Mark Bowden Knows Who Killed Pablo. But Who Killed the Lyon Girls?
Hemingway once said newspapering was superior training for a writer if “he got out of it in time.” It was usually a “he” back then, and maybe Papa never had the fine pleasure of reading Nellie Bly. He means his statement as a backhanded compliment, but it’s true enough. While Papa cut his teeth in Kansas City and Toronto, Baltimore has been notably fertile as well. Laura Lippman and her husband David Simon woodshedded at The Baltimore Sun. They’re said to have done OK after that.
Mark Bowden wasn’t quite as lucky, having landed at the more yellowish Baltimore News-American where he basked in the glory of 4 a.m. cop calls before graduating to the more august Philadelphia Inquirer. He later wrote Black Hawk Down, Guests of the Ayatollah, and Killing Pablo. His latest, The Last Stone, has a smaller but haunting subject: the apparent abduction of two young sisters, Sheila and Kate Lyon, from a mall in the D.C. suburbs in the spring of 1975. No one ever found their bodies. The story lingered in Bowden’s memory, as it did in the minds of many Baltimore newspeople. Lippman herself wrote a novel based on the case. Montgomery County, Maryland, investigators couldn’t let it go, either. They worked the cold case for decades until they caught a break 38 years later.
If you want a Hollywood ending, you’ll not find one here. Instead, Bowden masterfully reconstructs an exhaustive interrogation of a single suspect. Lloyd Welch, a small-time crook and full-time lowlife from a family of them, winds up doing a long stretch in Delaware on a charge of sexual assault of a minor when the Montgomery County investigators identify him as a person of interest. The prime suspect is long dead. They just want to find the girls’ bodies for the sake of the still-living parents and they believe Welch can help them.
So begins a yearlong investigation that focuses on a conniving and self-pitying man who enjoys manipulating people but isn’t quite smart enough to know when he’s being allowed to paint himself into a corner. On the other side, we have the good cop, the bad cop, the cop who takes too much of the burden of her work home and has to go to therapy, the deliberative prosecutor and, as an added bonus, jurisdictional infighting when the probe expands into Virginia.
Bowden focuses much of the narrative so tightly it could be staged as a play with a single set, a room where the good guys sweat Lloyd to a ridiculous but necessary degree. He reduces himself to near-stenographer, which is what one does when primary sources can’t be improved upon. The good guys learn: Lloyd was at the mall and saw some guy with a tape recorder talking the girls into leaving. OK, it was a relative of Lloyd’s who got the girls to leave. OK, he was in the car too. No, wait, he wasn’t. OK, yeah, he was, but he didn’t have anything to do with raping and killing them.
And he damn sure didn’t throw one or both bodies stuffed into a duffel bag and burn them in a bonfire that raged and stank for days. Or maybe it didn’t stink. Oh, there was a bone fragment at the bonfire site but it didn’t yield any usable DNA? Hmm. Each of the principals come to their own conclusions about what happened and why. Everything turns out to be true.
Bowden has written a valentine to, but not a hagiography of, investigators who do dirty, hideous work that may well end in surprising and unsatisfactory ways. Any parent who’s lost a child will tell you closure is a lie and an insult. Cops and prosecutors will tell you they’re but cogs in an imperfect system. It’s all we have. Like William Gaddis said in A Frolic of His Own: “Justice? — you get justice in the next world; in this world, you have the law.”
(Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2, 2019)