Warning: Graphic content

A sex offender accused in the 1975 abduction of sisters Katherine and Sheila Lyon from a Maryland shopping mall pleaded guilty to two counts of murder this week, answering some lingering questions in one of the Washington region's most painful mysteries.

Wearing a bright orange prison jumpsuit, Lloyd Lee Welch, 60, stood before a judge and admitted he took part in the abduction of the sisters, ages 10 and 12, who were last seen at Wheaton Plaza Mall where they'd gone to have lunch, see friends and look at Easter decorations.

"I plead guilty to felony first-degree murder," Welch said for each of the two counts.
Welch did not admit to directly killing either girl but he was held accountable for their deaths "in the commission of abduction with intent to defile".

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Welch was sentenced to 48 years in prison, as part of an earlier agreement with prosecutors. Given his age, and the fact he still has to finish a prison sentence in Delaware for the unrelated sexual assault of a 10-year-old, it is unlikely Welch will ever be released. He was prosecuted in the Lyon sisters case in Bedford County, about 320km southwest of Washington, because authorities believe at least one of the girls may have been buried there.

In court, prosecutors laid out an outline of what happened to the girls, relying in part on Welch's earlier recollections of what he saw in 1975.

Sheila, left, and her sister Katherine Lyon went to the mall to see the Easter decorations. They were never seen again. Photo / Washington Post
Sheila, left, and her sister Katherine Lyon went to the mall to see the Easter decorations. They were never seen again. Photo / Washington Post

Someone else was involved

The girls were abducted from the Wheaton mall and killed. Welch took the remains of one or both girls to land his family owned in a rural part of Bedford County, Virginia, where he tossed the remains into a fire, according to prosecutors.

Left unanswered is who, besides Welch, was involved in the Lyon sisters' deaths, where they were killed and where the bodies are. Authorities have said other people who took part in the murders are either dead or their roles could not be proven.

"It keeps me up at night," one of the investigators said recently.

Faced with the challenges of a 42-year-old case in which key witnesses have died, forgotten details or been uncooperative, and with the added burden of Welch's shifting and contradictory statements, Welch's guilty plea was seen by many as extraordinary.

"I think what they did was unprecedented," says Robert Lowery, an executive at the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

Lowery said it's frustrating not to know the full story but commended the investigators for learning what they could.

Asked after the plea if anyone else escaped justice, Wes Nance, the Bedford County Commonwealth Attorney said "I think that is an open ended question."

John Lyon hugs his wife, Mary, right, after Lloyd Lee Welch Jr pleaded guilty to murdering their daughters Sheila and Katherine Lyon in 1975. Photo / AP
John Lyon hugs his wife, Mary, right, after Lloyd Lee Welch Jr pleaded guilty to murdering their daughters Sheila and Katherine Lyon in 1975. Photo / AP
A hug for Mary Lyon, who had to wait more than 40 years for justice for her two little girls, abducted and murdered in 1975. Photo / Washington Post
A hug for Mary Lyon, who had to wait more than 40 years for justice for her two little girls, abducted and murdered in 1975. Photo / Washington Post

The surviving Lyon family have remained intensely private about the case, although parents Mary and John, both 77, and their sons, Jay and Joe were in court for Welch's plea.

Grieving dad: 'It's been a long time'

John Lyon thanked the numerous law enforcement officers and cold-case detectives who worked the case for so long.

"We just want to say, 'Thank you,'" he said in front of a bank of TV cameras and reporters in a lobby outside the courtroom. "It's been a long time.

"We're tired and we just want to go home."

Before the court appearance, the family's only known public statement in recent years came on February 11, 2014, when the Montgomery County Police Department named Welch as a person of interest and the family again expressed gratitude for their ongoing work and interest in the girls' disappearances.

The family also said it was hoping for answers, but seemed to understand the challenges to getting those.

Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger also expressed gratitude to prosecutors in Maryland and Virginia and to "the generations of cops who never stopped caring about this case, and I am most grateful for the Lyon family for their strength that inspired us all".

"We can all be assured that Lloyd Welch will never be free to victimise another child or destroy another family," Manger said.

As part of the plea agreement, Welch also has agreed to plead guilty in two, unrelated child sex assault cases in Prince William County, dating to the 1990s, that grew out of the Lyon sisters investigation, according to attorneys in the cases.

Welch accepted a 12-year-sentence for those crimes, which will be folded in the Bedford sentence keeping the overall years he will serve at 48.

Another aspect of the agreement is that prosecutors in Montgomery County have agreed not to pursue charges against Welch.

An intriguing find

It was about five years ago that the Montgomery County Police Department decided to make one final push to solve the Lyon sisters mystery.

Their approach was to act as if a call had just come in for the two missing girls and to scour the boxes and boxes of case records as if starting from scratch.

One of the most intriguing finds, early on, was a brief report - written by investigators a week after the disappearances - about an 18-year-old named Lloyd Lee Welch who had gone to a security guard at the mall a week after the girls disappeared and said he'd been at the mall on the day the girls disappeared.

 Lloyd Lee Welch was 18 when Katherine and Sheila Lyon disappeared in 1975. He went on to build an extensive list of convictions. Photo / Washington Post
Lloyd Lee Welch was 18 when Katherine and Sheila Lyon disappeared in 1975. He went on to build an extensive list of convictions. Photo / Washington Post

Welch reportedly said he'd seen a man - referenced in a newspaper article about the same time - who was said to have talked to the Lyon sisters while holding a tape recorder.

Mall security called the police, who took Welch to a nearby station and gave him a lie-detector test about his account. He failed it and was apparently dismissed by detectives as an unreliable witness.

But the detectives newly ploughing the case learned that Lloyd Welch went on to compile an extensive criminal record, including an arrest in 1977 in Montgomery County for breaking into a house eight blocks from Wheaton Plaza mall and stealing $580 worth of jewellery. The burglary case yielded a mugshot, which bore a striking resemblance to a composite sketch drawn in 1975 of a man at the mall who witnesses said stared at the Lyon girls so long and intently that one of the girls' friends confronted him.

The newly assigned detectives learned Welch was imprisoned in Delaware after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in that state in 1998. They drove to see him, not sure what to expect.

And Welch spoke to them - for eight hours.

Girls were 'burned up'

He acknowledged he was at the mall the day the Lyon sisters were reported missing, according to an affidavit detectives later submitted in court. When asked what happened to the girls, Welch said he believed they were "abducted, raped and burned up", according to the detectives' affidavit.

The investigators continued trying to uncover as much as they could about Welch.

They learned that his mother was killed when the car driven by his drunken father, Lee, crashed. Lloyd Welch was a passenger. He was placed in foster homes, ran away and started using drugs as a teenager, according to court records.

As an adult, he travelled around the country, sometimes hitchhiking, and at one point started a landscaping business in South Carolina. In that state, he also was convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old.

As the detectives gathered Welch's history, they repeatedly returned to interview him in Delaware. He would talk for hours, shifting his story and offering names of relatives he said he had seen abduct the Lyon girls and hold them captive. He also named relatives he said he had seen abuse and kill at least one of the girls.

It was that final claim - of him witnessing a murder - that the detectives tried to coax from Welch in detail in their May 12, 2015, visit.

"This is me doing my job," Montgomery County Detective Dave Davis told Welch at the time, "and this is you trying to figure out a way to explain what you saw, what your involvement was and what we can prove and disprove. And I hope that makes sense to you."

"Yeah, it does," Welch said, according to court filings.

Welch started to describe the house where he said he and his girlfriend sometimes stayed in 1975 in the area of Hyattsville, Maryland, just outside of Washington. His father and stepmother lived there, he said, adding that it had a concrete, dungeonlike basement with access only from a rear external door.

Investigators searched a remote house where they think Katherine and Sheila may have been murdered. Photo / Washington Post
Investigators searched a remote house where they think Katherine and Sheila may have been murdered. Photo / Washington Post

Gruesome, but credible

Welch said he was in the basement, in the days after the girls were abducted and saw his father and an uncle dismember one of the Lyon sisters, according to court records. The older men threatened him, Welch said, and forced him to clean up the remains and take them to family land in Bedford, detectives recounted in pretrial testimony. It was, like so many of Welch's claims the detectives had heard, gruesome in the extreme and yet teasingly credible.

Detectives and forensic technicians searched the basement in 2015, finding it just how Welch had described it. They drilled into the concrete, trying to find patches of old blood.
And they found some, prosecutors would later write in court papers. Scientists also were able to find human DNA in at least one of the samples, but they were too poor a quality to determine a source of them.

Detectives investigated the uncle who Welch had claimed was in the basement by spending months listening to phone taps, talking to people who knew him and probing his past before prosecutors determined there was no evidence to seek an indictment. An attorney for the uncle has said the man was not involved in the Lyon case.

Lloyd Welch's father, whom he also implicated, died in 1998 in Tennessee.