A.T.

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The Heist of the Century (1990)

Two thieves made history when they stole some $500 million in artwork from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Dressed as policemen, the thieves breezed past the guards and nabbed 13 drawings and paintings, including pieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Manet. Though the FBI recently announced they were closing in on the culprits and even claim to have spotted the missing artworks, they remain memorialized in the museum, where empty frames still hang on the walls. —A.T.

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Hell at Harvard (1995)

Sinedu Tadesse, a quiet Harvard premed student, sent a photo of herself to the Harvard Crimson along with a note: “There will soon be a very juicy story involving the person in this picture.” The next week, Tadesse, 20, shocked the university when she brutally stabbed and killed her roommate, Trang Phuong Ho, in their Dunster House dorm room, then hanged herself in the bathroom. In light of the tragedy, Harvard officials sought to provide more mental-health resources for struggling students. —A.T.

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The Swedish Nanny (1996)

Karina Holmer, 19, was a nanny for a family in Dover. Just three months after her arrival in the U.S. from Sweden, she was last seen near Zanzibar, a popular Boston nightclub. Holmer was strangled before her killer severed her body at the waist, wrapped half of it in a black plastic bag, and left it in a dumpster. The rest of Holmer’s remains—and her killer—have never been found. —A.T.

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The Ziti of Madness (1995)

Richard Rosenthal, a financial officer at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, murdered his wife, Laura, after she accused him of burning their ziti dinner. Rosenthal beat Laura with a rock before using a butcher knife to cut open her chest, gruesomely removing her heart and lungs and impaling them on a wooden stake in their Framingham backyard. —A.T.

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A Deadly Domme? (2000)

Professional dominatrix Barbara Asher was charged with involuntary manslaughter after her client Michael Lord died of a heart attack in her Quincy condo. Prosecutors accused Asher of failing to help Lord, claiming that she and her boyfriend tried to hide Lord’s death by dismembering his body and dumping it in a trash bin in Augusta, Maine. They based their claims on Asher’s alleged confession to police, which officers failed to record or document. Without evidence or Lord’s remains, Asher was acquitted in 2006. —A.T.

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The Con Man (1995–2008)

By the time Christian Gerhartsreiter arrived in Boston, the German con man was known as Clark Rockefeller, claiming he was related to the famous family. A messy divorce in 2007 left his ex-wife with full custody of their daughter Reigh. In 2008, Gerhartsreiter kidnapped Reigh and brought her to Maryland, where he was arrested days later. Convicted of kidnapping, he was later also convicted of the murder of a California man in the 1980s. —A.T.

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The Church’s Shame (1940–2000)

Few scandals have shaken the city more than revelations that more than 1,000 children were abused by Catholic priests between 1940 and 2000. Instead of rooting out abusers, the Church protected them with a culture of secrecy, using private settlements or flat-out denials. In 2003, the Archdiocese of Boston settled for $85 million with more than 500 victims. —A.T.

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The Monster and the Candidate

Many remember the name Willie Horton, but few remember the crime he committed. During the 1988 presidential election, Horton became one of the most infamous criminals in Massachusetts history, not because of what he did, but because of what he supposedly represented: the follies of an overly liberal criminal-justice policy. His menacing, bearded mug shots glared balefully out of TV ads for Vice President George Bush, who used Horton to smear Massachusetts Governor Mike Dukakis as being soft on crime.

Lost in the race-baiting politics of the time was the grisliness of Horton’s actual offense. On April 3, 1987, Cliff Barnes, a white car salesman living in Oxon Hill, Maryland, was just home from work and taking off his shirt and tie in the bathroom when he heard noises in the house. “Angi?” he called, thinking his fiancée was home early from a party. Suddenly, the door slammed open, and Horton burst in, screaming and pistol-whipping Barnes in the face.

Horton dragged Barnes down to the basement and tied him to a post with his own shirt and tie, then began torturing him, ramming the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and eyes and dragging a knife across his stomach. Barnes offered him money and credit cards, but the ordeal went on for hours, with Barnes never knowing when Horton might pull the trigger or plunge in the knife. At 2:30 a.m., his fiancée, Angela Miller, returned home. Horton sneaked up from the basement and attacked her in the hallway, blindfolding her and tying her hands behind her back.

Then he cut off her jeans and raped her, twice. By now, Barnes had managed to free himself, but, still blindfolded, couldn’t figure out where he was. It was Angela’s screams that allowed him to orient himself in the basement and escape to alert police. Horton fled, but was caught around 7 a.m. when the police saw him driving north in the southbound lane of the highway. Convicted of kidnapping and attempted murder, he received two life sentences plus 85 years. “You should never breathe a breath of fresh air again,” the judge said. “You should be locked up until you die.”

As it turned out, Horton had been locked up in Massachusetts until the previous June, serving time for a murder he’d committed in 1974. Then he had been let out on a weekend furlough—part of a state program to help rehabilitate offenders. Instead of returning to prison as he had on past furloughs, Horton slipped away—not to be seen again until he broke into the Barnes’s home. As Cliff and Angela Barnes began appearing on talk shows decrying the furlough policy, strategists from Bush’s foundering campaign realized they had an issue to exploit. Staffers Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes focus-grouped an ad laying the crimes at Dukakis’s feet.

The notion of a big, scary black man repeatedly raping a young white woman while her husband-to-be sat helpless preyed on the fears of white America better than any horror movie could. It didn’t matter to voters that the furlough program had been created by a Republican governor; it only mattered that Dukakis had supported it. The ad revived Bush’s campaign, he beat Dukakis by more than 300 electoral votes, and a new era of attack ads slouched into Washington.

The crime had another legacy for Massachusetts. In addition to ending such furloughs after Horton’s crime, the state has since become one of the most stringent when it comes to approving pardons or shortening sentences for good behavior, changes in the law, or new facts in a case. Dukakis’s successors have approved only seven such commutations since 1988, and none in the past 15 years—while other states, including Maryland, have approved dozens.

To this day, Horton remains incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Jessup, Maryland, where he may indeed never again breathe a breath of fresh air in his life. And because of him, many other Massachusetts inmates may not, either.

—By Michael Blanding

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The Suspect Who Didn’t Exist

Chuck Stuart gripped the handset of his car phone.

“My wife’s been shot,” he told a State Police dispatcher. “I’ve been shot.”

It was 8:43 p.m. on October 23, 1989. For 13 minutes, a dispatcher tried to coax a location out of Stuart, who seemed lucid but was unable to give his coordinates.

“I have no idea,” Stuart said. “I was just coming from Tremont, uh, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.”

McLaughlin reckoned Stuart was in shock. Who wouldn’t be?

Stuart, 29, and his wife, Carol, 30 years old and seven months pregnant with their first child, had just attended a birthing class at the hospital. Stuart, who, like his wife, was white, would later claim that a black man with a raspy voice invaded their Toyota Cressida near Brigham Circle. The gunman took cash, the car keys, jewelry, and Carol’s Gucci bag, then got suspicious that Stuart was “5-0”—a plainclothes cop, Stuart said. So the man shot them.

One of the bullets pierced Stuart’s abdomen. He told police he’d “ducked down” and that a second shot struck his wife in the head.

The dispatcher asked if Carol was breathing.

“I just hear gurgling,” Stuart replied.

Police finally found the Toyota on St. Alphonsus Street, blocks from the hospital. Coincidentally, a crew from the CBS reality show Rescue 911 was riding with Boston paramedics, who were among the first to roll up to the scene. A camera recorded every sickening detail as Carol, clearly pregnant and with a gaping head wound, was cut from her seatbelt and laid on a stretcher. A rescuer compressed her chest, trying to induce a heartbeat, but it was futile.

At Brigham and Women’s, doctors removed her son, Christopher, born alive at just under 4 pounds. But he had been starved of oxygen and would soon die. Stuart went to Boston City Hospital, where he underwent surgery on his bowel, gallbladder, and liver. The damage was substantial, but he survived.

The Stuart case resonated across America, in part because the intimate videotape of the shooting’s aftermath made it seem so personal. But with a black perpetrator and white victims, it also fit comfortably into the nation’s deep-rooted prejudices about race and crime. In Boston, white paranoia was running high as the crack epidemic intensified violent crime in black neighborhoods like Roxbury, and it wasn’t long before an ugly racist murmur underscored white Boston’s empathy for the Stuarts. Mayor Ray Flynn seemed to sanction that attitude when he pledged to “get the animals responsible.”

Charles Stuart Jr. and Carol DiMaiti were young strivers who seemed to be exemplars of Boston’s Irish and Italian communities, steeped in a culture of Catholic parishes, Knights of Columbus halls, and neighborhood bars. They met in 1980 while working at a restaurant in Revere, Stuart’s hometown, and were married in 1985. Carol, a petite brunette from Medford, was a Boston College and Suffolk Law graduate. She had a lucrative career as a tax attorney. Chuck had a sweet gig earning six figures as manager of a fur salon on Newbury Street. They lived on Harvest Road in Reading, where neighbors recalled the couple lingering over a goodbye kiss each workday morning.

With Chuck hospitalized, a friend read his ode to Carol at her funeral: “Goodnight, sweet wife, my love. God has called you to his hands.… In our souls, we must forgive this sinner because He would too.”

As the Stuart family grieved, Boston police were rampaging through the Mission Hill projects in Roxbury, where Stuart’s car keys—presumably discarded by the killer—had turned up. Cops kicked in doors and frisked young black men, looking for the man Stuart had described: a black man who spoke as though he’d swallowed a pea stone.

About two weeks after the crime, a 15-year-old boy told police that his uncle, Willie Bennett, had bragged that he was the killer. The teen quickly recanted, but that didn’t matter to the police. Willie Bennett, 39, looked like a perfect suspect. He had spent most of his adult life locked up. He was raspy and nasty, with violent crime bona fides that included threatening a cop with a shotgun in 1981. The Herald got the scoop on November 11, introducing Bennett as the “prime” suspect. Louis Sabadini, a Norfolk prosecutor, called him “a mad dog running amok.” Legislators palavered about resurrecting the death penalty. “I’d pull the switch myself,” said Frank Bellotti, the former Massachusetts attorney general who was running for governor. On December 28, Stuart picked Bennett out in a police lineup. It seemed that the police had their man.

But before charges could be brought against Bennett, on January 3, Stuart’s brother, Matthew, 23, met with the DA to confess an inconceivable secret. The murderer, he said, was Stuart himself.

Chuck Stuart had shot his wife and then himself, his brother said. Then he had tossed the gun and Carol’s purse into Matthew’s passing car, a sinister pas de deux that the brothers had rehearsed. Matthew, promised $10,000 to act as an accomplice, ditched the evidence in the Pines River. He also admitted he told the truth to his other brother, Michael, two days after the murder. (In spite of their dirty secret, the Stuart brothers had helped carry their sister-in-law’s casket.)

The black man with the raspy voice? He didn’t exist.

Chuck Stuart, now the subject of a city-wide manhunt, hid out the night of January 3 in Room 231 at the Sheraton in Braintree. He ordered a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.

At sunrise on January 4, 1990, commuters reported an unoccupied Nissan Maxima stopped on the lower deck of the Tobin Bridge. It was Stuart’s new car—just purchased with life insurance proceeds. On the front seat authorities found a self-pitying note that Stuart had written before casting himself over the railing: “My life has been nothing but a battle for the last four months. Whatever this new accusation is, it has beaten me. I’ve been sapped of my strength.”

As divers fished Stuart’s body out of the cold, gray Mystic River, white Boston seemed to blink awake from a delirium. As a Globe headline put it, “From Nightmare to Reality, a City Is Reeling.” Mayor Flynn called the case “a giant fraud on this city.” The police and press blamed each other. In the postmortem, everyone insisted they’d been skeptical of Chuck Stuart all along, though there is little evidence of that in the record.

Why did he do it? Probably a combination of lust and greed. He was romancing a younger woman but was also nettled that motherhood would cut Carol’s paycheck. Whatever its genesis, the crime picked open Boston’s racial scab, 13 years after the busing riots and Stanley Forman’s famous photo of a white teenager using Old Glory as a lance against Ted Landsmark, a black man. When Stuart’s deceptions were exposed, the Globe called him “a world-class con man.” But he really wasn’t. Prisons are full of spouse killers, after all. But Boston’s police and the public enabled Stuart with their eagerness to accept his story. Michael Curry, president of the Boston NAACP, is not sure that the case would play out differently today.

“It still has relevance,” Curry says. “We still live every day with the preconceived notions of black and brown boys as ‘potential criminals.’ Stuart played on those prejudices. He said to himself, ‘If I had to accuse somebody of a crime, who would I accuse and where would it be? A black man in Roxbury-Dorchester-Mattapan.’ He knew everyone would believe him. And you know what? He was right.”

—By David J. Krajicek

true crime boston number 24

Craigslist Killer (2009)

The son of a dentist from upstate New York, 23-year-old Philip Markoff was engaged to be married and studying to be a doctor at Boston University when he was charged in the death of Julissa Brisman, a 25-year-old masseuse. Investigators say Markoff met Brisman at the Marriott Copley Place after responding to her massage ad on Craigslist. Markoff allegedly shot Brisman multiple times, earning the title of “Craigslist Killer.” Using surveillance footage and other methods, police later connected him to two other assaults on women he’d met through Craigslist. An imprisoned Markoff committed suicide in 2010 while awaiting trial for his alleged crimes. —A.T.

true crime boston number 25

The Murderous Ex (2011)

They found her in a marsh on the Fourth of July. Police recovered the body of 18-year-old Lauren Astley, a well-liked Wayland High School grad, near the town line after it was dumped there by her ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita. He committed the murder the night before, beating, strangling, and stabbing Astley in the garage of his family’s home. Prosecutors say Fujita, also 18, killed Astley after he failed to convince her to rekindle their failed relationship, which Astley had ended earlier that year. Fujita was convicted of first-degree murder. —A.T.

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