Gary Krist is the author of nine books. His latest is “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.”
It’s a story that still disturbs many longtime residents of the Washington area: On an early-spring morning in 1975, sisters Sheila and Kate Lyon — 12 and 10 years old, respectively — left their white stucco suburban house and walked to the nearby Wheaton mall for pizza. They never came back. The girls’ disappearance triggered one of the most protracted and agonizing police investigations in local history. “It wasn’t just a mystery,” as Mark Bowden explains in “The Last Stone,” his new book about the case. “It was a regional trauma.”
Bowden, the best-selling author of “Black Hawk Down” and many other books, was a 23-year-old reporter for the Baltimore News-American at the time. Assigned to cover the Lyon story, he interviewed the girls’ parents (their father, John, was a well-known radio personality) and took a personal interest in the case. And like everyone else involved, Bowden could only look on with anguish as months, then years, then decades went by without a trace of the girls. “To me, the story was sad and beyond understanding,” he writes. “As the decades passed I wrote thousands more stories, big ones and small ones. . . . Few stories haunted me as this one did.”
“The Last Stone” is Bowden’s minutely detailed account of how this coldest of cold cases finally reached some semblance of closure. The mystery’s bizarre unraveling began some 38 years after the disappearance, on a summer evening in mid-2013. Chris Homrock, the last remaining detective on the Montgomery County Police Department’s “Lyon squad,” stumbled onto a piece of evidence he didn’t remember seeing before. It was a six-page witness statement, apparently mislaid for years, in which a teenager named Lloyd Welch claimed to have seen a man leading two girls away from the Wheaton mall on the day they vanished. Police had never taken the statement seriously; for one thing, it was unrealistically detailed, and the boy failed a polygraph test. But now, Welch’s mention of a particular detail — that the man walked with a slight limp — piqued Homrock’s interest. The detective’s prime suspect (now deceased) had had a limp. Maybe Welch would be worth talking to again.
This turned out to be an understatement, especially once Homrock learned that the alleged witness was then serving a long sentence in a Delaware prison — for sexual assault of a minor. Convinced that Welch might be his long-sought break in the case, Homrock sent a team of detectives north to interrogate him. As hoped, the now-middle-aged convict proved more than willing to discuss the case. In fact, Welch talked with detectives for hours and hours, never insisting on a lawyer. The only problem was that everything coming out of his mouth seemed to be a lie. And as Bowden points out, “When someone lies that persistently, you stop listening to what he says and start wondering what he’s up to.” By the end of that first day of interrogation, detectives were convinced that Welch was more than just a witness to the crime.
The bulk of Bowden’s book describes the “masterpiece of criminal interrogation” that enabled detectives to find a path toward truth through this wilderness of deception. Good cop/bad cop techniques were just the beginning. Welch’s principal questioners — Dave Davis, Mark Janney and Katie Leggett — drew on every weapon in the interrogator’s arsenal, “alternately flattering, reasoning, bargaining, confronting, empathizing” to force this compulsive liar to make something resembling a trustworthy statement. It took numerous long sessions spaced out over 17 months, but they finally learned how to do it. “You had to forget the narrative,” Bowden explains. “The way to read Lloyd was to look past the story to its details.”
Bowden had access to comprehensive records of most of the interrogation sessions, including some with members of the extended Welch family who also fell under suspicion at one point or another. But this bounty proves to be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the wealth of transcripts and recordings allows Bowden to re-create scenes and conversations in great detail and with (one presumes) near-perfect fidelity. But for a writer perhaps more obsessed with his subject than his readers will be, there is such a thing as too much material to work with. Bowden takes us through endless permutations of Welch’s ever-changing story, leading us down every blind alley of obfuscation and pulling us into every whirlpool of internal contradiction. Much of the questioning of suspects could have been summarized to avoid sections like this:
“It’s time,” said Mark. “You’ve been carrying this a long time.”
“I ain’t been carrying nothing!”
“It’s time to tell the truth.”
“I AM telling the truth!”
“It’s time to clear this up.”
“This is clearing it up! Right here! I have done nothin’!”
This kind of wheel-spinning, combined with the likelihood that some readers will find the Welch clan difficult to stomach even in small doses, can make reading the book an unsavory experience at times.
Even so, this is a story of extraordinary persistence and the grimmest, least romantic kind of heroism there is, and Bowden tells it with the dexterity of an old pro, bringing coherence to a narrative that in other hands may have seemed merely muddled and infuriating. True, the book’s conclusion is not entirely satisfying (one turns the last page with a lingering sense of unknowable truths and unpunishable monsters), but at least some measure of justice has been served by the end. If nothing else, one person involved will never be free to repeat his horrific crimes, whatever they were, exactly. That may be all we can hope for in a case like this. “Such deliberate savagery was a thing beyond setting right, beyond the reach of justice, vengeance, forgiveness, or healing,” Bowden eventually decides. “The only right response was despair. One could only embrace the sadness, and turn away.”
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic. 342 pp. $27