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‘He was trying to do this for the father’

Detective labored for years to solve 1969 slaying of 15-year-old

Detective Gerry Wayne was key in solving the case. Detective Gerry Wayne was key in solving the case.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / April 19, 2011

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Many were haunted by the death of John McCabe, the 15-year-old Tewksbury boy who was slain in 1969. But few were as invested in solving the case as Detective Gerry Wayne.

The veteran detective was puzzling over it even while on leave, as he rode to chemotherapy appointments for the cancer that eventually killed him two years ago.

“He was trying to do this for the father,’’ his sister Judy Wayne recalled.

For several years, the victim’s father, Bill McCabe, had begged Wayne to find the killers who had left his son, tied up and abandoned, to die in a vacant lot in Lowell. He would call Wayne often, at all hours of the night, on duty or not.

Wayne died in April 2009 at age 53. He never saw the case solved.

But on Friday, when Wayne’s son Eric, a 15-year veteran of the Lowell Police Department, arrived at work, he got a call from the chief, who told him to show up for a press conference at the mayor’s office.

There, Eric Wayne learned that three men had been charged in connection with the killing. He dad was singled out for playing a key role in cracking the case that had vexed generations of Lowell detectives.

When the McCabe family spoke of what his father had done, Eric Wayne broke down crying. “The press conference, to me, was probably the most emotional day I’ve had in the last two years,’’ he said.

John McCabe’s sister, Roberta McCabe-Donovan, had never met Eric Wayne before Friday, but “just by looking in the audience, I could tell which one was him,’’ McCabe-Donovan said. “He just looked like he took it all to heart, like he remembered.’’

Police were vague about the break that led to the arrests and what role the detective’s work played. But Linda Coughlin, the detective who took over Gerry Wayne’s investigative folder when he died, said she would not have solved it without his work.

Wayne pored over the case file when he took over the investigation in 2005, re-interviewed witnesses associated with the case, and discovered a key person “who we didn’t have a lot of information about,’’ Coughlin said. “When I picked up the case and looked further into it, that is actually what led to the arrest being made.’’

Coughlin, Wayne’s closest friend and colleague in the department, said Wayne continued to focus on the case, even as he took leave from his job in late 2007 to deal with cancer. He believed he would return to solve it.

“He just thought he was going to leave and have some tests done, have some treatments, and then come back,’’ Coughlin said.

Gerry Wayne was known as a gruff man, “an Al Bundy’’ type with a dry sense of humor, according to his brother-in-law, Stephen Kandrotas. But the persistent calls from Bill McCabe had revealed what his friends and family said was a soft side that they had always known.

“He would call my father at home at 1 o’clock in the morning,’’ Eric Wayne said. “It was a professional thing at first, and over time it turned personal.’’

In a phone interview yesterday, Bill McCabe listed almost every police officer since 1969 who had a hand in his son’s case, expressing immense gratitude to each. When Wayne took over, McCabe said he called him every time one of his son’s old friends would stop by, just in case a tidbit of information they provided might be relevant.

“They’d tell me and I’d tell Gerry,’’ McCabe said.

“Night and day,’’ McCabe added. “He was always available.’’

Wayne did not share details with those outside the detective bureau. But everyone in his circle knew about the father who called all the time, the one who had lost his teenage son.

Wayne knew the case was close to a conclusion before his death, his family said.

“He mentioned that something big was going to happen, but he couldn’t say what it was,’’ said Ellen McDonough, one of Gerry Wayne’s sisters.

Wayne, who lost his wife to a stroke in 2004, had two sons. He would never say it out loud, but he must have been able to imagine himself in McCabe’s place, his sister said.

The news about the arrest in the case left Wayne’s family feeling proud and especially teary.

“He’d be thrilled,’’ said McDonough. “I’m sure he knows it. My family has great faith, and I’m sure he knows it. In my heart I’d like to say that he had some guiding hand in it.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.