By: Kirsten West Savali, Your Black World
Before Wayne Williams, there was Lee Evans.
There have been documentaries, books and general dissemination of facts and speculation about the infamous “Atlanta Child Murders” --- the horrendous slaying of over 25 children in Southwest Atlanta (The SWATS) that occurred between 1979-1981. Though Williams stands convicted of the crime, achieving infamy and notoriety, few people have heard of Evans, who now stands accused of the 1978 murders of five New Jersey boys.
In that year, five New Jersey teenagers disappeared without a trace. For more than three decades, the case sat cold, before winding up before a jury Friday. Prosecutors claim that Evans burned the teenagers alive because they stole marijuana from him; but, Evans, who represented himself with assistance from state appointed attorney, Bukie Adetula, told the jury that there was no evidence against him.
"I am innocent of these charges," Evans told the jury during his 40-minute closing arguments. "First and foremost: I am not a murderer."
The boys were last seen August 20, 1978. Prosecution witnesses gave conflicting times for when they last saw the boys that fateful day, leading Evans to accuse the prosecution’s case of being flawed and inconsistence. Philander Hampton, cousin of the defendant and star witness for the state, pled guilty to the charges and implicated Evans in exchange for a $15,000 relocation fund and a shortened 10-year sentence.
Hampton told two investigators on the verge of retirement that his cousin was angry because the teens had stolen one pound of marijuana from his apartment. Huffington Post reports that his comments in 2008, and on further questioning, he revealed a grisly crime:
He said he had helped Evans lure the teens to a vacant Newark house after asking them to help move some boxes, herded the boys into a closet and secured the door with a 6-inch nail. He said Evans poured gasoline around the perimeter, demanded that Hampton give him a match and set the house ablaze.
The bodies of the boys: 17-year-olds Melvin Pittman and Ernest Taylor and 16-year-olds Alvin Turner, Randy Johnson and Michael McDowell were never discovered. They were not reported missing until after the fire and the abandoned house had not been investigated as a crime scene.
Adetula scoffed at the feasibility of such a crime, asking the jury:
"Nobody is screaming? Nobody is fighting? Five boys, at least two of them big enough to take on Lee Evans and Mr. Hampton, and nobody struggles? Does it make sense? A man brings a five-gallon (container) of gasoline and doesn't bring a match? Has the state proved this beyond a reasonable doubt, or are they hoping you will treat this as a `Hail Mary pass,' and hoping you will come down and catch that ball?"
According to Cheryl Cucinello, Assistant Prosecutor for Essex County, Evans was known as “Big Man” around the neighborhood, often providing the boys with odd jobs and paying them with marijuana.
"The five boys were on the cusp of manhood, he was their friend, their employer, they trusted him, that's why they went into the closet willingly with Mr. Evans," Cucinello said. "The combination of fear and trust that the boys felt toward Mr. Evans proved deadly."
Cucinello stated that family members have always suspected Evans and his continued presence in the neighborhood caused them immense pain. To Evans, though, the fact that he stayed in the very community where he allegedly committed the crimes is proof of his innocence.
"After 33 years, I've been living in the same community. I never left. I never ran anywhere," Evans said. "I've faced the same people every day."
jury began Friday and will resume Monday in state superior court in Newark.