It was March 25 of 1975, and the Lyon family was enjoying the start of spring break in Kensington, Maryland. The family comprised of parents, John and Mary, and their four children, 9-year-old Joe, 10-year-old Katherine, 12-year-old Sheila, and their older brother, 15-year-old Jay.
It was a warm, sunny Tuesday, and Sheila and Katherine left their Plyers Mill Road home at about 11 am. Their father John had arrived back from a night shift at the radio station that morning, and Mary was no doubt keen to get the children out of the house. The sisters headed over to the Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center, known today as Westfield Wheaton, so they could window shop and grab a pizza for lunch.
Their parents knew where they were going and expected them back by three that afternoon. Jay happened to also be at the mall that day and spotted his sisters there just a couple of hours later when he went to buy a kite. But when 3 pm came and went, Sheila and Katherine still hadn’t made their way home.
John and Mary got in touch with the police four hours after their curfew had passed, who searched both the shopping center and the nearby residential area that night. John and Mary quickly dismissed the possibility that girls had run away. Katherine and Sheila hadn’t argued with their family and were younger than the average teenage runaway. Besides, they only had around $2 each.
Police began to speak to other people who had been at the mall around the same time as the girls. Several witnesses, including a local boy who knew the girls, reported seeing them talking to a middle-aged man in a brown suit who was carrying around a microphone and a tape recorder in his briefcase. Two composite sketches were created of the man, and several people called in to say that they recognized him.
He had been seen a few weeks earlier at other malls nearby, where he approached young girls and asked them to read a typed message into his microphone. While the mystery man certainly seemed a little strange, there was nothing to link him to the disappearance of the Lyon sisters.
A friend of Sheila and Katherine also got in touch with police to tell them about a suspicious character she had seen that day. The friend had also been at the mall and claimed she noticed a man staring at the sisters. He had done it so intently that she ended up confronting him. The police created another composite sketch of the long-haired man, in his late teens or 20s, with an acne-mottled face and a scar on his left cheek.
On April 1, 1975, an 18-year-old man got in touch with Montgomery County police and claimed he had seen the girls being abducted by someone resembling the man with the tape recorder. He was taken to the station where he gave a detailed version of events and was eventually subjected to a lie detector test, which he failed. The young man admitted he was lying, and the police let him go, dismissing his story as an attempt to claim reward money.
In the months following the Lyon sister’s disappearance, police received hundreds of tips and followed up countless leads. They used specially trained dogs, searching wooded areas, garages, ponds and fields for any sign of the missing girls. They interviewed friends and family, shopping center salespeople, and even the girls’ classmates. But time and time again, they came back with nothing.
As the months turned into years with no sign of Sheila and Katherine, police had put together a list of people who they suspected could be responsible for the disappearance. The list included a known pedophile, Fred Howard Coffey, who worked a short distance from the Wheaton Plaza, and a serial rapist and suspected murderer John Brennan Crutchley. Also, a potential suspect was Raymond Rudolph Mileski, who was convicted of murdering his wife and son just two years after the Lyon sisters vanished. Mileski claimed to have information about Sheila and Katherine’s case but refused to share that information unless he was promised better conditions during his 40-year prison stay. Police did end up searching his property in 1982, but no evidence could be found linking him to the Lyon sisters.
The case went cold for several years, though detectives were periodically asked to reexamine the files. It was during one such occasion in 2013 that Detective Chris Homrock noticed something strange.
He read through the 6-page statement that had been reported by the 18-year-old man back in 1975 – the one that had long been discarded, the word ‘lied’ written on the first page. Homrock noticed that his description closely matched the police sketch of the possible suspect who had been staring at the sisters on the day they disappeared. When he looked into the man’s whereabouts, he made a worrying discovery. The man, who went by the name of Lloyd Lee Welch, was serving a 33-year prison sentence for molesting a young girl. In October of 2013, the police decided to visit Welch.
After reading his statement, Homrock suspected that maybe Welch was a witness to the crime, with Mileski being the primary perpetrator. Mileski hadn’t yet been ruled out, though he had died in prison back in 2004. Several details, like his characteristic limp, were present in Welch’s original statement.
Though Welch denied having anything to do with the Lyon sister’s disappearance, Welch was more than willing to talk to the police, who interrogated him over several hours. During this time, he gave away several vital details that suggested he knew more than he was letting on. When asked what he thought Mileski had to the Lyon sisters, Welch said:
“Well, my opinion is that he killed ’em and raped ’em; he killed ’em and he probably burned ’em. I don’t know”
There was no evidence suggesting that the girls had been burnt, so it seemed an unusual detail for him to offer to police. Eventually, after a lengthy interrogation, Welch admitted to kidnapping Sheila and Katherine but claimed that it wasn’t him who had killed them. Though at first, he said it was a minister, then a stranger who was responsible, he eventually blamed a number of his relatives.
The following year, police began to investigate Welch’s family in Virginia off the back of his accusations. But when they did so, Welch’s cousin Henry Parker revealed something slightly sinister. Parker recalled Welch stopping by unexpectedly in the spring of 1975 with two large duffle bags that he wanted to discard. The bags were stained red and had a distinct odor of death, and together he and Welch threw them on fire. When police asked fellow residents about the incident, they said that the fire burned for days and smelled just like a cremation.
During their visits to Virginia, police also searched the home of Welch’s parents, where they discovered a basement with an exterior entrance that perfectly matched one Welch had described in his interrogation. When they used luminol in the basement, police found traces of blood ‘from floor to ceiling.’ They came to the horrifying conclusion that either one or both of the Lyon sisters had been held captive and killed in that room.
On September 12, 2017, more than 40 years after the Lyon sisters disappeared, Welch pleaded guilty to felony murder and was sentenced to 48 years in prison. To this day, the bodies of Sheila and Katherine Lyon have never been found.
- The La Crosse Tribune, August 22, 1975
- The Evening Sun, May 23, 1975