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Twenty years ago this week, five teen-agers were playing basketball in a schoolyard in inner-city Newark.

Hours later, they vanished.

Thursday marked exactly two decades since that night when Randy Johnson, Alvin Turner, Melvin Pittman, Ernest Taylor and Michael McDowell disappeared.

After chasing countless leads, administering lie-detector tests, dragging rivers and combing through records, police remain mystified by the case.

"You have to wonder what transpired," Sgt. Derek Glenn, a spokesman for the Newark Police Department, said in an interview this week. "Even one of them alive, having made contact in some fashion or form, even through a third person, hasn't happened."

The five youths were all 16 or 17 when they disappeared.

Mostly average students at Weequahic High School, they lived within five blocks of each other in the poor, mostly black industrial port city. Only one had ever had a scrape with the law.

On Sunday, Aug. 20, 1978, the gang of friends quit playing ball at about 4 p.m.

Some hopped into a pickup truck driven by a local handyman, who said he dropped them off at a nearby corner.

A couple of the youths were seen on a Newark street later that night, and the mother of one told police she last saw her son drive off in the back of a truck late that night.

The most solid clue came a few days later, when the mother of another of the youths received a collect telephone call. The unidentified male caller offered to reveal the youths' whereabouts in exchange for $750.

Police traced the call to a pay phone at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and surmised it was one of the youths trying to get money after running away. The person never called back.

Yet, unlike the case of many runaways, no one has ever heard from any of the youths in 20 years. There is no evidence that they are dead, either.

Police checked military enrollments and religious cults. They even checked the bodies flown home from the Jonestown, Guyana, mass suicide in 1978 and the victims of Chicago-area serial killer John Wayne Gacy a few years later.

There are no fingerprints on record for any of the youths and dental records for just one.

The handyman was cleared of suspicion after undergoing lie-detector tests.

The parents of the youths stopped giving interviews long ago, and many of the police detectives who worked on the case have since retired.

But the case is not closed. It is classified as unsolved, or a so-called cold case, said the police spokesman. It is periodically reviewed in the event of a possible new lead or in case information was overlooked, he said. Police remain in contact with the missing youths' families.

"It intrigues a lot of people in the department," Glenn said.

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