NEWARK, N.J. – When relatives of five teens missing for more than 30 years came face to face Wednesday in court with a man accused of burning the boys alive, they didn't see just a glowering stranger or a fugitive captured after years on the run. They saw a man many of them knew and suspected all along.
The boys left their houses one night in 1978 and never returned. Authorities revealed this week that they believe they were killed in a fire at an abandoned building over an alleged drug theft. Two men were arrested.
The revelations exposed painful memories among the victims' families, pain deepened because at least one of the men charged had walked among them for the past three decades, his life intersecting with theirs.
That man, 56-year-old carpenter Lee Evans, pleaded not guilty through his attorney to arson and five counts of murder Wednesday in state Superior Court. An attorney for Evans' cousin and alleged accomplice, Philander Hampton, also entered a not-guilty plea for Hampton. Judge Peter Vazquez continued bail for both men at $5 million each.
Both men spoke only to answer several yes-and-no questions from Vazquez during their separate two-minute appearances. Evans, handcuffed and dressed in street clothes, glanced briefly at the gallery where more than 50 of the victims' friends and relatives sat staring silently.
"It's hurtful because he knew about this from day one, and we knew it was him; you just know," said Helen Simmons, aunt of victim Michael McDowell. "It's very unsettling, it's just an added hurt."
Evans, whose last known address in neighboring Irvington is a few miles from where four of the five teens lived, regularly hired local youths for odd jobs. Since the five teens' disappearance, he has remained a visible figure in the community, Simmons said, and his niece was close friends with her own granddaughter.
Hampton, who once rented an apartment in the building where authorities say the boys died, also performed various jobs for Evans, authorities said.
Family members stayed composed during the court proceeding but later unleashed their frustration at Evans and at the passage of time.
"What I saw today was an animal; what I saw was the devil," said Terry Lawson, who was 11 when she saw McDowell, her older brother, climb into Evans' truck on the night he disappeared. "What angers and frustrates us is that he had the opportunity to have his life and raise a family. What about my brother?"
Irvington resident Teresa Harris, whose house abuts a business property used by Evans, said he worked there for about the past 10 years and once fixed her boiler. Her suspicions echoed those of the victims' families.
"He always had a lot of laughs and jokes," Harris said. "He was never a bad man; he never treated me bad. He was always OK by me, but I knew he did it. I just always knew."
Michael Robbins, an attorney for Evans, noted that his client cooperated with authorities in 1978 and passed a lie-detector test.
"The magnitude of the tragedy in this case should not diminish Mr. Evans' right to a fair trial and his entitlement to the presumption of innocence," Robbins said.
The 16- and 17-year-old victims — Melvin Pittman, Ernest Taylor, Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and McDowell — were last seen on a busy Newark street on Aug. 20, 1978. Later that night, McDowell went home and changed clothes, then returned to a waiting pickup truck with at least one other boy inside. That was the last confirmed sighting of any of the teens.
Investigators believe that the five boys were taken into the abandoned house at gunpoint and restrained, and that the house was set on fire. The blaze killed all five and destroyed nearly all evidence, authorities said.
Law enforcement officials, including some who investigated the teens' disappearance in 1978, have said the inquiry was hampered at the outset because the fire occurred before the five boys were reported missing and no connection was made between the two.
Simmons said the boys' families had to put pressure on police in 1978 to treat it as more than a missing-persons case.
"It was almost hostile," she said of the police department's interaction with the families at the time. "The police considered them runaways. You never have five kids who just leave all at once and don't come home that night."
Authorities said a major break in the case came about 18 months ago, though they have not fully explained what the break entailed. On Tuesday, Taylor's brother Rogers Taylor told reporters that Evans had contacted him and "told him what happened."
Newark police Lt. Louis Carrega said Wednesday that Evans had met with Taylor and a Newark police detective — but said that Evans had only made statements about the crime and had not confessed. Detectives also had "in-depth" conversations with a third suspect, Maurice Woody-Olds, who has since died of natural causes, Carrega said.
Police came to suspect that Evans set up the meeting to throw them off the trail, Carrega said.
While the arrests in the case vindicated what many family members said they firmly believed all along, they were a surprise to Larry Sweatte of Newark, who said he worked with Hampton for 10 years.
"I find it hard to believe that he did it," Sweatte said. "We used to rehab houses together; he's a really good carpenter, a pleasant guy, always trying to help. It really blew me off the chair when I heard the news."