SOMERVILLE — Howard T. Winter, the once feared leader of the Winter Hill Gang, is an octogenarian crime fighter who is wrongly being prosecuted, his attorney said Friday, following Winter’s arraignment on attempted extortion charges.
Winter, 83, and James Melvin of Braintree, 70, appeared in Somerville District Court to face charges of conspiracy and attempted extortion in allegedly trying to collect tens of thousands of dollars from two people identified in court records only as Victim 1 and Victim 2.
But according to Winter’s defense attorney, Peter Mullane, and Melvin’s defense attorney, Martin Weinberg, their clients were attempting to help a Boston attorney who had been paying Victim 1 and Victim 2 $4,000 a week in interest on a $100,000 loan.
The attorneys said Victim 1 and Victim 2 were extorting the lawyer, and Winter and Melvin got involved to end the financial pressure on the lawyer. Mullane said he believes that Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. went after the wrong men.
“It’s a moral issue,’’ Mullane said. “Somebody is doing something to prevent a crime from being committed. Should they be punished, particularly when the government has decided not to indict Victim 1 and Victim 2, who are doing the extortion?’’
Mullane, when asked if extorting money from people who are extortionists might still be a crime, said, “You know, there’s an old saying: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
In court, Assistant Middlesex District Attorney Stephen Gilpatric outlined a monthlong campaign by Winter and Melvin during which the two elderly men allegedly made direct and veiled threats on the lives of Victim 1 and Victim 2.
Prosecutors said the two victims had loaned $100,000 cash to an unidentified person last November. When the person stopped making payments in February, Winter and Melvin contacted the two victims and said they did not have permission to loan money. Winter and Melvin then demanded the victims each make $35,000 in payments to them.
In a series of meetings, telephone calls, and voice mails that lasted until May 15, Winter and Melvin said they had connections to Boston’s North End in an alleged attempt to frighten the men into making the payments, Gilpatric said.
Several of the meetings were recorded on video and audio by State Police detectives, Gilpatric said. During one meeting, Winter made sure Victim 2 knew who he was.
“You don’t know who I am? You know something? You’re full of [expletive],’’ Winter is quoted as saying to Victim 2. “There’s no one in the [expletive] country who doesn’t know who I am.’’
Melvin, according to a State Police report filed in court, made it clear to Victim 1 and Victim 2 who Winter is, and repeatedly said that Winter had strong ties to the North End, a reference to his ties to organized crime.
“Do you know Howie?’’ Melvin asked one of the victims, according to the State Police report. “Did you ever hear of him, Howie Winter? You never heard of him? He’s been around. He’s like this with the North End. They’re like that.’’
Gilpatric asked the judge to set bail at $100,000. While acknowledging that both men had no recent entries on their criminal records, he suggested they might flee to avoid spending their latter years in jail.
The judge set bail at $25,000 cash, and both men posted bail Friday and were released with GPS monitoring bracelets.
Retired State Police Colonel Thomas Foley, who investigated the Winter Hill Gang during his career, said Friday that the new charges against Winter show that time has not changed him; he remains a criminal.
“That’s the life he’s always led. Why change now?’’ Foley said. “At this age, you think he would have smartened up by now. But apparently that’s not going to happen.’’
Weinberg said police had searched Melvin’s home and found no hoard of cash. He said Melvin had no criminal charges since 1999, when he was paroled from federal prison for a bank robbery conviction. Melvin was one of six men convicted in the 1991 attempted robbery of an armored truck in Abington.
Winter and Melvin repeatedly met with the victims at the Sons of Italy club in Medford, beginning in February, according to the State Police. On Friday the bartender in the busy basement bar declined comment.
Winter became a mob boss when he replaced Buddy McLean, who was killed in the Irish mob wars in the 1960s. Winter was later indicted, along with 20 other people, on charges that he fixed horse races.
Winter was the predecessor of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger as head of the Winter Hill organization. Bulger, who was an FBI informant at the time, escaped charges in the horse racing investigation and replaced Winter as mob leader.
Winter was released from prison in the late 1980s, but was later convicted of dealing cocaine. He was released from prison again in 2002 and has been working as a property manager.