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March 23rd, 2010
04:47 PM ET

Cold case of disappearance of 5 teenage boys solved

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Philander Hampton and Lee Evans have been charged with five counts of murder and arson.

Philander Hampton and Lee Evans have been charged with five counts of murder and arson.

Gabriel Falcon
AC360° Writer

One of the most infamous and baffling cold case mysteries in New Jersey history has been solved with the arrests of two men in connection with the 1978 disappearance of five teenage boys, authorities said today.

“For years their families wondered what happened on that August day. Today, we believe, that question has been answered,” Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino said in a statement.

The suspects, Lee Anthony Evans, 56, of Irvington, and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City, have been charged with five counts of murder and arson. Bail for both men has been set at $5 million. They will be arraigned tomorrow morning in Newark.

The arrests were announced by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, the Newark Police Department, and the New Jersey Police Department.

The mystery, which has haunted the city for decades, began on a summer day nearly 32 years ago. “No case in the last 30 years has hung over the hearts and minds of our community more than this one,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said in a statement.

On August 8, 1978, Randy Johnson, 16, Melvin Pittman, 17, Ernest Taylor, 17, Alvin Turner, 16, and Michael McDowell, 16, were playing basketball in Newark before going home for dinner. The boys then went out again and were last seen going into a pickup truck owned by Evans who had offered them part-time work, Laurino said.

According to investigators, the five boys were taken to an unoccupied home on Camden Street once rented by Hampton where at gunpoint they were forced inside and restrained. The house was then set on fire. The remains of the victims have never been found.

A third suspect, Maurice Woody-Olds, 48, of Newark, died of natural causes in 2008, the prosecutor said.

As for a possible motive, authorities said the boys were suspected of stealing marijuana that belonged to one of the defendants.

The case, which had remained cold since the late 70s, was re-opened 18 months ago with a tip from an unspecified witness, the prosecutor’s office said.

"These arrests are yet another testament to the skill and professionalism routinely demonstrated by the hard working men and women of the Newark Police Department,” said Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy. “I am especially proud of the dedicated and cooperative efforts by each of the investigators from Essex County Prosecutor's Office and the NJ State Police that have brought these men to justice for their crimes.”


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