Men Accused of Burning Five Teens to Death in 1978 Plead Not Guilty

Philander Hampton and Lee Evans (AP Photo)
Philander Hampton and Lee Evans (AP Photo)
NEWARK, N.J. (CBS/AP) It was one of New Jersey's oldest and most notorious missing-persons cases. One night in 1978, five teenage boys disappeared without a trace.

Thirty-two years later, prosecutors announced the arrests of two men and disclosed the victims' gruesome fate: The boys were allegedly 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.

Philander Hampton, 53, and Lee Evans, 56, appeared in a Newark court Wednesday in front of several dozen relatives of the victims and pleaded not guilty.

They are each charged with five counts of murder and one count of arson.

The victims - Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17, and Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell, all 16 - were last seen on a busy street near a park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978.

Prosecutors say the men thought the boys had stolen marijuana from one of them. Authorities believe they forced the boys at gunpoint into an abandoned house, restrained them and set the building on fire.

The house was destroyed in the blaze, as were houses on either side of it, acting Essex County prosecutor Robert 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.

Both men were questioned after the boys disappeared, but neither was charged. Evans passed a lie-detector test. A third suspect died in 2008.

Prosecutors say the break in the case came when a relative of one of the victims said Evans confessed to him 18 months ago.

A judge continued bail for both men at $5 million each.