INTO THIN AIR: Writing thrillers and the strange disappearance of the Clinton Avenue Five

by | May 4, 2021 | Lisa Black | 5 comments

by Lisa Black

On August 20, 1978, five young men disappeared along Clinton Avenue in Newark, NJ. Three of the boys were sixteen, the two others seventeen. None had been in any trouble with the law or were likely to run away. They’d been playing basketball on Clinton, separated for a while, and met up later to earn a little money by helping a local contractor move some boxes. Two more boys, brothers, had planned to come along, but their father told them no and they hopped out of the contractor’s truck—which apparently saved their lives.

None of the five were ever seen again.

The contractor, Lee Anthony Evans, was questioned. According to investigators, teens had broken into Evans’ home and stole some marijuana the night before, giving him a possible motive. But Evans took a lie detector test, passed, and was dismissed. Twenty-five at the time, he was a strapping man whom some found intimidating, but had no police record. The families of the boys were devastated and had their reasonable suspicions of the man last seen with their sons, but in the decades since, Evans remained in the neighborhood, continued to work, and had no run-ins with law enforcement.

Fast-forward thirty years. Philander Hampton, Evans’ cousin, is arrested on an unrelated charge and confesses that he and Evans took the teens to an abandoned house, ‘tricked’ or used a gun to force them into a closet, then locked its door and burnt the building down. No remains were found because, reportedly, many buildings burned in the city during this period and firefighters did not risk their lives to save or investigate apparently empty buildings.

Hampton pled guilty and served six years. Evans represented himself in the case (with the aid of an attorney) and was acquitted. The brother of one of the victims probably did not help the case when he claimed that Evans confessed his guilt to him—which seems like a rather foolish thing to do—and also that a court watcher had come to his house before the trial ‘to intimidate him.’ When the latter story was found to be false, the former lost credibility.

The main witness, Hampton, also had credibility problems, with a long criminal record and very inconsistent testimony. Yes, he went to jail because of this confession, but for much less than he would have served on the original charges.

Personally, I am not convinced of Evans’ guilt, though of course I could not be sure. The technology of lie detector tests was probably not as advanced then as it is now, and even now hasn’t improved enough to be admissible in court. The idea of tricking or using a gun to force five young men into a closet while you shut the door sounds fraught with difficulty. And if Evans wanted to harm them, wouldn’t it make more sense to approach them one by one? He knew where they lived, after all.

It’s unknown if any real fire investigation occurred and it is plausible that the remains were simply bulldozed to form a foundation for new construction. However, having seen fire investigations, I doubt they would not at least make a cursory search for victims. That pile of blackened debris might look like grayscale confetti to you and me, but firefighters develop a much more discerning eye. Workers might miss one corpse—but five?

However, if Evans didn’t kill them, what did happen? How and why did five strapping young men disappear off the face of the earth without a trace?

This is an excellent example of how the solution to a crime might be obvious from one set of facts (Evans purposely picked these kids up and they weren’t seen again) is not so obvious when viewed in light of another set (Hampton’s unlikely story, and the lack of any physical evidence to support it).

But it’s also an example of how unsolved mysteries tend to haunt us. Even for those of us not emotionally involved, it violates our sense that the world has order and reason.

Disappearances are the most unsettling of all—and, of course, thriller writers live to unsettle readers.

When a character disappears, literally every possibility is left open. Did the person leave by choice or not? [See Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Neighbor.] Even if they left voluntarily, are they still gone by choice, or not? [See Emma In the Night or Then She Was Gone.] Are they alive or dead? [See The Collector or Gone Girl or Laura.] Did they even exist in the first place? [See Beloved or The Shining.]

No spoilers, but what is your favorite thriller that centers around a character gone missing?

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5 Comments

  1. Carla Neggers

    What a tragic story. I just watched WISTING, a Nordic (Norwegian) detective series that centers on not one but a number of missing young women. Better in fiction than real life.

    Reply
    • Lisa Black

      Wisting sounds interesting! And yes, disappearances are entertaining in fiction, but so horrific in real life.

      Thanks for the kind comments on the blog!

      Reply
  2. Karna Small Bodman

    What a strange and tragic story. It also sounds like a weak motive, along with so many other inconsistencies. This would make a terrific thriller, as many other murders are investigated years later.

    One that hit close to home was the murder of lovely young Martha Moxley (daughter of my husband’s former boss!) A Kennedy relative (by marriage) was convicted and went to prison, although he always maintained his innocence and there have always been doubts. And a book was written about it.

    Thanks, Lisa, for a compelling story (I wish you, with your forensic abilities, had been on the scene back when).

    Reply
  3. Gayle Lynds

    Such a tragedy, and so frustrating, Lisa. I loved this quote: “thriller writers live to unsettle readers.” And this one certainly does me. Also, what I particularly enjoyed was your analysis following the story, the questions you asked, the inconsistencies you pointed out, and the potential for other answers. Thanks for a great blog!

    Reply
  4. Jenny Milchman

    This story brought tears to my eyes and chills to my skin. The lack of closure and knowing is heartbreaking.

    I’m afraid (literally) that I like satisfying endings in my fiction and film–open endings haunt and scare me. While reading Tim Johnston’s Descent–one of my favorite missing person novels–I had to call a friend and ask if I’d be satisfied by the end!

    Fascinating post, Lisa.

    Reply
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