The Race Is on to Turn the Grim Boston Murder Case into Books, Movies and Cash
Stephen Sawicki Maria Speidel
01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
01/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST
Producer Mark Wolper was tooling along in his black BMW, listening to a Los Angeles all-news radio station, when he heard the bulletin: Charles Stuart had jumped to his death from Boston's Tobin Memorial Bridge after his brother had implicated him in the shooting death of his pregnant wife, Carol. Wolper, the 29-year-old son of megaproducer David Wolper, gunned the accelerator and headed for the studio, where he began frantically making calls to contacts in Boston about the prospects for buying the TV rights to the story. "As soon as I heard about it," he says, "I knew everyone in town would go after that one."
He was right. Five hours after Chuck Stuart's body was pulled from the Mystic River, Wall Street Journal reporter Joe Sharkey had arrived in Boston from his home in New Jersey. With little more than a promise from his agent that she would be able to get him a book deal, Sharkey was already digging for material, a process that may take him as long as a year. "You've got to be on the scene when something like this happens," says Sharkey, who is on leave. "You just have to be on the streets."
Indeed, by last week the streets of Boston were crawling with writers and producers seeking their fortunes. "You couldn't ask for a story that's more marketable," says Kevin Stevens, a Boston-area writer who is himself pursuing a book contract. "I guess you could imagine a million stories that are equally dramatic, but this one really happened." What most of the aspirants want is to lock up exclusive rights to the surviving principals in the case—members of Chuck's family and Carol's, By last week Arnold Shapiro, producer of CBS's Rescue 911, said he had signed a key player. And with the lure of big money, others may follow. Mark Sennet, a PEOPLE contributing photographer and a producer affiliated with Hollywood heavyweights Peter Guber and Jon Peters, guesses that family members could split as much as $150,000 for a TV movie, and as much as $250,000 for a miniseries.
Meantime, producers and writers were chasing down anyone connected with the case. Boston homicide detectives involved in the investigation said they were besieged with offers. "I had someone fax me a contract," says Detective Bob Ahearn. "I just threw it away." (Officers cannot make such deals without permission from the police commissioner's office, which is unlikely to cooperate until the case is officially closed.) The biggest prospective catch, outside the families, seemed to be Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who scored numerous scoops in the days after Stuart's suicide and who was swamped with more than 30 proposals from studios and producers soliciting his help. "If there's a production company out there that I haven't heard from, it's got to be someone in Pittsburgh who's making home movies in his garage," says Barnicle, 46, who would like to write a screenplay about the murder.
One person who professed little hope in rounding up inside sources was Ken Englade, who has a contract to do a "quickie" book on the subject for St. Martin's Press. Englade, a former reporter for UPI who has done other crime sagas on short deadline (his most recent is Cellar of Horror, about a Philadelphia man who tortured two women to death in his basement), expects the Stuart paperback to be in stores in the spring. With so little time, he says, he's "not expecting anyone to open up to me." Instead he intends to rely on official sources and the public record, all the while denying that his efforts constitute a "rip-off." "Everybody's up here covering the case," he says. "I look at this as a long magazine piece."
If the Stuart case is the most compelling of its kind to come along in years—a shocking murder that aggravated racial tensions in Boston when Stuart tried to put the blame on a mysterious black assailant—the buyers' frenzy may also present special challenges. Six days after Stuart's suicide, CBS announced plans for a TV movie, even though it had not locked up rights to the story. The network's confidence stemmed from that fact that on the night of Oct. 23, when Carol was apparently killed by her husband or an accomplice, a crew for CBS's Rescue 911 show happened to be riding with paramedics who were called to the scene. With CBS apparently in on the ground floor, there was speculation that other producers might have trouble convincing rival networks to risk money on their own projects. "CBS probably scared off 80 percent of the competition," says Mark Wolper. "It squelches interest since networks don't like to duplicate each other's efforts. But there's always room for multiple developments."
Some interested parties also wondered whether the story might have gotten too big. James Frost, a vice president at Warner Books, says he fielded proposals from six authors in the first week after Chuck's suicide. "After a certain point, our eyes just glazed over," he says. "Our book is going to have to compete in a very crowded marketplace. It's a good crime story, but at some point reason has to prevail."
There were also doubts that any book or movie on the Stuart case, for all its astounding twists and turns, could rise above the lurid. "The reader or viewer needs someone they care about," said author Joe McGinniss, author of the bestsellers Fatal Vision and Blind Faith, both dealing with brutal husband-wife murders. "You can't care about a psychopath. And in the Stuart case I don't see any good guys."
Although it was Matthew Stuart who finally fingered his brother in the killing, he and another brother, Michael, apparently knew about Chuck's involvement much earlier but refused to come forward. Last week Richard Clayman, the attorney for Michael, admitted that Chuck may have approached his client weeks before the murder and asked for his help in some type of plot. Clay-man said that Michael refused the request but didn't tell police of the conversation until after Chuck's suicide.
From the start, the bizarre case created moral dilemmas for virtually everyone involved. Now feelings of greed and exploitation have begun to touch those in line for movie and book deals. "Something in it bothers me," admits Barnicle. Still, he remains the hardheaded realist. "The movie will be made. The books will be written. That's life," he says, before adding without much pleasure, "And I'll make some money off of it too. I'm not saying I'm not going to."
—Bill Hewitt, Stephen Sawicki in Boston, Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles and Maria Speidel in New York