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Horrific story of missing boys now haunting a town

It has been one of America's most haunting cold cases — five teenagers last seen together on a sweltering summer afternoon almost 32 years ago, playing a game of pick-up basketball in a park.

They each went home for supper, before going out again, to earn a few dollars helping a local carpenter. Then they vanished.

For decades, the fate of Randy Johnson, Michael McDowell, Melvin Pittman, Alvin Turner and Ernest Taylor, was a mystery.

None of the boys, aged 16 and 17, had been in trouble with police in their home town of Newark, New Jersey, and their disappearance on August 20, 1978, was initially treated as a missing persons case.

Investigators called in psychics, who suggested the bodies were in rubbish dumps. But searches turned up nothing. Some were convinced that handyman Lee Evans, aged 25, might be involved, but he passed lie detector tests.

But police never abandoned the case — and 18 months ago, the vital breakthrough came.

Mr Evans became a born-again Christian. He appears to have gone to the brother of one of the boys, and told him he had to tell the truth. That truth, Newark prosecutors said when they announced the arrest of Mr Evans and his cousin Philander Hampton this week, was horrifying.

The boys are said to have stolen marijuana from one of the suspects. On that August 1978 evening, Mr Evans picked them up in his truck and took them to a deserted house where Mr Hampton and another suspect, who is now dead, were waiting.

One by one, it is alleged, the boys were “corralled at gunpoint,” bound and locked in the house, which was burnt to the ground. Today a smart three-storey house stands on the site. Police used ground-penetrating radar to locate the boys' remains. But nothing, not even teeth, turned up.

Mr Evans (56), and Mr Hampton (53), now say no such killing took place. Yesterday, they appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to five counts of murder and arson.

Melvin Pittman's mother told a newspaper yesterday: “I waited for the phone to ring, the door to knock. Someone to tell me they had found him. I know he's not still alive. But I want to bury him.”

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