2 men charged with murder, arson in case of 5 New Jersey teenage boys missing since 1978

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

NJ accuses 2 of killing 5 teens missing since ‘78

NEWARK, N.J. — Two men have been charged with shutting five teenage boys into a house and burning it to the ground in a case that has been one of New Jersey’s greatest unsolved mysteries for more than 30 years.

Lee Evans, 56, and Philander Hampton, 53, were charged with murder and arson and are being held on $5 million bail each, the Essex County prosecutor’s office said Tuesday. A tip from a witness 18 months ago led to the arrests.

A third suspect died of natural causes in 2008.

Police say Evans routinely hired teens to help with odd jobs, and they believe the boys broke into one of the suspects’ apartments and stole marijuana. Evans was interviewed in the months after the disappearances but was cleared as a suspect.

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.

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

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