Philander Johnson Pleads Guilty In '78 Murder Of 5 Teens
NEWARK, N.J. -- A New Jersey man pleaded guilty Tuesday to murdering five teenagers in 1978 in what was one of the state's longest-running cold cases.
Philander Hampton, of Jersey City, told police three years ago that he and a cousin, Lee Evans of nearby Irvington, lured the teens to an abandoned house in Newark with the promise of odd jobs, then locked them inside and set the house on fire.
The attack allegedly was prompted by stolen drugs.
Melvin Pittman, Ernest Taylor, Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were last seen on a busy street near a park where they had played basketball on Aug. 20, 1978.
Evans is scheduled to go to trial this fall.
Though family members long suspected Evans, a local handyman who frequently hired local youths, the case stumped investigators for years.
The friends were last seen on a busy Newark street. Later that night, McDowell went home and changed clothes, then returned to a waiting pickup truck with at least one other boy inside. That was the last confirmed sighting of any of the teens.
According to prosecutors, Hampton took detectives to the former spot of the abandoned house in 2008. The blaze destroyed nearly all evidence and hampered the investigation from the outset because the fire occurred before the five boys were reported missing and no connection was made between the two, authorities said at the time of Evans' and Hampton's arrest last year.
Since his arrest, Hampton had been and out of court as he tried to have his 2008 statements to police barred on legal grounds. But state Superior Court Judge Patricia Costello ruled the statement admissible this spring. Hampton pleaded guilty to five counts of felony murder before Costello on Tuesday.
Evans has been free on bail since last summer. He dismissed one attorney last fall and has sought to represent himself at his trial. Costello earlier this year found him mentally competent to stand trial after prosecutors asked for a psychiatric examination.