NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — One of the nation's most baffling cold cases remains unresolved after a jury on Wednesday acquitted a New Jersey man of locking five teenagers in a vacant home in 1978 and burning them alive in retaliation for stealing his marijuana.
No bodies were ever found, and Lee Evans, who represented himself against 10 murder-related charges, was able to poke holes in the testimony of the star prosecution witness.
Despite hearing the phrase "not guilty" 10 consecutive times Wednesday morning in a Newark courtroom, Evans said he did not feel vindicated.
"It's a situation where I heard him say: 'not guilty,' but the fact is, they put this horrible thing on you, and you still feel guilty," a visibly stunned Evans said moments after the verdict was read. He said of the verdict, "that was a jury, that wasn't the people," referring to the family members of the missing teens who packed the courtroom throughout the trial and have said publicly for decades they feel Evans is guilty.
Evans, now 58, said the revival of the long-dormant cold case had destroyed his life and livelihood.
"I'm literally tore up, ripped up inside from the case," he said. "How can you get past that?"
Several family members of the missing teenagers wept and hugged one another as the verdict was read.
"Not guilty does not mean innocent," said Terry Lawson, who was 11 when she saw last saw her older brother, Michael McDowell, climb into Evans' truck on the night he disappeared. "Mr. Evans may escape the law, but never the Lord."
McDowell said the families felt some relief by learning more about what happened to the boys.
"We are grateful this case has been brought before a jury, understanding it's difficult to ask 12 people to go back 33 years without the technology and DNA available today," she said, adding, "We know in our hearts what happened to the boys, and we know that Mr. Evans is a guilty man walking free today."
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray said they were disappointed in the verdict.
"This is a case that has bothered the collective conscious of the Newark police force over 33 years," Murray said. "This case was never forgotten, it was never put on a back shelf."
Prosecutors sought to prove that Evans, who was 25 at the time, had planned to kill the teenagers as payback for breaking into his apartment and stealing a pound of marijuana a week before they vanished. Evans, who ran a handyman business, often hired the teens for odd jobs and paid them in marijuana, prosecutors said.
The case largely hinged on the prosecution's star witness, Evans' 54-year-old cousin Philander Hampton, who agreed to testify after pleading guilty in exchange for a 10-year prison sentence and $15,000 in relocation money. Hampton was sentenced under 1978 guidelines, and expected to be freed in a matter of months.
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. He said he helped Evans lure the teens to a vacant Newark house on the night of Aug. 20, 1978, 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 was originally classified as a missing-persons case, despite the ongoing protests of family members who insisted to police that five grown teenagers wouldn't have simultaneously run away from home shortly after playing a game of basketball.
They insisted that Evans was the last person anyone saw the teens alive with. Evans told police at the time he'd dropped the boys off after hiring them for a few hours.
Over the years, investigators conducted a nationwide search for the teens, chased hundreds of dead-end leads and enlisted at least two psychics. The case went cold for decades, until a pair of Newark detectives on the cusp of retirement decided to rework it as an unsolved homicide.
During questioning by investigators in 2008, Hampton brought them to the site in Newark where he claimed the teens had been burned alive. The house had been destroyed in the blaze, and long since built over with new development.
Evans and the court-appointed 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 near Newark in the bordering city of Irvington, where many of the victims' families lived and saw him on a regular basis, and emphasized that fact as proof that he had nothing to hide.
Following the verdict, Evans was surrounded by family and supporters as he walked out of the Essex County Courthouse, saying he wasn't sure what he would do next or whether he would remain in the community.
Murray, the prosecutor, said, "with respect to this case criminally, this case is closed."
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