Who killed Johnny McCabe?
That was what Carol “Maggie” Coffey wanted to know. She posted that very question on Topix, an online forum, on July 28, 2010.
“Does anyone remember Johnny McCabe, murdered after leaving the Knights of Columbus dance?” she wrote in her first post. The body of John McCabe, a 15-year-old Tewksbury resident had been found on September 27, 1969, bound and gagged, and left to asphyxiate in a vacant lot in Lowell.
These posts came more than eight months before three men, Edward Brown, Walter Shelley, and Mike Ferreira were charged with counts ranging from perjury to manslaughter and murder stemming from the 1969 case.
Coffey’s Topix forum picked up some replies. Anonymous posters mentioned remembering the case and offered rumors that had been around since the 1960’s. Seems a 41-year-old unsolved crime was still fresh in more than one mind. Coffey encouraged it.
“Please use this anonymous forum to come forward with what you know,” she wrote.
At the time of the murder, the Merrimack Valley Advertiser reported that the detective assigned to the case, Capt. Richard A. Cullen, thought that multiple individuals were involved. The Advertiser also reported that five days later the police had no suspects, although court records now indicate that Ferreira and Shelley had been considered prime suspects by police, almost from the start of the investigation.
Though there were leads through the years, there would be no substantial break in the case until 41 years later. That didn’t mean that many didn’t constantly wonder what happened on that night.
Roberta Donovan McCabe, John’s younger sister, said that the family always had “so many different guesses of what could have happened.”
“Who? And Why? That’s all I want to know,” she said.
Coffey had been searching for the answers to these questions too. Coffey was a classmate of John McCabe’s. She was supposed to go to the Knights of Columbus dance with John on the night of his murder, but was held back to babysit.
This is something that Coffey said has “haunted” her. Coffey became a self-described “squeaky wheel,” working to involve friends, and keep the police interested in the case.
She said she had remained involved in the McCabe mystery because of the effect he had had on her as an adolescent. She describes him as possessing a “self-confidence rare in 15-year-olds then,” evidenced by his unwavering advance to ask her to the fateful Knights of Columbus dance.
“He was a young man who had the sense of self that we all wanted to have at that age,” she said. “John had a way of making you feel things were going exactly as he planned and would be just fine if you followed him.”
This was one reason that so many continued to pursue a solution to the mystery of John’s case. Donovan said that her father, Bill McCabe, stayed involved in new information the police had in his son's murder. Whenever an acquaintance would ask if there had been any developments in the case, he’d call the police station to find out.
“He was the main contact with getting the police to get things started again, really,” she said. “They’d pick up the phone,” she said about the police, “and they’d know him by first name.”
Despite all this, Donovan said she was unaware of the push of some friends and acquaintances to get the murder solved.
“No, we had no idea ... that they had all been talking,” she said.
Coffey said that she would call the Tewksbury and Lowell Police in the days before the Internet, but that her calls often went unreturned.
“As soon as the Internet happened in my life, I started searching again.” The ability to find old classmates and network enabled Coffey to begin to discuss the case with people who might know something. She said that Robert Poulin and Paul Antonelli, two men who grew up in Tewksbury in the 1960’s and knew McCabe, “gave (her) a lot of support.”
Poulin said that McCabe’s story “did still come up from time to time,” even after he moved to Florida following school.
“I think to me the memory of John's murder was more of a thing that kept popping up over the years...and all still just wondering what happened and how could there not be an answer,” he said.
Although encouraging and communicating with Coffey, Poulin denies having a big hand in the final outcome.
“All I did was discuss what I knew, who I knew ... concerning names and details and of course feelings,” he said.
The discussion came in the form of e-mails that Coffey sifted through and exchanged with friends wishing to throw ideas around about the case. She didn’t stop, however, at discussion with friends. She emailed State Police, called a cold case detective in both 2000, and 2002, and even tried twice to enlist the governor’s help.
The story captured the attention of so many people in Tewksbury for several reasons, according to Coffey, for one, the small town helped the kids feel very close-knit and establish a “group consciousness” of sorts. Another thing of importance was how the events surrounding McCabe’s death affected everyone in Tewksbury, according to Coffey.
“None of us was guilty, but we all felt that way,” she said. Because the murder took place after a community dance, Coffey said that she and her friends were worried that the murderers were people they knew, another reason to stay involved.
“There was a wolf among us little lambs all of a sudden, and the wolf was probably one of us,” she said. “John's death made us close ranks a little sooner, perhaps, and with more resolve.”
Poulin remembers how many adolescents in the town became swept up in the details of the McCabe investigation.
“For me and I think a lot of us there was this feeling back then of mystery because we could not believe how that could have happened,” he said. “I remember the police stopping the football game victory ride as it was just getting underway and making us all go back to the high school parking lot that Saturday afternoon. They informed us what had happened and asked for information.”
In August of 2010, Coffey e-mailed the Lowell Police Department, as the LPD had jurisdiction over the case. She provided a link to the Topix forum, as well as let the police know that even now there were many individuals who would be willing to assist the police.
“I know your agency is working on this case and just wanted you to know that none of us have forgotten Johnny,” she wrote to Detective Ouellette. “We sincerely want to see this boy's murder solved and will cooperate with you in any way possible.”
“We really wanted the answer, and we wanted it in Mr. and Mrs. McCabe's time,” said Coffey. The answer came, in part, because as Coffey explained, she “pestered” the Lowell Police Department.
“Pressing buttons finally got responses,” she said. It is also Donovan’s opinion that the continual calling from her parents and friends “did the trick.”
Though Donovan said that her family was waiting on developments in the case, she never thought they would come so quickly.
“Never in a million years did we think that my parents would see this,” said Donovan. “We thought, you know, that they’d be long gone and we’d still not hear anything of it.”
When Coffey heard there might be new leads in the case in the early spring of 2011, she said that she and her friends waited “like expectant parents” for the news.
“It was kind of a relief, I should say,” Donovan said of hearing the news of the arrests.
By exhorting people on Topix to come forward with information, Coffey was simply electronically continuing a process that had begun in 1969 through word of mouth. “Someone should do something,” she wrote in the post. It turns out that Carol “Maggie” Coffey, was one of those someones.
“There was never a time when I forgot him,” she said of McCabe.
Brown, Shelley and Ferreira are due to appear in Lowell District Court on May 26 for pre-trial hearings. However, it is expected they will be indicted my a Middlesex County Grand Jury in the meantime, which would shift the cases to Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge.
Read more about the McCabe Investigation. For complete coverage, click here.