One night in 1978, five teenage boys disappeared without a trace in what would become one of the longest and most baffling missing-persons cases New Jersey has ever seen.
Thirty-two years later, prosecutors announced the arrests of two men and disclosed the victims’ gruesome fate: They were herded at gunpoint into an abandoned building in a dispute over missing drugs and burned to death in a blaze that obliterated nearly all evidence.
“For years, their families have wondered what happened on that August day,” acting Essex County prosecutor Robert Laurino said on Tuesday. “Today, we believe that question has been answered.”
A relative of one of the victims said that one of the men charged with the crimes, 56-year-old Lee Evans, confessed to him 18 months ago, setting investigators on the task of corroborating the confession. On Tuesday, authorities would only say that a witness came forward, but didn’t give details.
“He just told me what happened,” Rogers Taylor, brother of Ernest Taylor, told reporters on Tuesday.
Over the years, investigators conducted a nationwide search for the teens, chased hundreds of dead-end leads and enlisted at least two psychics. In the end, the evidence led back to a site just blocks from where the victims were last seen, in the same neighborhood where four of teens lived, played and went to high school together.
Investigators believe that’s where two boys were taken into an abandoned house, followed later by three more. It was not known what pretense was used to get them to the house.
Laurino said the men restrained the boys and then set the house on fire. The five were believed to have died from the flames and not from gunshots, he said.
The house was destroyed in the blaze, Laurino said. The five bodies were never found, possibly because no one thought to look for remains in an unoccupied home.
Arrested late on Monday were Evans, of nearby Irvington, who routinely hired teenagers to help with odd jobs; and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City. They allegedly acted in retaliation for the theft of some marijuana.
Each is charged with five counts of murder and one count of arson. Both were being held on bail ahead of an arraignment scheduled for yesterday.
Both men were questioned after the boys disappeared, but neither was charged. Evans passed a lie-detector test.
William McDowell, an uncle of 16-year-old victim Michael McDowell, said on Tuesday that the family always felt Evans was responsible, especially because his excuse — that he simply dropped the teens off after they were done working for him — was “lame.”
The victims — Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17, and Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and McDowell, all 16 — were last seen on a busy street near a park on Aug. 20, 1978.
At the time, Evans told police that he dropped off the boys on a street corner near an ice cream parlor.
Later that night, McDowell returned home and changed clothes, then returned to a waiting pickup truck with at least one other boy inside. That was the last confirmed sighting of any of the teens.
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