By Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
A one-time carnival worker accused in the 42-year-old unsolved disappearance of two young Maryland sisters pleaded guilty to charges of first-degree murder Tuesday, though he stopped short of admitting he killed them.
Lloyd Lee Welch Jr., 60, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the March 1975 kidnapping of Sheila Lyon, 12, and Katherine Lyon, 10, of Kensington, Md. One of the most high-profile unsolved cases in the Washington, D.C. area, the girls’ disappearance baffled investigators for more than 40 years.
The Washington Post reported that Welch was being held accountable for their deaths because, even though he denied killing the girls, they died “in the commission of abduction with the intent to defile.”
Welch was sentenced to 48 years in prison as part of an agreement with prosecutors. The defendant, who was scheduled to go on trial Tuesday, made the plea deal, in part, to also resolve two unrelated sexual assault cases he is facing, NBC Washington reported.
Welch is already serving a lengthy prison sentence in Delaware for the sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl.
The Lyon sisters’ bodies were never found, but the NBC affiliate reported that investigators believe Welch burned the girls’ bodies on family-owned land in Bedford County, Va., about 200 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. His murder charges were prosecuted in Bedford County based on that belief.
The Washington Post reported in 2015, when Welch was initially charged in the case, that he told investigators he snatched the girls so they could be sexually assaulted by him and his uncle, Richard Welch. Richard Welch was named a person of interest in the case, but was never charged.
“They were killed in order for their captors to escape detection,” Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown said in 2015.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that the question of who, besides Welch, was involved in the murders of the girls remains unanswered. Investigators said other participants are either dead or could not be tied to the crime.
“It keeps me up at night,” one investigator told the Post.
The girls’ parents, both 77, and their two brothers were all present for Welch’s sentencing. The Post reported that the girls’ father, John Lyon, thanked law enforcement officers and cold case detectives who have worked the case for more than four decades.
“We just want to say, ‘Thank you,’” John Lyon said after the hearing. “It’s been a long time. We’re tired and we just want to go home.”
The Lyon sisters vanished March 25, 1975, on their way home from a trip to Wheaton Plaza, a shopping mall in the Montgomery County suburbs of Washington. Family members said the girls went to the mall to look at the Easter decorations, see friends and have lunch at a restaurant there.
Their older brother saw them eating pizza together, and a friend spotted them walking toward home, but they never made it.
NBC reported that investigators began looking at Welch as a person of interest in 2013, when they realized that a composite sketch in the case resembled a 1977 mugshot of Welch from a burglary near the mall where the Lyon sisters were last seen.
At the time of their disappearance, Welch was an 18-year-old former worker at a traveling carnival, the news station said.
A friend of the girls who was also at the mall told police she saw a young man staring at them and following them around the mall. The composite sketch was drawn based on her description.
The sketch was never made public because investigators were focused on an older man whom witnesses said they saw talking to the Lyon girls. That man reportedly had a microphone and cassette recorder.
Police made a composite sketch of that man public, NBC reported.
Welch told a security guard at the mall that he saw the Lyon sisters leave with the man in the other sketch, the news station said. Investigators interviewed him but were convinced Welch was after the $9,000 reward offered in the case.
When interviewed again in 2013, Welch admitted that he was at the mall the day the girls disappeared. He said he believed they’d been “abducted, raped and burned up,” NBC reported.
The Post reported that in more recent interviews, Welch admitted leaving the mall with the Lyon sisters. He claimed that he later saw his uncle assaulting one of the girls.
Police affidavits obtained by the Post alleged that Welch showed up on his family’s land, located on Taylor’s Mountain in Bedford County, in March 1975 with two duffel bags that were stained red and had a strong odor of decay. Welch’s cousin, Henry Parker, told police that he helped carry the bags and throw them onto a fire.
Connie Akers, another cousin of Welch’s, told authorities that he asked her to wash a bag full of bloody clothing, which she refused to do, the newspaper reported.
Despite multiple searches on Taylor’s Mountain, no trace of the Lyon girls’ bodies has ever been found.