The case of five missing teen-agers has baffled police for a decade, and the trail has taken investigators through youth hostels, branches of the military and even into the cult suicides by followers of Jim Jones in Guyana.
But the search has been to no avail.
Randy Johnson, Melvin Pittman, Alvin Turner, Michael McDowell and Ernest Taylor--all 16- and 17-year-olds from the Newark area--disappeared without a trace Aug. 20, 1978.
Don Griffin, associate director of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services in Washington, said that he has never encountered a case like this one.
‘They Usually Come Back’
“There are lots of instances where a group of young people will do something that will make them decide to take off,” he said. “But unless foul play came to them, they usually come back. At least one of them should have gotten homesick and called home.”
The only real lead came a few days after they disappeared when a male voice on the telephone offered to tell Sarah Johnson the whereabouts of her son and his four missing friends in exchange for $750.
The call was traced to a pay phone at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and police eventually decided that it was made by the five boys who had run away from home and were trying to get some money.
But nobody has ever heard again from the five--now grown to adulthood if they are alive.
“We talked to police all over the country, we checked with the military, religious cults. We even checked with federal agents about the bodies flown back from the Jim Jones suicides in Guyana,” said Detective Everett Hairston, who has been on the case since the five were first reported missing.
“Now we just hope that someday someone will call about them,” he said.
Good Homes, Lives
The five all hung around together that summer, and several of them had grown up in the same neighborhood, Hairston said. He said they were “basically good kids, not rowdy, and they had fairly stable home lives.”
Before Sarah Johnson and the families of the other four teen-agers decided to stop granting interviews on the subject, she said that “the only thing that keeps me going is God almighty. But every time I sit down for my dinner I get full thinking about my son and thinking maybe he’s starving.”
She said she especially misses him around 9 p.m., “when I could always hear the basketball bouncing, bouncing, bouncing as he walked home from the park.”
Shooting baskets at West Side Park was the last place anyone saw all five of the boys together that day. Hairston said they finished playing about 4 p.m. and were picked up by Lee Anthony Evans, a handyman who often hired the teen-agers to help him with odd jobs.
Evans told police he dropped the boys off on a street corner near an ice cream parlor. Later that night, Michael McDowell returned to his home in East Orange and changed clothes, hopping back into a waiting pickup truck with at least one other boy inside.
That was the last confirmed sighting of any of the five.
Hairston said Evans, known to the teen-agers as “Big Man,” was exhaustively investigated. “We followed that guy for months, gave him a lie detector test, and he came up clean.”
Hairston said he has run through every hypothetical situation he could think of. If they had stolen a car and crashed into a river, for instance, the bodies would likely have been found by now. If they had robbed a bank or ended up in prison, there would have been a record.
The same applies for military enlistment. He has checked with police in Atlanta and Chicago, where mass murderers took young victims. Still no trace.
“We have no physical evidence to suggest they are dead, and so the case remains open,” Hairston said.
His office has had little contact lately with the parents, who have said they don’t want to talk publicly about the case now.
“I think the parents have continued with their lives,” Hairston said. “But they still have a sense of hope.”