A New Jersey man on Wednesday was acquitted of locking five teenagers in an abandoned home in 1978 and burning them to death in retaliation for stealing marijuana, ending a case that went cold until 2008 because no bodies were ever found.
A jury in Newark found Lee Evans not guilty of 10 murder-related counts in the deaths of the teens.
Evans represented himself and denied killing the boys.
"It's a situation where I heard him say: 'not guilty,' but the fact is, they put this horrible thing on you, and you still feel guilty," a visibly stunned Evans said outside the courtroom moments after the verdict was read. He said he didn't feel vindicated by the verdict, as that the case had destroyed his life and livelihood.
"I'm literally tore up, ripped up inside from the case," he said. "How can you get past that?"
Several family members of the missing teenagers, who had packed the courtroom throughout the trial, wept and hugged one another.
"Not guilty does not mean innocent," said Terry Lawson, who was 11 when she saw last saw her older brother, Michael McDowell, climb into Evans' truck on the night he disappeared. "Mr. Evans may escape the law, but never the Lord."
McDowell said the families felt some relief learning so much more about what happened to the boys.
"We are grateful this case has been brought before a jury, understanding it's difficult to ask 12 people to go back 33 years without the technology and DNA available today," she said, adding, "We know in our hearts what happened to the boys, and we know that Mr. Evans is a guilty man walking free today."
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray said they were disappointed in the verdict.
"This is a case that has bothered the collective conscious of the Newark police force over 33 years," Murray said. "This case was never forgotten, it was never put on a back burner."
Prosecutors sought to prove that Evans planned to kill the teenagers as payback for breaking into his apartment and stealing a pound of marijuana a week before they vanished. Evans, who ran a handyman business, often hired the teens for odd jobs and paid them in marijuana, prosecutors said.
The case largely hinged on the prosecution's star witness, Evans' cousin Philander Hampton, who agreed to testify after pleading guilty in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence and $15,000 in relocation money. It was Hampton's comments to authorities in 2008 that helped revive the long-dormant case.
Hampton testified that Evans was angry about the marijuana theft and was bent on retaliation. Hampton said he helped Evans lure the teens to a vacant Newark house after asking them to help move some boxes but then herded them into a closet and secured the door with a 6-inch nail. He said Evans poured gasoline around the perimeter, demanded that Hampton give him a match and set the house ablaze.
The bodies of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were never found. The boys were reported missing after the fire, and authorities at the time never connected the two events or examined the fire site as a crime scene.
The case, originally classified as a missing-persons case, went cold for decades until a pair of Newark detectives on the cusp of retirement decided to rework it as an unsolved homicide.
Several family members of the missing teenagers, many of whom attended every day of Evans' trial, said they had long believed Evans had killed their loved ones.
Evans and the attorney assisting him, Bukie Adetula, said the scenario to which Hampton testified would have been impossible and pointed out Hampton's criminal record and inconsistencies in his testimony.
Evans said he had lived and worked openly in the same community near Newark in the bordering city of Irvington, where many of the victims' families lived, and emphasized that fact as proof that he had nothing to hide.