WOBURN — At first he thought they would just slap the boy around, to teach him a lesson for flirting with the girlfriend of one of the attackers, Edward A. Brown testified Friday about the 1969 homicide. But after abducting the 15-year-old Tewksbury boy, they took him to a vacant lot in Lowell, where they hogtied and gagged him.
“They wanted me to go with them to help them find a kid, who had been flirting with Marla, to teach him a lesson,” Brown said in Middlesex Superior Court, where Michael Ferreira, 59, of Salem, N.H., is on trial on a charge of first-degree murder for allegedly killing John McCabe.
Before the start of the trial Tuesday, Brown struck a plea deal with the Middlesex district attorney’s office that would keep him out of prison in exchange for his testimony about that Sept. 26, 1969, night when John McCabe was left tied up and lying face down in the lot.
Brown, who was 17 at the time, said he, Michael Ferreira, then 16, and Walter Shelley, then 18, drove around for a while and returned to the vacant lot later.
Ferreira and Shelley got out of the car, walked over to McCabe’s still body and crouched over him like baseball catchers. Suddenly, the two teens frantically ran back to the car, he said.
“They said he wasn’t breathing, they were startled, surprised, scared,” Brown said of the reaction of his two friends. McCabe had died of asphyxiation, according to authorities.
The case stymied investigators for decades until they made a renewed effort to solve the crime and decided to reinterview people who had spoken with authorities at the time. Those new interviews led them to Brown.
Jurors appeared to pay close attention to Brown’s testimony, which lasted for about an hour Friday and is scheduled to continue Tuesday. McCabe’s father, William McCabe, and other family members sat in the first row of the courtroom. They also appeared to listen intently to the prosecution’s key witness. The case is expected to go to the jury Wednesday or Thursday.
Eric Wilson, Ferreira’s attorney, suggested that Brown, after telling authorities under intense interrogation in 2007 that he had no knowledge of the killing, changed his story after he was offered the plea deal in 2011, “because the truth wasn’t working.”
Brown faces probation on one count of manslaughter under the plea deal, according to prosecutors.
Shelley, now 61, of Tewskbury, is to be tried separately on a first-degree murder charge.
Ferreira swore Brown and Shelley to secrecy after McCabe’s death and threatened to kill them if they told anyone, Brown testified.
“I eventually did tell . . . ,” said Brown, now 61, of Londonderry, N.H.
“I knew this wasn’t going to be going away, like I thought in 2007. I’m a parent, if something happened to one of my children, I would want to know.”
On the night McCabe died, Brown said, Shelley drove with Ferreira to Brown’s house at about 10:30 p.m. and asked him to help them look for McCabe. The teen had been flirting with Shelley’s 13-year-old girlfriend, Marla Shiner.
The three, who had been drinking beer, Brown said, soon found McCabe, walking home from a dance.
Ferreira, who was riding in the front passenger’s seat, got out of the car, put a “bear hug” on McCabe and threw the bewildered boy into the backseat next to Brown, Brown testified. Ferreira then turned in his seat and attempted to hit McCabe, who put his hands up and yelled at Ferreira to stop, Brown said.
“He was unhappy, sad, and scared, he doesn’t know what’s going on,” Brown said. “He kept saying to let him out.”
They took back roads to Lowell, and then stopped at the vacant lot. “I pushed John out the car, I thought they were just going to slap him around, do something like that,” Brown said.
But Ferreira and Shelley wrestled McCabe to the ground, Brown said.
“ ‘Get over here and help us,’ ” Brown said they yelled. Brown sat on McCabe’s legs and Shelley sat on his back. Ferreira took out rope and tied the boy’s ankles and wrists together. He then tied a rope from McCabe’s ankles to his neck, Brown testified.
Ferreira then allegedly put duct tape over McCabe’s mouth and eyes. The boy squirmed, made muffled noises, and then either Ferreira or Shelley told him, “This is to teach you for messing with Marla.”
Shiner, who now lives in California, traveled to Woburn to testify Friday, saying she and McCabe “were, more or less, acquaintances.”
She said she was unaware at the time that McCabe may have had a crush on her. Shiner learned of McCabe’s death the following day.
“When I heard the reason why I was devastated; but blame myself, no, I was not to blame,” she testified.
On her way out of the courtroom, she put her hand on William McCabe’s shoulders, and whispered to him. He placed his hand on hers and offered a brief smile.