True Tales of Murder and Mayhem

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

true crime boston number 21

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.

true crime boston number 22

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

true crime boston number 23

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.