BEDFORD, Va. (AP) — A convicted sex offender was sentenced to 48 years in prison Tuesday after pleading guilty in the deaths of two young Maryland sisters who vanished in 1975, a crime that went unsolved for four decades and haunted parents and children in the suburbs of Washington.
Lloyd Lee Welch Jr. pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree felony murder in the slayings of 10-year-old Katherine and 12-year-old Sheila Lyon. The 48-year sentence is part of a plea agreement that also calls for him to receive a 12-year concurrent sentence for two unrelated sexual assaults in northern Virginia.
The Lyon sisters disappeared on March 25, 1975, after walking from their home in Kensington, Maryland, to a nearby shopping center to have pizza and look at Easter decorations.
A friend of the girls later told police she saw a man staring at the girls and following them at the mall. Welch, then 18, was questioned by police, but was dismissed as a suspect as authorities focused on a description given by other witnesses of an older man with a tape-recorder.
In 2013, cold case detectives from the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland took another look at Welch after they noticed a striking resemblance between a sketch in the case file and a mug shot of Welch from the late 1970s.
Welch was charged in the girls' killings in 2015 after members of his extended family said they saw him carrying two large duffel bags on property the family owned on Taylor's Mountain in Bedford County, Virginia.
During Welch's plea hearing in Bedford Circuit Court Tuesday, Commonwealth's Attorney Wes Nance said witnesses told authorities Welch put a green duffel bag in a large fire burning on the mountain. Nance said other witnesses recalled that the fire burned for days and had "the stench of death." The girls' remains were never found.
Welch, now 60, did not speak during the hearing, except when asked to enter his plea. "My plea is guilty to felony first-degree murder," he said twice. He did not address the Lyon family when asked by Judge James Updike Jr. if he had anything he wanted to say.
Welch's attorney, Tony Anderson, said Welch acknowledges participating in the girls' kidnapping from the mall, but continues to insist that he never participated in any sexual assault of the girls and did not play a role in their killings.
"It's our hope that with this agreement ... will in some way add some closure in a meaningful, meaningful way to the Lyon family and Mr. Welch," Anderson said.
Nance said Welch repeatedly changed his account of who else was involved in the sexual assault and killing of the girls over the course of 13 interviews with police, beginning in 2013. "His credibility is open for questioning," he said.
Authorities had named Welch's uncle as a person of interest in the case, but Nance said they were never able to develop enough evidence to charge him or anyone else.
Nance said Welch's admission that he participated in the kidnapping fits the definition of felony murder — a killing that occurs during the commission or attempted commission of a felony.
Welch had faced the possibility of the death penalty. Nance said prosecutors decided against pursuing a death sentence based on changes in the law that could have prompted years of appeals and the Lyon family's wish to bring the case to a close.
The girls' parents, John and Mary Lyon, and her two brothers, thanked Montgomery County police for sticking with the investigation.
"We just want to say, simply, 'thank you,' and it's been a long, long time, and we're tired, and we just want to go home," John Lyon said.
Welch is now serving a prison sentence in Delaware for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl. Once he completes that sentence in 2026, he will begin serving his sentence in Virginia.
Nance said because the crime was committed in 1975, before truth-in-sentencing laws were passed, Welch could become eligible for parole when he reaches his early- or mid-80s. But he called the chances of Welch actually getting paroled "very slim or none."
The Lyon sisters' disappearance shattered the sense of security in Kensington, Maryland, rattling parents to the point where they no longer let their children play outside or walk to the mall without an adult.
"It deeply affected everybody in a very large radius within the D.C. suburbs. People always wanted to know who did this, who was this person, what happened?" said Teresa Brookland, a former schoolmate who remembers Katherine as sweet and friendly.
Harry Geehreng, a retired Montgomery County police sergeant who searched the mall and surrounding woods for the sisters after they disappeared, said it took a couple of days for it to sink in that the girls may have been abducted because it was a sleepy area with little crime back then.
"It was just an innocent time and people never thought the worst," Geehreng said.