Crimes of Passion

Sam Sifton

  • Missing Beauty: A True Story of Murder and Obsession by Teresa Carpenter
    Hamish Hamilton, 478 pp, £15.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 241 12775 0
  • Wasted: The Preppie Murder by Linda Wolfe
    Simon and Schuster, 303 pp, $19.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 671 64184 0

Decent people, Teresa Carpenter would assert, aren’t always what they seem. In 1982 William Douglas was working as a cell biologist at Tufts University near Boston, Massachusetts. He was an associate professor on the tenure track, a gifted scientist, and a successful grant-getter. He was married and he lived a quiet suburban life just outside the city with his wife and three children. He was also beginning a relationship with a young, dark-haired woman named Robin Benedict who worked as a prostitute in a bar called Good Time Charlie’s which is in the Combat Zone, Boston’s red-light district. Benedict disappeared in 1983 and today her family mourns the loss of a daughter they never suspected was a prostitute. William Douglas is in jail for her murder.

How could a respected member of the academic community commit such a crime? How could a charming, talented girl from the suburbs become a prostitute? These were the questions that fascinated Boston in the wake of Douglas’s arrest. Newspapers, television news-magazines and, one supposes, book publishers sent out their hired hands to seek answers. Teresa Carpenter has done this sort of thing before (her articles about the gruesome murder of the Playboy model Dorothy Stratten led to the making of the film Star 80) and she is a talented writer. Her detailed investigation of ‘the Professor and the Prostitute’ (as the case was known in the tabloid press) yields a gripping tale of sex, infatuation and madness. From the very beginning, there isn’t much doubt that portly Bill Douglas killed Robin Benedict, but Carpenter holds our attention, and weaves a good story out of the girl’s disappearance and the Douglas family’s subsequent attempts to stonewall the investigation.

William Douglas and his family came to Massachusetts in the summer of 1978. Douglas had secured his reputation conducting lung research at a cell science facility in Lake Placid, New York and had been hired to run a lab in the expanding biology department at Tufts, a small but prestigious university. Douglas was known as the ‘jewel of the department’ by his colleagues, and the researchers who worked under him referred to him as The Man. With his pear-like body and high, squeaky voice, Douglas was hardly an intimidator, but he commanded respect, and his technical excellence in the lab was unquestioned. He was also a master at securing research grants and seemed constantly to be scurrying off to meetings and conferences that might yield more money for the lab’s coffers.

Sometime in the spring of 1982, however, something in Douglas’s life changed. He began to request a lot of petty cash money from the bursar – up to $200 a week – and began also to charge cabs to mysterious ‘meetings’ on Beacon Hill, only a short walk from his office. Usually in the lab by half-past six in the morning, Douglas began to arrive much later, offering excuses. His lab workers detected large inconsistencies in his expense reports and noted a receipt for several grosses of ‘biological fluid collection units’. Scrawled across the bottom of the chit was the brandname of the condoms. Douglas also began periodically to refer to a new assistant whom none of the staff members had ever met. Her name was Robin Benedict.

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