In 1975, Lloyd Lee Welch pulled up to a relative’s home along a steep hillside in Virginia, 200 miles southwest of suburban Washington. He carried two duffel bags, each weighing about 60 or 70 pounds, that had red stains and an odor of decay. A fire was built. The bags were thrown into it.

The account, described in court documents unsealed Wednesday in Bedford County, Va., appears to be one of the most compelling pieces of evidence implicating Welch in the long-ago disappearance of Sheila Lyon, 12, and her sister Katherine, 10. Authorities also announced that Welch, a 58-year-old imprisoned child sex offender, was indicted Friday in Bedford on two counts of first-degree murder in the course of an abduction.

For many Washington-area residents, the case remains an indelible memory of innocence and horror. The sisters vanished after walking to a shopping mall to look at Easter decorations and see their friends. Parents became convinced it was no longer safe to leave children alone.

“The abduction of Sheila and Katherine Lyon has haunted this community and this police department,” Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said at a news conference. “We’re finally able to start answering the questions of what happened.”

Authorities announced the indictment of Lloyd Welch in the murder of the Lyon sisters who disappeared 40 years ago. Here's how the alleged killer spent the last four decades. (The Washington Post)

John and Mary Lyon, the girls’ parents, stood behind reporters to watch the announcement on Wednesday. The couple, who have asked for privacy, held hands as they left.

Police named Welch a “person of interest” in the case last year. Recent court papers show he admitted to detectives that he left the mall with the sisters on March, 25, 1975, and said the next day he saw his uncle, Richard Welch, sexually assaulting one of the girls in his uncle’s house. Police also have seized letters Lloyd Welch wrote to his stepmother from prison, including one in which he appeared to be instructing her on what to say to detectives, the court records say. The documents have been filed in Virginia and other courts as police have sought permission to search various parcels of land and homes.

The account of the fire and duffel bags, unloaded in a rugged area of Bedford known as Taylors Mountain, came from a detectives’ interview with Welch’s cousin, Henry Parker, in December, according to a search warrant application.

“He stated, under oath, that he met Lloyd Welch at the property of 3417 and 3409 Taylors Mountain Road,” detectives wrote in the affidavit. “He stated it was in 1975. Lloyd arrived at the residence in a vehicle. He helped Lloyd get out two army-style duffel bags from the trunk of the vehicle.”

The bags, Parker said, smelled like “death,” according to the affidavit.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Henry Parker confirmed the substance of the account in the court papers. “I threw some bags in the fire,” he said, “but I didn’t know what was in the bags.”

Parker said his mother, Elizabeth Parker, who is now deceased, told him to help Welch. He said he didn’t see the Lyon sisters.

Parker said that he tried to stay away from Welch and that his family members told him: “He’s trouble. He’s trouble all the way around.”

In an earlier letter to The Washington Post, Welch said that investigators have twisted his words and that he had nothing to do with the girls’ disappearance. “They are looking at the wrong person,” he wrote.

Officials, who said the investigation is ongoing, have also identified Welch’s uncle, Richard Welch, 70, of Hyattsville, Md., as a “person of interest” in the case. He has declined to comment, but his daughter, Patricia Ann Welch, said he did not do anything wrong.

“He knows nothing about what happened to those girls,” she said.

Timeline and map of events in the search for the Lyon sisters

Should the case go to trial, prosecutors face a difficult task. Exactly where the girls were killed remains unclear — underscoring the challenges of building a case after 40 years. Crime scenes disappear. Memories fade. Records can’t be found.

Such “no-body” homicide cases are relatively rare — and the Lyon sisters case is unusual even in that group. Indeed, if jurors hear the case, it would represent the longest-known duration between someone’s disappearance and a “no-body” trial in U.S. history, according to statistics kept by Tad DiBiase, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the District who has written a book on the subject.

A 1975 sketch

Details about the case, spelled out in court records, show how heartbreakingly close Lloyd Welch was to Montgomery County investigators 40 years ago, while a massive search was underway for the girls.

In those opening days, a friend of the Lyon sisters described to detectives how a long-haired man at the mall had stared at the girls so long and so intently that she confronted him. A sketch artist made a drawing based on her description: white, late teens or early 20s, acne on his face, scars on his left cheek. That sketch, though, appears not to have been widely disseminated.

On March 25, 1975, a friend of Sheila and Katherine Lyon saw a man following and staring intently at them inside Wheaton Plaza shopping mall. The girls vanished a short time later. Their friend didn't know the man's name but described him to a police sketch artist, who drew the image on the left. The sketch bears a close resemblance to a 1977 photo of Lloyd Lee Welch when he was arrested for an unrelated burglary.

Instead, police grew more interested in another possible suspect: a man said to be about 50, who was seen talking with the girls while holding a briefcase and a tape recorder. Police released a sketch of him to the media. About a week after the disappearance, The Post published the image with an article about the search and noted the $7,000 reward available.

The day that article appeared, Lloyd Welch returned to Wheaton Plaza mall and told a security guard that he had been there the week before. He said he had seen a man with a tape recorder talking to two girls and, later, forcing the girls into a car, according to court records. Montgomery investigators were called to the mall and took Welch to a nearby station to interview him. They gave him a polygraph test. He admitted that he had provided false information about witnessing the abduction and was released, according to documents in the case.

In recent interviews with investigators, court papers say, Welch has admitted that he was the long-haired man confronted by the sisters’ friend.

Katherine, left, and Sheila Lyon. (Courtesy of Montgomery County Police)

Around that time in 1975, Welch worked for a traveling carnival, operating rides. He and his girlfriend also spent time in the Wheaton and Silver Spring areas, hitching rides, staying in motels and starting a family.

‘I did a lot of bad things’

On Nov. 24, 1977, about eight blocks from Wheaton Plaza mall, Welch broke into a home and stole about $580 worth of jewelry. He was convicted and spent five months in jail, according to court records.

He went on to more trouble — getting arrested in 1981 in Prince George’s County for breaking into a home and stealing a radio, which earned him more than two years behind bars.

In 1992, in South Carolina, a 10-year-girl who had been staying with him watched a horror movie, became frightened and got into bed with Welch. She awoke to find him molesting her. Welch pleaded guilty in 1994 and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. Three years later, in Delaware, Welch started playing pornographic movies in the presence of another 10-year-old girl. He abused that girl over more than a week, pleaded guilty and is serving a lengthy sentence in Delaware.

In prison, Welch completed at least two Alternatives to Violence programs and, in 2004, got his GED high school equivalency diploma, according to letters he mailed to his stepmother, Edna Aylene Welch, who showed them to The Post. In one 2008 letter, he reflected on his life.

“I did a lot of bad things in my life, and I guess now I am paying for it,” he wrote.

Police search for the sisters at Wheaton Plaza on April 1, 1975. (James K. Atherton/The Washington Post)

Lloyd Welch, third from the right, is seen when he was about 11 years old. (Family photo)

In other letters, Welch wrote about his hope of getting out early. “I would like to have some kind of life out there before I die,” he wrote.

And he spoke about his relationship with God, which, by his accounting, predated the legal trouble in Delaware. “Mom, I do read my Bible every day,” Welch wrote. “I told you I came to know God back in 1996 and I have not stopped getting to know him.”

A fresh look at a cold case

By 2013, a relatively new group of Montgomery County investigators was taking a fresh look at the Lyon sisters case. They came across a report about Welch, who had showed up at Wheaton Plaza a week after the girls disappeared but seemed to have been dismissed as an unreliable witness rather than being considered a suspect. The investigators decided to learn more about him and quickly focused on three groups of information:

● Welch’s criminal history, including the Maryland burglaries, a possible robbery in Iowa, the molestation of the 10-year-old girl in South Carolina, the sexual assault of the other 10-year-old girl in Delaware.

● A mug shot from Welch’s 1977 burglary.

● The long-ago composite sketch that a police artist drew after speaking with the Lyon sisters’ friend who saw a man walking and staring at the girls on the day they went missing. The sketch bore a striking resemblance to the 1977 mug shot.

The detectives began to dig deeper, speaking to relatives of Welch. They ended up at Edna Welch’s home in a rural patch of East Tennessee.

The 81-year-old “initially attempted to create an alibi for Lloyd Welch” about why he went to Wheaton Plaza a week after the girls’ disappearance, detectives would later write in court papers. In Edna Welch’s telling, Lloyd Welch had watched a news report about the case and went to the mall to try to get in on the reward money.

But in affidavits filed in court, investigators assert that Lloyd Welch had put his stepmother up to advancing the reward story.

“Lloyd Welch has admitted to investigators that he asked [Edna] Welch to say this in an effort to remove suspicion that he was involved in the disappearance of the victims,” detectives wrote.

Edna Welch said in an interview that she never lied for her stepson and that he never instructed her to lie. She did acknowledge, however,that after the Montgomery detectives visited her, she fired off a blunt letter to her stepson, saying that if he had done what the police were alleging, he needed to stay in prison.

“I could not hurt anyone like that,” he wrote back. “I cannot believe you would think like that.”

Teresa Brookland, of Baltimore, was a classmate of the sisters in elementary school. She looks on during a news conference on Wednesday. She is a former director of the Missing and Exploited Children Association of Maryland. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
‘Missing is worse than dead’

When children go missing, and stay missing, family members left behind face trauma than can exceed that faced by the family of known homicide victims. Deaths and burials prompt a mourning that humans are programmed to at least try to deal with, said Todd Matthews, a spokesman for the National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Families of the missing live in the reality that something terrible probably happened, even as they try not to think about what that may have been. “You can’t turn it off.,” Matthews said. “When you know the person is probably dead, missing is worse than dead.”

Mary Lyon, mother of the missing Lyon sisters, looks on during a news conference Wednesday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

John Lyon, father of the missing Lyon sisters, is seen during a news conference Wednesday. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Mary and John Lyon also have two sons, Jay and Joe. After the girls disappeared, two family members made their way into law enforcement. Jay became a Montgomery police officer; John worked as a victims’ advocate for Montgomery County prosecutors.

In a 1999 interview with The Post, John Lyon spoke about the feeling he gets — like a jabbing dart — whenever he hears his daughters’ names.

“If it’s something you could understand, then it would be easier to tell you how we get through it,” he said.

Dana Hedgpeth, Jennifer Jenkins and Wilborn P. Nobles III contributed to this report.