Murder charges announced in '78 case of 5 NJ teens

Mar 23 2010 - 12:31pm

NEWARK, N.J. -- On an August night 32 years ago, authorities say, three men who believed five teenage boys had stolen their drugs herded them into an abandoned house at gunpoint, tied them up and set the building on fire, burning them alive and leaving no trace.

Those details on one of the coldest and most baffling missing-persons cases New Jersey has ever seen became known Tuesday as prosecutors announced that two of the men had been arrested on a recent tip from a witness. A third suspect died in 2008.

The teens, ages 16 and 17, had not been seen since they disappeared, and the five bodies were never found in the rubble of the destroyed house. The suspects believed the boys had stolen a pound of marijuana from one of them, the Essex County prosecutor's office said.

One of the suspects, 56-year-old Lee Evans, routinely hired teenagers to help with odd jobs, officials said. He was interviewed in the months after the disappearances but was cleared as a suspect.

Evans, of nearby Irvington, and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City, were charged with murder and arson and are being held on $5 million bail each, prosecutor's office said.

The boys, Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17, and Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell, all 16, were last seen on a busy street near a park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978.

Evans told police at the time that he dropped off the boys on a street corner near an ice cream parlor. Later that night, Michael 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.

McDowell's uncle, William McDowell, said Tuesday that the family always felt Evans was responsible.

"It's been very frustrating for Michael's family and for myself," McDowell said.

Investigators said Tuesday they believe that two of the boys were taken to the house first, and that three more were taken later. They said the tip came 18 months ago.

Four of the boys were from Newark. McDowell had recently moved to East Orange.

 

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