It’s 1963 and I am lost at Wheaton Plaza, an open-air shopping center in Suburban, Maryland. A curly-haired charmer with big green eyes and wanderlust, I recall the hazy image of an exterior walkway, the hems of grown-up dresses and the particular scents of Kresge’s stale popcorn, Hahn’s leather shoes and Fannie May’s mint meltaways. One moment my tiny fingers are clutched safely and a bit too tight inside my parent’s hand. Moments later, I’m tugging those fingers free. Hard to believe my highly over-protective mother let go long enough for me to toddle away, so maybe she didn’t?
One older sister said my father had sole charge of me that day as he shopped for winter coats; the other assures me no major decision such as a winter coat purchase would have been undertaken without my mother.
I was fifteen when Sheila and Katherine Lyon, aged twelve and ten, walked to my Wheaton Plaza on a spring break Tuesday. It was a day without pencils or teachers, a day for a jaunt to the mall. They were seen at the Orange Bowl eating pizza sometime midday and didn’t make it home for curfew, nor for evening television, Happy Days perhaps, or Good Times.
Both blonde and blue-eyed, younger sister Katherine had short hair and wore a red jacket, bell-bottom blue jeans and a bracelet with “Kate” spelled with black letters on white beads. Pigtailed Sheila wore round wire rims, a dark blue sweatshirt and wheat-colored corduroy pants. Their schoolgirl faces were plastered on flyers, network news and in The Washington Post for months afterward.
Our middle-class suburban world doled out taut leashes overnight. No more walks to Peoples Drug or roaming the creek behind Stoneybrook park. No more dashing out after breakfast and high-tailing it home in time for dinner. “Do you want to end up like those Lyon sisters?” my father would say.
As time passed, we’d occasionally ask, “Do you think we’ll ever find out who took those girls? Do you think they’re still alive?” And then we’d return to our lives, perhaps thinking about the sisters again when we read about other missing children, like Adam Walsh or Amber Hagerman, or Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know, a novel inspired by the Lyon sisters’ story.
Sheila’s and Katherine’s bodies have never been recovered. I think about their hands, so little at the time, smooth and young, ring-less, perhaps. Maybe they’d painted glitter polish on their nails. Their parents are still living, still waiting. Their brother, fifteen when they disappeared, later became a police detective.
At the time, a witness reported seeing two bound girls in a station wagon. In February, 2014, NBC Washington, D.C. reported that police made a break in this forty-year-old case and identified a “person of interest,” a man currently in prison for multiple sex offenses. A ride operator at shopping center carnivals, Lloyd Lee Welch (aka Michael) was seen at Wheaton Plaza the day the Lyon girls went missing. A police sketch circulated at the time bears a remarkable likeness to him.
Last September, Huffington Post reported that another lead had surfaced. And in February, the publication reported the police were closer to solving the case. Police searched land in Virginia owned by a new suspect, the ride-operator’s uncle. Richard Allen Welch, Sr. was a former security guard at Wheaton Plaza. Turns out, the person who saw the girls in the back of the station wagon was carnie Michael Welch, who admits to riding in the car with them and later witnessing his uncle molesting one of the girls. If Sheila’s and Katherine’s bodies are found on that remote mountain land, I hope they scratched glittered nails across their abductor’s face.
When my own son began to walk, I clutched his hand though malls and stayed within ten feet of him on playgrounds. Protective, yes, but by then not considered overly so. As a parent, the possibility of outliving a child guts me, worse if at the hands of a stranger.
Whenever I see a toddler with no guardian in sight, I wait at the sidelines until an adult shows up, wary of possibly being considered suspect. Did an alert adult take my hand and lead me to safety in 1963? Did someone look the other way as an offender snatched the Lyon girls? Why them and not me? No doubt the same thought haunts others who once wandered unchaperoned through Wheaton Plaza that day.
I’m quite enthralled with the idea of alternate timelines, a la Sliding Doors. I like to think the Lyon girls slipped into a kinder reality, where that evening they snuggled next to their parents for Happy Days and, years later, clutched tighter to their own children’s hands.
UPDATE: Closure for the Lyon family, in July Washington Post reported that Lloyd Lee Welch, sex-offender and former carnival worker, charged with Lyon sisters' murder.