WOBURN — From the front row of the courtroom, William McCabe winced as the judge read the charges against one of his son’s accused killers and told how 15-year-old John McCabe was bound and gagged and left to die in a vacant lot.
Half a lifetime had passed since his son’s killing in 1969. But as he listened to the judge, McCabe shook his head again and again.
As the first trial in the long-unsolved killing began, prosecutors laid out their case Tuesday, saying that Michael Ferreira swore two other teenagers to secrecy after killing McCabe and threatened to kill anyone who told.
“He told them, ‘We keep it to ourselves, we’ll be OK,’ ” Assistant Middlesex District Attorney Tom O’Reilly said during opening statements in Ferreira’s first-degree murder trial.
But Ferreira’s defense lawyer said the prosecution’s cooperating witness is not credible, and that authorities did not look at other suspects closely enough.
Prosecutors say Ferreira and two other teenagers abducted McCabe as he was heading home from a high school dance and drove him to a vacant field in Lowell, where they bound him with rope and taped his eyes and mouth shut. When they returned, McCabe had died of strangulation, and they fled.
For decades, the men kept their pact, prosecutors say. But two years ago, under pressure from investigators, Edward Brown allegedly admitted his role in the crime and agreed to cooperate with authorities, leading to the arrests of Ferreira, 59, of Salem, N.H.; Brown, 61, of Londonderry, N.H.; and Walter Shelley, 61, of Tewksbury.
Shelley was also charged with first-degree murder, while Brown, in an agreement with prosecutors, faces manslaughter charges. Their cases have not gone to trial.
In his opening statements in court Tuesday, Ferreira’s lawyer, Eric Wilson, said Brown is “fabricating his story” after intense questioning by investigators and said his statements do not match the physical evidence in the crime.
For decades, Brown denied any knowledge of the killing and only changed his story after investigators insisted he had been involved and his friends were prime suspects.
“He is questioned for hours, and they continue to tell him, ‘You’re lying, you’re involved,’ ” Wilson told the jury. “He starts to say, ‘Maybe I was involved.’ ”
Some police interrogations of Brown were not recorded, Wilson said, and Brown has since offered inconsistent accounts.
According to court documents, Brown told police that Ferreira tied a rope around McCabe’s wrist and ankles, then knotted it around his neck.
O’Reilly told jurors that Brown admitted his role in the crime without the promise of a deal. He also acknowledged that Brown was arrested in 2011 after his wife told police he had threatened to shoot her and himself.
His wife, Carolyn , told police her husband had been under “a great deal of stress” because of the trial and that she did not take his threat lightly, according to police records.
In recent years, detectives made a renewed effort to solve the case, and reinterviewed people who had spoken with authorities at the time. Those interviews led them to Brown, court documents say.
At the time of McCabe’s killing, police said they believed McCabe was targeted because he knew something about local drug trafficking.
But prosecutors now say the motive was simple jealousy. O’Reilly told jurors that Shelley thought McCabe had been flirting with his girlfriend and wanted to “teach him a lesson.”
“They said, ‘That’s what you get for messing with Marla,’ ” O’Reilly said. “They taped his eyes shut and they leave him there. Fifteen-year-old John McCabe was in total isolation.”
His body was discovered the next day by two boys cutting across the field.
O’Reilly said Ferreira has given inconsistent statements to police about the night McCabe was killed and as a teenager admitted to a friend he had killed him.
In response to O’Reilly’s opening remarks, Wilson said Ferreira’s teenage admission was made in jest, the act of a “16-year-old prankster.”
“Not something to joke about, but not an admission to murder,” Wilson said.
He also said that Ferreira’s story had remained consistent over the years, but that he could no longer remember all the details of that night.
Witness testimony is expected to begin Wednesday.