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."

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little