Mystery of Missing Teens Solved After 31 Years
Anthony Ambrose remembers his parents' fear 31 years ago, when five teenagers close to his age disappeared in Newark, his hometown.
"Our parents were wondering, 'Was this a random act? Was it targeted?' " Ambrose says. "In my area there was concern by my parents, 'Is there someone going around kidnapping kids?' "
Ambrose, chief of detectives in the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, supervises investigators who were part of a team that arrested two suspects Monday in the case that had confounded Newark for so long.
"What actually solved it is good police work, and being relentless," says Ambrose, who was a 19-year-old security guard when Randy Johnson, Alvin Turner, and Michael McDowell, all 16, and Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17, disappeared on Aug. 20, 1978.
Prosecutors charged Lee Evans, 56, of Irvington, N.J., and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City, with five counts of murder and arson. A third suspect, Maurice Woody-Olds, 48, died two years ago. Evans and Hampton were in jail Tuesday in lieu of bail of $5 million each. Prosecutors did not know whether they had lawyers.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday night that Taylor's brother, Rogers Taylor, said Evans told him 18 months ago that he had committed the crimes.
Troy Cowan, 37, a cousin of McDowell, says family members "had our suspicions about the suspect" all along. "We're glad, but they're not very much of a surprise."
Cowan says he last saw McDowell a few days before he disappeared, when McDowell gave him money for his sixth birthday.
"He did odd jobs to keep money in the house," Cowan says. "I looked up to him quite a bit."
According to a news release from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, the five teens played basketball that summer day and were last seen getting into a pickup owned by Evans, a contractor who offered them work. The boys were taken to an abandoned home where Hampton used to live, corralled at gunpoint and restrained, and then the house was set on fire, the release says.
Detectives believe the victims had stolen an unknown amount of marijuana from one of the defendants. They died in the blaze, the release says.
At the time, though, little of that story was known.
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura, who was a Newark police lieutenant in 1978, recalls the anxiety.
"We knew this was not a good thing," Fontoura says. "Clearly someone doesn't disappear from their families and be gone this long without something bad happening to them."
Evans denied any involvement and passed a polygraph test. That stymied the investigation.
The mystery never faded, Ambrose says. He recalls discussing the case at the police academy when he joined the Newark Police Department eight years later.
"What happened to those five kids? It was one of the most famous cold cases in the city - and the county and state," he says.
Ambrose put fresh detectives on the case twice, as chief of the police department and again in his job in the prosecutor's office, which he took two years ago.
Investigators reinterviewed witnesses. They searched national databases for the teens' Social Security numbers and DNA to make sure they hadn't shown up somewhere. Some witnesses had died.
The "big break" came when a witness who was approached again provided new information, Ambrose says.
Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy says the new information was about the connection between the disappearance and the fire, which had never before been linked to the case.
Ambrose says the boys' bodies were never found because the fire consumed the building where they died and two adjoining homes, all of which imploded in the blaze. The debris was hauled away, and new homes were built in their place.
Cowan thinks about how many times he has driven by the neighborhood location with no idea of what police now say happened there.
Family members feel relief to have their suspicions validated, he says. They never thought it was a missing persons case.
"Some of the things we've always believed over all this time, we have a sense of confirmation that we were on the right track."