|Lee Evans was charged with murder and arson in the 1978 deaths of five teenagers in New Jersey. (Essex County Prosecutor’S Office/Ap)|
32 years later, N.J. pair charged in deaths of 5 teenagers
NEWARK — One night in 1978, five teenage males disappeared without a trace in what would become one of the longest and most baffling missing-persons cases New Jersey has ever seen.
Thirty-two years later, prosecutors yesterday announced the arrests of two men and disclosed the victims’ gruesome fate: They were 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.
“For years, their families have wondered what happened on that August day,’’ Robert Laurino, acting Essex prosecutor, said yesterday. “Today, we believe that question has been answered.’’
The break in the case occurred when a witness with direct knowledge of the slayings came forward 18 months ago. Authorities would not give details on what the witness saw or whether that person took part in the crimes.
Over the years, investigators conducted a nationwide search for the teens, chased hundreds of dead-end leads, and enlisted at least two psychics. In the end, the evidence led back to a site just blocks from where the victims were last seen, in the same neighborhood where four of the teens lived, played, and went to high school together.
Laurino said the men restrained the youths and then set the house on fire. The five were believed to have died from the flames and not from gunshots, he said.
The house was destroyed in the blaze, as were houses on either side of it, Laurino said. The five bodies were never found, possibly because no one thought to look for remains in an unoccupied home.
Arrested late Monday were Lee Evans, 56, of Irvington and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City.
Each is charged with five counts of murder and one count of arson.