A new attorney was assigned Tuesday to represent one of the men charged in the deaths of five teenagers who disappeared in 1978 in a case that became one of the longest unsolved mysteries in the state's history.
Lee Evans, who received a new public defender, and his cousin Philander Hampton appeared Tuesday in state Superior Court in Newark for a status conference in their cases.
Prosecutors say Evans, of Irvington, and Hampton, of Jersey City, killed the teenage boys in a dispute over missing drugs by herding them at gunpoint into an abandoned building and setting it on fire. Each man pleaded not guilty to five counts of murder and one count of arson.
Law enforcement officials, including some who investigated the teens' disappearance in 1978, have said the inquiry was hampered at the outset because the fire occurred before the boys were reported missing and no one connected the two. The investigation languished for nearly three decades until authorities said there was a major break in the case about two years ago, though they have not fully explained what the break entailed.
Evans, whose last known address in neighboring Irvington is a few miles from where four of the five teens lived, regularly hired local youths for odd jobs. Hampton also performed various jobs for Evans and rented an apartment in the building where the boys died, authorities said.
The name of Evans' new public defender wasn't disclosed, and it was unclear why the change was requested. Several messages left for his former court-appointed lawyer, Michael Robbins, were not immediately returned.
The change was requested on Evans' behalf by Deputy Public Defender Michael Marucci, who declined to comment on it, as did a spokesman for the state Office of the Public Defender.
Evans, 57, has been out on bail since August, when Robbins negotiated his bail down from $5 million to $950,000. Hampton, 53, remains in custody.
Essex County assistant prosecutor Peter Guarino has filed a motion to have separate trials for the men, who are due back in court Oct. 13.