Family members of five New Jersey teenagers who vanished on a summer night in 1978 sat riveted in a Newark courtroom Tuesday as the prosecution's star witness testified against the man accused of killing their relatives more than three decades ago.
Lee Evans is on trial for the murders of Melvin Pittman, Ernest Taylor, Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell, teens who were last seen on a busy Newark street near a park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978.
Prosecutors said that after some of the teens stole marijuana from Evans' home, he and his cousin, Philander Hampton, lured the boys, who sometimes helped Evans with odd jobs, to an abandoned house with the promise of hiring them. Instead, prosecutors said, Evans and Hampton herded the boys into a closet at gunpoint and set the house on fire.
Hampton pleaded guilty and was given a 10-year prison sentence in exchange for testifying against Evans. His testimony is considered central for the prosecution in a murder case in which the teen's bodies were never recovered and there is scant physical evidence.
The teens' disappearance had been one of New Jersey's longest-running cold cases until a pair of Newark detectives, on the cusp of retirement, decided to revisit the case and got a confession from Hampton in 2008.
Before that, it had been treated as a missing person's case and was never previously connected to the fire, which destroyed nearly all evidence and hampered the investigation from the outset, because the fire occurred before the five boys were reported missing, investigators said.
Taking the stand late Tuesday afternoon, the 54-year-old Hampton, wearing a baggy white shirt and tie, initially said Evans picked him up the night of Aug. 20, 1978, and told him he intended to murder the five teens. He said Evans gave him a handgun and told him to watch two of the teenagers while Evans rounded up the rest.
A few minutes later in his testimony, when asked by prosecutor Peter Guarino what Evans had told him about his intentions with the teenagers, Hampton said, "He mentioned he wanted to do something to them but didn't say what."
Hampton, who testified for less than 30 minutes on Tuesday, is expected to return to the stand on Wednesday.
Evans, 58, who is representing himself, has maintained his innocence. He has been getting assistance from attorney Bukie Adetula, who largely handled the proceedings Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Adetula moved for a mistrial after arguing that the prosecution had coached a witness to introduce evidence that previously had been prohibited by State Superior Court Judge Patricia Costello, who is overseeing the case.
Adetula got into a heated exchange with Guarino, out of earshot of the jury, until Costello intervened.
"I'm old-school enough to prefer case law to drama," Costello said. The judge admonished Guarino for allowing a retired Newark police detective to testify about a witness statement that Costello had repeatedly warned him was inadmissible, but she denied the mistrial motion and ordered the case to resume.
Family members of the missing teenagers packed the courtroom Tuesday, reacting visibly to the moments of tension and drama, and listening intently as Hampton recounted what, if his testimony is to be believed, were likely the last moments of their loved one's lives.
Gerald McDowell, a cousin of Michael McDowell, said the teenager's mother and grandparents had passed away never giving up hope that the case would be solved.
He said his aunt, Janet Lawson, who was Michael's mother, was obsessed for decades with her son's disappearance and how the case had run cold.
"My aunt, on her deathbed, her last words were: `Has anyone heard from Michael?'" McDowell said.
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