One of the state's longest-running cold cases finally reached a courtroom Friday with the start of the trial of a man accused of killing five teenagers who vanished in 1978.
Prosecutors said in opening statements that all trails of evidence in the case lead to one man: Lee Evans, who faces five counts of felony murder and five counts of murder in the deaths of 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell.
The courtroom in State Superior Court in Newark was packed with family members of the five victims, who were last seen on a busy street near a Newark park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978. Several of the family members will be called as witnesses, the prosecution said, because they were the last people to see the boys alive.
The 58-year-old Evans, wearing a light tan suit, chose to represent himself. In a brief, seemingly unrehearsed opening statement in which his voice rose and caught with emotion, Evans pleaded with the jury to keep an open mind and disregard what he said were lies from the prosecution. He said his innocence was proved by the fact he never moved away from the area where the teens went missing.
"The most horrible thing about this is the family members and the community," Evans said. "I was in the community 30 years. Do you think I'd be facing these people every day? I was raised in a different era by a mother, who, in that era, it was if you're innocent, you don't have to go nowhere. I'm innocent. It's not that I have to prove this case; they (the prosecutors) know I'm innocent, and it will come out."
Evans is one of two suspects charged in the case. The other, his cousin Philander Hampton, pleaded guilty and was sentenced earlier this month to 10 years in prison. He's expected to testify against Evans.
The case, initially classified and investigated as a missing persons case, went cold for decades until a break in 2008. Prosecutors said Hampton told authorities that year that he and Evans lured the teens to an abandoned house in Newark with the promise of odd jobs, then locked them inside and set the house on fire in retaliation for stolen marijuana.
Hampton took detectives to the former spot of the abandoned house in an area that has since been redeveloped. The blaze destroyed nearly all evidence and hampered the investigation from the outset because the fire occurred before the five boys were reported missing and no connection was made between the two, authorities said at the time of Evans' and Hampton's arrest last year.
In his opening arguments Friday, assistant prosecutor Peter Guarino retraced the victims' last steps. He said the teens knew Evans and often did odd jobs for him. Several had also stolen small amounts of marijuana from Evans on occasion by breaking into his home and filching small enough amounts to go unnoticed, Guarino said.
When a window was broken during one such excursion and the teens knew they'd be discovered, according to Guarino, they decided to steal all of Evans' marijuana supply.
The next day, Guarino said, Evans, discovering the theft, lured the teens to an abandoned house under the pretense of hiring them to move some boxes. He locked them in a closet, nailed it shut, poured gasoline under the door and around the floors, and burned the structure down, Guarino said.
"(They) disappeared without a trace, and have been gone all these years, but they did not disappear without leaving a trail," Guarino said. "The evidence will show that the trail they left on their last day on Earth leads back to one man: Lee Anthony Evans."
How much of a trail is not clear, however, as the teens' bodies were never recovered, and there is scant physical evidence in the case.
Turner's mother, Floria McDowell, who isn't related to victim Michael McDowell, was called to the stand Friday afternoon as the prosecution's first witness.
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