THE LAST STONE
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly, $27, 304 pages
Mark Bowden is mostly known as a writer who covers military conflict in such nonfiction books as “Black Hawk Down,” “Killing Pablo,” and “Hue 1968.” But he also wrote true crime books based on his journalism while he was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire,” was about a University of Pennsylvania dental student and later a practicing dentist who was the head of Philadelphia’s “Yuppie Conspiracy,” a major drug operation. “Finders-Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million,” was about a hapless, drug-addled South Philly man who found $1 million dollars that fell off an armored car — and lived to regret it.
Now Mark Bowden has returned to the scene of a crime he reported on in 1975 when he was a cub reporter for the Baltimore News-American. In “The Last Stone,” he offers a look back at a horrendous crime and writes the sad ending to the story.
On March 29, 1975 Katherine Lyon, age 10, and Sheila Lyon, age 12, went missing from a Washington, D.C., suburban area shopping mall. Despite full press coverage from Richmond to Baltimore and a full-court police effort, the two children were never found.
The book opens a week after the girls went missing and Lloyd Welch, an 18-year-old, seventh-grade dropout with a headband over long, thick brown hair parted in the middle and a sad effort at a mustache, walked into the Wheaton Mall in Maryland and told a security guard that he knew something about the missing girls. The security guard called the police and two detectives quickly showed up to question him.
“He was scrawny and acned and mean; life had treated him harshly, and it showed. And, man, could he talk,” Mark Bowden writes. “Lloyd was a con artist. Words tumbled from him pell-mell, as if their sheer number and urgency could persuade. Whatever was true in what he said came wrapped in slippery layers of guile.”
After the two girls vanished, area children were placed on lockdown. The case was given even more notoriety as their father, John Lyon, was a local radio personality. A week after the girls were reported missing, past the point most experts agree diminishes greatly the chance that the victims will be found alive, the cops in Montgomery County, Maryland, were desperate for information and a break in the case. They were flooded with tips, but none were useful.
Lloyd Welch was taken from the mall to police headquarters and questioned. Once a tape recorder was turned on, Mr. Bowden tells us, Lloyd did what he did best. He lied.
He told detectives that he saw two girls who fit the description talking to an older man in the mall. He was given a lie detector test and failed. He then admitted that he lied to the police. The cops probably sized him up as a knucklehead who was high, and they kicked him loose after lecturing him about lying to the police.
“After that, the department didn’t give Lloyd Welch a second thought,” Mr. Bowden writes. “Not for thirty-eight years.”
In 2013, the Cold Case Lyon Squad was looking at a notorious pedophile and murderer as the suspect in the case of the missing girls. The detectives came across Welch’s interaction with the police in 1975 and thought he might be a potential witness. Welch was serving a 33-year sentence in Delaware for the sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl. After the initial interrogations, Welch himself became the prime suspect and he would be interrogated by detectives on numerous occasions.
Mark Bowden said “The Last Stone” was built primarily around a dozen long interview sessions conducted with Lloyd Welch. He viewed 70 hours of video. When he first met the four Montgomery County detectives — Dave Davis, Chris Homrock, Mark Janney and Katie Leggett — he asked the principal investigators if they had transcripts of their interrogations.
Better, they told the writer, we’ve got video.
Most of the dialogue in the book was recorded, which Mr. Bowden said he edited for concision and clarity.
Mr. Bowden also recounts how the detectives investigated members of Welch’s family, many of whom had a history of incest, child abuse and other offenses. The Welch clan were sort of like TV’s “Beverly Hillbillies,” but without the humor or good nature.
“The Last Stone” is so named as the detectives unturned the last stone to discover the perpetrator of a horrendous crime. The book is interesting and insightful and makes one sad for the unfortunate girls and their parents.
The book is well-researched and well-written, and those interested in crime and police interrogation methods will find it most interesting.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.