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Suspects in 1978 disappearances plead not guilty

From Jean Shin, CNN
Lee Anthony Evans, left, and Philander Hampton were charged with murder and arson.
Lee Anthony Evans, left, and Philander Hampton were charged with murder and arson.
  • Two men charged in disappearances of five teens in New Jersey
  • Witness told police 18 months ago that case was linked to arson
  • One suspect had been arrested in 1978 but passed lie detector test
  • Victim's aunt says she never lost suspicions

(CNN) -- Two men charged in the 1978 disappearance of five teenagers in Newark, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to five counts of murder Wednesday morning as about 40 family members of the victims looked on.

Lee Anthony Evans, 56, and Philander Hampton, 53, were arrested Monday night. That was about 18 months after the investigation into the disappearance of the five boys was given new life; a witness came to detectives with information that the 1978 arson of an abandoned building in Newark was connected with the case, acting prosecutor Robert Laurino said.

Evans and Hampton also pleaded not guilty to arson charges.

Evans' attorney, Michael A. Robbins, maintains his client's innocence, citing Evans' full cooperation with authorities during the 1978 investigation into the disappearance of Randy Johnson, 16, Melvin Pittman,17, Ernest Taylor, 17, Alvin Turner, 16, all of Newark; and Michael McDowell, 16, of East Orange.

"In a case such as this, where the evidence has been lost, great care must be taken to prevent outrage, anger and emotion acting as a substitute in court for competent testimony, evidence and proof," Robbins said. "The magnitude of the tragedy in the case should not diminish the very sacredness of Mr. Evans' right to a fair trail."

Hampton is being represented by John McMahon from the Essex County public defender's office.

The family members of the victims sat silently as they watched Evans and Hampton enter their pleas.

Evans had been under suspicion in 1978 but was released after passing a lie detector test. Witnesses said they had seen the boys getting into Evans' pickup truck.

Helen Simmons, Michael's aunt, said she had never let go of her suspicion of Evans.

"Five kids did not run away. They were not runaways. They had no reason to run away. Five kids did not run away all at the same time, all having been picked up by Lee Anthony Evans," said Simmons, who was in the courtroom Wednesday.

"Michael's mother, my sister, died just 13 months after this, never knowing what happened to her son," she said.

"We have not forgotten Michael the last 32 years," she added. "Michael is always with us. It's just that now we do feel that we will achieve the most we can get from justice, which is empty, which is to have [Evans and Hampton] to spend the rest of their lives in jail. I would love for [Evans] to live at least another 32 more years. In jail."

Authorities believe that the alleged killings were in retaliation for the teens' breaking into one of the defendants' homes to steal marijuana. The remains of the victims have never been found.

A third suspect, Maurice Woody-Olds, died in March 2008.

Officials allege that Evans and Hampton, with the aid of Woody-Olds, lured the five boys at various times into Evans' pickup and took them to the abandoned building on Camden Street, where they held them at gunpoint before setting it ablaze, officials said.

The case will next be presented to a grand jury on a date to be determined.

Evans and Hampton are being held at Essex County Correctional Facility in lieu of $5 million bail.