Men Accused of Burning Five Newark Boys Alive in '78 Plead Not Guilty - NBC New York

Men Accused of Burning Five Newark Boys Alive in '78 Plead Not Guilty

Arrests made in one of NJ's oldest, most baffling cold cases



    Five Newark boys were considered missing. Now their family knows their gruesome fate. (Published Tuesday, March 23, 2010)

    Two men accused of burning five New Jersey teenagers to death in an alleged dispute over stolen marijuana in 1978 has pleaded not guilty.

    Fifty-three-year-old Philander Hampton and 56-year-old Lee Evans appeared in court Wednesday in Newark in front of several dozen relatives of the victims. Their attorneys entered their pleas.

    A judge continued bail for both men at $5 million each. They are each charged with five counts of murder and one count of arson.

    The break in one of the state's longest missing-persons case came when a relative of one of the victims said Evans confessed to him 18 months ago.

    Essex County prosecutors believe the boys were herded at gunpoint into an abandoned building and the building was set on fire.

    The boys, Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, who were both 17, and Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson, and Michael McDowell, who were all 16, were last seen on a busy street near a park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978. They were with Evans, who routinely hired teens to help him with odd jobs, police have said.

    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.

    Authorities hoped to find the boys' remains at the vacant home where they believe the teenagers died, but an extensive search with ground-penetrating radar turned up empty. To this day, detectives do not know where -- or if -- their remains are buried.

    The boys were never heard from and left no trace of evidence after they vanished that fateful August day. The circumstances of their disappearance -- a complete and total erasure of five teens who weren't the runaway types -- confounded investigators for decades.

    Detectives followed leads all across the country in an effort to solve the case of the "Clinton Avenue Five," but cops had no fingerprints and only one of the boys had dental records. And, at first, they believed they were looking for missing people, not murder victims.

    Evans was repeatedly interviewed in the months after the disappearances but passed a polygraph examination and was cleared as a suspect.

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