Image: Lee Evans, Philander Hampton
Essex County Prosecutor's Office
Lee Evans, left, and Philander Hampton were charged with murder and arson in the deaths of five teens in 1978.
updated 3/23/2010 8:12:46 PM ET 2010-03-24T00:12:46

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 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 then but didn't give details.

"He just told me what happened," Rogers Taylor, brother of Ernest Taylor, told reporters Tuesday.

Hundreds of dead-end leads
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, as were houses on either side of it, Laurino said. The five bodies were never found, possibly because no one thought to look for remains in an unoccupied home. The boys were not reported missing until two days later.

Arrested late 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 $5 million bail ahead of an arraignment scheduled for Wednesday. Prosecutors did not know whether the suspects had attorneys.

Both men were questioned after the boys disappeared, but neither one was charged. Evans passed a lie-detector test.

‘It's been very frustrating’
William McDowell, an uncle of 16-year-old victim Michael McDowell, said 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."

"It's been very frustrating for Michael's family and myself," he said. "Once there is a trial and there is a conviction, I'm sure there'll be closure, for me at least, anyway."

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 where they had played basketball 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.

Turner's mother, Floria McDowell, who is no relation to Michael McDowell, still remembers the meal her son cooked her that night: Roast chicken, mashed potatoes and green peas.

"He made dinner and then asked my husband if he could go out to play basketball," she recalled Tuesday. "Around midnight, I said to my husband: 'Alvin's not here.' We went out to look for him. The streets were dark and still. There was no movement, and I said, 'Something's happened.'"

The most shocking thing about hearing the news was finding out it had happened so close by, she said. "I didn't have no idea it happened right under my nose."

Newark police Lt. Louis Carrega, who worked on the case for the last three years, said the matter was never looked at as a homicide.

"It was always treated as a missing-persons case, and missing-persons cases are worked differently," Carrega said. "The kids were only reported missing after the fire, so they never put the two things together."

Retired Newark detective Everett Hairston, who investigated the case in 1978, did not recall the fire and said the fire department was not included in the investigation at the time.

"We thought it might be teenagers running away," Hairston said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Cold case from 1978 solved

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    >> plavix.

    >>> in newark , new jersey, it's been nearly 32 years since five teenage boys disappeared on a summer night. if you grew up in this area you knew about the case that haunted newark all this time. just last night all these years later, police arrested two men, charged them with murder and arson. the suspects believed the boys had stolen their drugs so they took them onto an abandoned home at gun point, tied them up and set the building on fire. just recently police got a tip that led to the arrest. newark 's mayor corey booker called the case an ang rish hanging on the hearts of the city.

    >>> we was never a celebrity.

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