WASHINGTON — The spring day that Sheila and Katherine Lyon were abducted from Wheaton Plaza in 1975, John McCarthy was teaching 7th grade history at a school two blocks away.
Now, 42 years later, McCarthy is the state’s attorney for Montgomery County and he said the case has hung “like a specter” over the county’s law enforcement staff for decades.
McCarthy spoke to WTOP a day after Lloyd Lee Welch, 60, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder for the abduction and killing of Sheila, 10, and Katherine, 12. He was sentenced to two, 48-year terms in prison and could someday be eligible for parole.
He remembers feeling horrified that someone could snatch two young girls from a shopping center so close to their home, where they had gone for a few hours to look at Easter decorations. Sheila and Katherine never returned home.
“This is a case that I think signifies the loss of innocence here in Montgomery County … the precise date was March the 25th, 1975,” he told WTOP Wednesday.
Enterprising work by the county’s cold case detectives led investigators back to a 1975-era sketch of a man seen at the mall that fit the description of Welch, who was interviewed by detectives soon after the girls disappeared. In the intervening years, Welch accrued an extensive criminal history up and down the East Coast.
Welch’s past sex offenses often involved the abuse of young girls and includes convictions in Virginia and South Carolina. He has been incarcerated since 1997 in Delaware for a similar offense.
Detectives traveled to Delaware and spoke to Welch 13 times over the span of two years. “And he told probably 13 different versions of stories. There is no consistency to anything we got out of him. He is a pathological liar. He is a psychopath. … One thing was consistent: He did kidnap these girls with the intent to defile them, to sexually abuse them,” McCarthy said.
“One week after the girls were abducted, he approached the Montgomery County police — said he was there, and made up the story of the man with the tape recorder,” he said. “All of the sudden, you’ve got a child pedophile, who fits the sketch, who makes up the story and a detective, Dave Davis, put those facts together and said ‘let’s go talk to this guy’.”
Welch has stopped short of admitting that he killed Sheila and Katherine.
But McCarthy believes that he did. He said that likely 10 minutes after they were kidnapped, he took the girls to Prince George’s County, where Welch briefly lived and where his uncle and aunt lived. Later he took them a remote, mountainous part of Virginia four hours from Wheaton.
The girls’ final resting place is likely on Taylor’s Mountain outside of Bedford, Virginia, where Welch family members own property to this day, McCarthy said.
Court documents have said the girls were killed sometime between March 25 and April 15.
Despite extensive searches and excavations, police were never able to find any conclusive evidence of the girls’ remains, aside from possible bone fragments. Had the case gone to trial, experts were set testify in detail about what was found.
McCarthy also spoke about his relationship with the girls’ father John Lyon, who gave up a career in radio to become a victim witness coordinator in the years after his daughters disappeared.
“He worked with victims in my courthouse. I worked with John Lyon on dozens of cases where he helped families who were rape victims, murder victims,” he said. “That’s how this man gave back.”
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the decades-old cold case, McCarthy said it’s to “never give up.”