Two in court over 30-year-old killings

Carpenter and his cousin accused of locking teenagers in house then burning it down

It has been one of America's most baffling, most haunting cold cases – of five teenagers last seen together on a sweltering summer afternoon almost 32 years ago, playing a game of pick-up basketball in a park. They each went home for supper, before going out again, to earn a few dollars helping a local carpenter with a job. Then they vanished from the face of the earth.

For decades, the fate of Randy Johnson, Michael McDowell, Melvin Pittman, Alvin Turner and Ernest Taylor, was a mystery. None of the boys, aged 16 and 17, had been in trouble with police in their home town of Newark, New Jersey, and their disappearance on August 20, 1978, was initially treated as a missing persons case.

According to one early theory, they might even have been among the 918 who died in the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana three months later, but that proved a false lead. In 1986 and 1996, investigators called in psychics, who both times suggested the bodies were in garbage dumps near Newark International Airport. But searches turned up nothing. Some were convinced that handyman Lee Evans, aged 25, might be involved in the disappearance, but he passed lie detector tests.

But even in a tough working-class city like Newark, the case had a special resonance, and police never abandoned the case – and 18 months ago, the vital breakthrough came.

Mr Evans might have passed a polygraph test, but that counted for nothing when he became a born-again Christian. He appears to have gone to the brother of one of the boys, and told him he had to tell the truth. That truth, as presented by Newark prosecutors when they announced the arrest of Mr Evans and his cousin Philander Hampton this week, was more horrifying than almost anyone could imagine.

The boys are said to have stolen marijuana from one of the suspects. On that August 1978 evening, Mr Evans picked each of them up in his truck and took them to a deserted house where Mr Hampton and another suspect, who is now dead, were waiting to exact revenge.

One by one, the lawyer for the prosecution, Robert Laurino alleges, the boys were "corralled at gunpoint," before being bound and locked inside the house, which was then set on fire. The structure burnt to the ground. Today a smart three-storey house stands on the site. After being told what happened, police used ground-penetrating radar to locate the boys' remains. But nothing, not even teeth, turned up.

Today, Mr Evans, who is 56, and Mr Hampton, 53, say that no such killing took place. Yesterday, they made their first court appearance and pleaded not guilty, but will remain in prison on $5m bail, each charged on five counts of murder and arson.

Given the lack of bodies and other physical evidence, and the passage of time, the case may not be easy to prove. The last photos of the boys show them as school graduates, in caps and gowns. Even so the reaction of relatives yesterday was of relief, that part at least of the mystery had now been resolved. But not all of it. "They still haven't found the boys," Melvin Pittman's mother told the Newark Star-Ledger newspaper yesterday. "Year after year went by. I waited for the phone to ring, the door to knock. Someone to tell me they had found him. I know he's not still alive. But I want to bury him."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Advisor is r...

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003