BOSTON -- The suspect in a nearly four-decade old killing in South Boston that authorities have linked to notorious mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and his iron-fisted control of the drug trade in the neighborhood was held without bail on Tuesday.
Michael Lewis, 61, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder at his arraignment in Suffolk Superior Court in connection with the July 1984 shooting death of Brian Watson, whose body was found along a New Hampshire highway about two months after he disappeared.
Lewis “adamantly denies the allegations and looks forward to his day in court," defense attorney James Sultan said.
The slaying took place when Bulger, who was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia in 2018, terrorized the neighborhood. And although neither the suspect nor the victim had a direct link to Bulger, his influence played a role, Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden said after the arraignment.
“We had a glimpse in the courtroom today of a very different Boston, a Boston that we can never allow to happen again," Hayden said. “After nearly 40 years we are reminded of the mayhem and murder inflicted by cold-hearted and corrupt, cruel men.”
That lawless era in Boston's history has often been romanticized in the movies, said New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella, who attended the arraignment to represent several law enforcement agencies in the state that contributed to the investigation.
“I think it’s a stark reminder that while Hollywood and others tend to glorify that era, the criminal actors of that era were not Robin Hoods, they were not heroes," he said. “The human suffering and the toll that was taken from the criminal acts that were committed during that era are still being felt today, and this case is an example of that.”
Watson, 23, was last seen alive on July 16 or 17, 1984, and was reported missing by his mother on July 28 that year, authorities said. His body was found hidden among the trees and bushes by a motorist who had pulled over on Interstate 93 in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Sept. 16, 1984.
According to the prosecution's account of events, the then 24-year-old Lewis and an another man involved in the drug trade drove around the neighborhood in July 1984 looking for a drug dealer they thought had told Bulger that Lewis' associate was selling angel dust in South Boston.
As a result, Bulger had demanded a $5,000 payment plus another $1,000 per week from the man, whose name was not disclosed by prosecutors. Bulger, who was also an FBI informant, was known to shake down drug dealers doing business in South Boston.
The pair encountered Watson, who agreed to help them find the other dealer and got in their car, prosecutors said.
“While the three men drove around South Boston, Lewis suddenly turned, shot and killed Watson," the district attorney's office said in a statement.
Bulger, the model for Jack Nicholson’s ruthless crime boss in the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie, “The Departed,” fled Boston in 1994 after his FBI handler warned him he was about to be indicted. Bulger spent 16 years as a fugitive before he was caught. He was convicted in 2013 of participating in 11 killings.
Federal authorities developed a “significant break” in Watson's case in 2009, but not enough to secure an indictment, the district attorney said. But new information was developed within the past year that led to Lewis' indictment on Friday.