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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Nealley, Rodriguez case is not first of its kind at Tufts

This is the first in a two-part series in which the Daily looks back 25 years at a case in which a faculty member at the Tufts Medical School embezzled thousands of dollars from the university to fund his ongoing affair with a prostitute and then murdered her.

This piece will outline the details of the scandal; the second will compare its effect on the Tufts community to that of Jodie Nealley and Ray Rodriguez's case.

When Jodie Nealley, then the director of student activities, was fired in November under suspicion that she embezzled around $300,000 from the university, a ripple of shock sent the administration and the Tufts Community Union Senate scrambling to reorganize and recover.

Prosecutors threw a second punch this summer when they announced that Ray Rodriguez, who served as the budget and fiscal coordinator under Nealley, stole over $600,000. The duo's alleged theft constituted what seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime scandal at Tufts.

But what if they had committed murder?

On paper, Dr. William H. Douglas led a charmed life: Married with three children, the highly-educated scientist served as the head of the Tufts University Medical School's Cell Culture Research Unit and was regarded as brilliant by his colleagues.

But the same dedication and persistence that kept Douglas awake late into the night churning out lab work would bring about an obsessive extramarital relationship with a much younger Boston prostitute, her murder, and his eventual long-term imprisonment.

University Professor Sol Gittleman, who was Tufts' provost when the story broke, said he remembers it unraveling slowly, beginning with the discovery by an internal audit that Douglas was carefully skimming university funds. He was using these funds, it was later discovered, to pay for cocaine and the lifestyle of his mistress, Robin Benedict, who was 21 at the time.

"We found that Bill Douglas had been stealing small amounts of money in $25 increments and signing them over … to his lab assistant," Gittleman said. "At that time, you could do $25 petty cash receipts and not have any signature."

Douglas, who was up for a promotion at the time, had his case brought before the university and was consequently forced to resign from his position. He had already taken thousands of dollars.

"It was the administration that found him," Gittleman said. "We nailed him."

With no source of money to finance his ongoing relationship with Benedict, who worked as both a graphic artist and prostitute in downtown Boston, Douglas watched as his girlfriend turned tricks and met up with other men in order to  earn money.

Gittleman said he spoke with Douglas personally after the university had charged him with embezzlement.

"I remember asking him, ‘Are you still seeing this woman?' And he said, ‘Yes.' He hadn't killed her yet," Gittleman said.

Benedict, who was continuing to see other men, reportedly visited Douglas one evening in March 1983, a visit from which she never returned.

Her disappearance led to a lengthy and complex investigation pieced together by the Norfolk County District Attorney's Office. John Kivlan, then the assistant district attorney for Norfolk County and now the special sheriff there, was assigned to prosecute the case. He said that small bits of evidence were essential: DNA testing hadn't yet been developed, and Benedict's body was never found.

"Generally speaking, most cases start with the recovery of a body," Kivlan said. "In this case, it was just the opposite. It was the result of … a couple of men searching for bottles and cans along Route 95 who found a bloody jacket, which turned out to be Robin Benedict's. That's how the investigation started."

Further, telephone records revealed that Douglas had made calls along the same stretch on which Benedict's jacket was recovered. Investigators later connected Douglas to Benedict's car, which was abandoned in New York City. They also relied on an Amtrak train ticket purchased by Douglas.

Because there was no body, Kivlan and his coworkers proceeded with the case using pieced-together webs of evidence like the bloody jacket and the phone calls that linked Douglas to the disappearance.

"We were fully prepared to go forward and we felt that without a body, we could [still] get a conviction," Kivlan said. "As the trial was about to start, he pled guilty and admitted that he had killed her and admitted that he had stolen funds from Tufts, too."

Douglas revealed that he had bludgeoned Benedict with a sledgehammer and dumped her body into a trash container in Rhode Island.

Subsequently, Douglas was convicted and sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison, the maximum for the manslaughter charge he confessed to.

Gittleman said that Douglas had shown signs of irregularity from the onset, beginning with his compulsive and bizarre work habits.

"It started with his personality, probably. He worked all night; he was a compulsive researcher," he said.

These peculiar habits went hand in hand with an overall unhealthy lifestyle, according to Gittleman.

"He was a brilliant scientist, a very, very smart guy," he said. "But he also weighed about 300 pounds. He pleaded the Twinkie case and said he got irritated losing weight."