Details of Disappearance
Ernest was last seen in Newark, New Jersey on August 20, 1978. He was with four friends, Randy Johnson, Michael McDowell, Melvin Pittman, and Alvin Turner.
The five teens played basketball in West Side Park that evening, then got into a pickup truck driven by Lee Anthony Evans, a local carpenter who often hired them for odd jobs. Evans said he dropped the boys off at 11:00 p.m. Ernest and his friends have never been heard from again. Authorities believe they disappeared from the area of Clinton Avenue and Fabyan Place.
Several days after the disappearances, one of the boys' mothers got a phone call from someone who claimed he knew their whereabouts and would tell her for $750. The call was traced to a pay phone at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Police went there to investigate, but by the time they arrived the caller was gone. This individual has never been identified and it is unclear whether he actually knew anything about the cases.
Police initially treated the case as a runaway, but the boys' family members all said this was uncharacteristic of their behavior. Michael had a minor police record from being involved in a fistfight, but Randy, Melvin, Ernest and Alvin had never been arrested. All of them except Michael lived in Newark and were students at Weequahic High School; Michael had recently moved to East Orange, New Jersey.
Many of the missing teens' relatives are now deceased. Their Social Security numbers haven't been used since they went missing, and none of them have applied for a driver's license in any state.
In March 2010, Evans and another suspect, Philander Hampton, were charged with five counts of murder and arson in the missing teens' cases. Photos of Evans and Hampton are posted with this case summary. Authorities stated there was a third suspect, Maurice Woody-Olds, but he died of natural causes in 2008. The three men were cousins.
Evans had been a suspect in the case at the beginning, but he passed at least one polygraph test and the case went cold for decades owing to lack of evidence. It wasn't until a witness came forward in 2008 that the police were able to make progress in the investigation.
Investigators believe the five teens were killed because Evans and Hampton thought they'd stolen marijuana from them. The men allegedly took the boys to an unoccupied house in the 200 block of Camden Street, forced them inside at gunpoint, restrained them, locked them in and set the home on fire.
The house burned to the ground and the fire spread to adjacent residences. Authorities do not know where the bodies are. They searched the site of the former Camden Street residence with ground-penetrating radar, but found no evidence of human remains.
In August 2011, Hampton pleaded guilty to five counts of felony murder. He claims Evans orchestrated the crimes, and stated stated the boys were confined to a closet and the closet door was nailed shut. He agreed to testify at his cousin's upcoming trial. Hampton was sentenced to ten years in prison for this role in the crimes.
Going by 1978 sentencing and parole guidelines, and taking into account the time he's already served awaiting trial, he could be released from custody in less than a year. He will also be given $15,000 after his release to assist with his relocation.
Hampton testified against Evans at the latter's trial in November 2011; he was the star witness. Evans defended himself and presented few witnesses. There was no physical evidence to link him to the crime, and Hampton is a career criminal and drug addict. Evans was acquitted of all charges against him.
Foul play is suspected in the teens' disappearances due to the circumstances involved.