NEWARK - One night in 1978, five teenage boys disappeared without a trace in what would become one of the longest and most baffling missing-persons cases New Jersey has ever seen.
Thirty-two years later, prosecutors announced the arrests of two men and disclosed the victims' gruesome fate: They were herded at gunpoint into an abandoned building in a dispute over missing drugs and burned to death in a blaze that obliterated nearly all evidence.
"For years, their families have wondered what happened on that August day," acting Essex County Prosecutor Robert Laurino said yesterday. "Today, we believe that question has been answered."
A relative of a victim said that one of the men charged, Lee Evans, 56, confessed to him 18 months ago, setting investigators on the task of corroborating the confession. Tuesday, authorities would only say that a witness came forward then but didn't give details.
"He just told me what happened," said Rogers Taylor, brother of victim Ernest Taylor.
Over the years, investigators conducted a nationwide search, chased hundreds of dead-end leads and enlisted two psychics. In the end, the evidence led back to a site just blocks from where the victims were last seen, in the same neighborhood where four of the teens lived, played and went to high school together.
Investigators believe that's where two boys were taken into an abandoned house, followed later by three more. It was not known what pretense was used to get them to the house.
Laurino said the men restrained the boys and set the house on fire. The five were believed to have died in the flames and not from gunshots, he said.
The house was destroyed, Laurino said. The bodies were never found, possibly because no one thought to look in an unoccupied home. The boys were not reported missing until two days later.
Arrested late Monday were Evans of Irvington, who hired teenagers to help with odd jobs; and Philander Hampton, 53, of Jersey City. They allegedly acted in retaliation for the theft of some marijuana. Each is charged with five counts of murder and one count of arson.
Melvin Pittman and Taylor, both 17, and Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell, all 16, were last seen Aug. 20, 1978.