March 23, 2010— -- Two men were charged today with the murder of five New Jersey teenagers who vanished together nearly 32 years ago, closing one of the oldest and most baffling cold cases in the state's history.
Lee Evans, 58, a carpenter who in 1978 was the prime suspect in the boys' disappearance was arrested along with Philander Hampton, 53. Both men were also charged with arson.
Prosecutors said the man forced the boys into an empty home at gun point and set the house on fire.
Prosecutors believe a third man Maurice Woody-Olds, 48, was also involved, but he recently died. All three men were cousins.
Detectives believe the boys may have broken into the home of one of the men and stolen marijuana.
After three decades of chasing leads, some as far afield as the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, police said they were tipped off 18 months ago by a witness who came forward with information.
"With these arrests today we hope to bring closure to a 31-year-old mystery involving five teenage boys who vanished from Newark on Aug. 20, 1978,'' said Acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino. "For years their families wondered what happened on that August day. Today, we believe, that question has been answered.''
The teenagers 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.
Following their disappearance they would become known as the Clinton Avenue 5.
According to prosecutors, the boys were picked up in the evening by Evans in a pickup truck.
The boys were allegedly led to an unoccupied home in Newark where Philander rented an apartment.
"The boys were allegedly corralled at gunpoint and restrained. It is further alleged that the home was then set on fire and the boys perished in the blaze," the prosecutor's office said in statement.
Suspect in Cold Case Murder Had Passed Lie Detector Test
Evans, a carpenter who often picked up teenagers to do day work, was seen driving the boys in his truck, and told police at the time that he dropped off the boys on a street corner near an ice cream parlor.
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 lived in Newark and McDowell had recently moved to East Orange.
"We're glad that it's finally happening," McDowell's aunt told ABC News.com, "but it doesn't really change anything. We're all upset all over again."
"They arrested the person we always felt was responsible," said the aunt Helen Simmons. "We're grateful the police did persevere, but this is empty justice. I want to see a conviction. He's been out there for 32 years."