“I can’t continue to put this off.” And with that statement, a superior court judge in Newark set the date for the trial in the murder of five Black teens who went missing in Newark more than 30 years ago.
At a hearing on June 30, Superior Judge Patricia Costello wrangled with the Essex County prosecutor and the attorney for the lead defendant over summer schedules before settling on Oct. 14 as the trial start date for one of New Jersey’s oldest missing persons cases.
Besides the attorneys, lead defendant, court personnel and two reporters, there was only one spectator, William McDowell.
McDowell, 71, the uncle of one of the murdered teens, Michael McDowell, sat alone in the gallery. “I know the anguish Michael’s mother and my mother went through when my nephew disappeared,” he said. “I feel obligated to be here.”
McDowell and his niece Terry Lawson, 44, have been fixtures in the courtroom ever since Lee Evans, 58, and his cousin Philander Hampton, 54, were arrested and arraigned in March 2010 for killing the five young men. The only reason Lawson was not present on June 30 was because she mistakenly showed up at 9 a.m. for the 1:30 p.m. hearing.
“I’m the only one who can constantly do this,” said Lawson, who is the youngest of Michael’s four siblings and currently resides in Hillside. Her sisters don’t live in New Jersey, and their mother died of leukemia one year after her only son disappeared.
Michael, 16, and his four friends, Alvin Turner and Randy Johnson, both 16, and Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor, both 17, met to play basketball at West Side Park in Newark on the night of Aug. 20, 1978, and were never seen again.
“My sister died with Michael on her mind,” recalls McDowell. “She would sit by the window for hours and hours, hoping her son would come home.”
Lawson said they all counted on Michael. “My mother was sick and couldn’t work,” he remembers. “Whenever you saw her walking down the street, there was my brother Michael right next to her. She would be leaning on his shoulder.”
McDowell used to socialize at a bar on 16th Street in Newark, where he recalls frequently seeing the lead defendant, Evans, shortly after his nephew disappeared. “I would just watch him,” he remembers. “We always knew he had something to do with it.”
Evans and Hampton are charged with luring the boys to an abandoned house, barricading them inside and burning the house to the ground in retaliation for the theft of some marijuana, which Evans believed the teens had stolen from his apartment. Their bodies have never been recovered.
McDowell recalls the young men. “My sister moved a lot. I would always get a truck, and Michael would round up his friends to help. They were strapping boys.”
After her brother disappeared, Lawson says her mother would have a relative drive her around Newark looking for him. “She would get out of the car and call his name.”
“Everything in our lives has been affected by this,” Lawson says. “We’ve been held hostage for 32 years.”
When the criminal trial commences in October, Lawson believes the relatives of all the boys will fill the courtroom as they did-50 strong-when Evans and Hampton were initially arraigned. “It’s hard. The parents are elders. Some of them are physically unable. They’re ill. I believe their illnesses were spurred by this. The grief is constant.”
Lawson has three children of her own. “I can’t imagine living 32 years and not knowing where my child is or what happened to him. These parents are holding on for a verdict.”