NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — A New Jersey man has been acquitted in the killings of five teenagers who went missing 33 years ago in Newark.
Lee Evans was accused of murdering the teens in 1978. Their bodies were never found.
Prosecutors tried to prove that Evans killed them and set fire to a vacant home after the boys stole marijuana from his apartment. Evans, who ran a handyman business, often hired the teens for odd jobs and paid them in marijuana, prosecutors said.
But jurors didn’t believe it and Wednesday morning, they found Evans not guilty of ten murder-related charges.
Evans represented himself and denied killing the boys.
The case largely hinged on the prosecution’s star witness, Evans’ cousin Philander Hampton, who agreed to testify after pleading guilty in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence and $15,000 in relocation money. It was Hampton’s comments to authorities in 2008 that helped revive the long-dormant case.
Hampton testified that Evans was angry about the marijuana theft and was bent on retaliation. Hampton said he helped Evans lure the teens to a vacant Newark house after asking them to help move some boxes but then herded them into a closet and secured the door with a 6-inch nail. He said Evans poured gasoline around the perimeter, demanded that Hampton give him a match and set the house ablaze.
The bodies of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were never found. The boys were reported missing after the fire and authorities at the time never connected the two events or examined the fire site as a crime scene.
The case, originally classified as a missing-persons case, went cold for decades until a pair of Newark detectives on the cusp of retirement decided to rework it as an unsolved homicide.
Several family members of the missing teenagers, many of whom attended every day of Evans’ trial, said they had long believed Evans had killed their loved ones.
Evans and the attorney assisting him, Bukie Adetula, said the scenario to which Hampton testified would have been impossible and pointed out Hampton’s criminal record and inconsistencies in his testimony.
Evans said he had lived and worked openly in the same community of Irvington, where many of the victims’ families lived, and emphasized that fact as proof that he had nothing to hide.
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