On Tuesday morning a 60-year-old sex offender admitted to the felony murder of two young Maryland sisters who vanished during a trip to the mall in 1975, PEOPLE confirms.
Lloyd Lee Welch Jr. pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree felony murder when he appeared in court in Bedford County, Virginia, the Washington Post reports — partially resolving a decades-old case with a long grip on the community.
Despite Welch’s plea, key questions about what happened and by whom remain unanswered. Prosecutors have said that Katherine Lyon, 10, and 12-year-old Sheila Lyon were abducted in Maryland in March 1975 and then killed, after which their remains were disposed of — but never found.
Welch was prosecuted in Bedford because it is believed the remains of at least one of his victims was buried there, according to the Post.
According to his defense team, Welch denies being responsible for the girls’ deaths or sexually assaulting them, but he admitted to being a party to their abduction, during which they were killed and which would have led to their exploitation. Under Virginia law, that allowed him to be charged with felony murder.
On the day they vanished, the Lyon girls went to the Wheaton Plaza mall in Montgomery County, Maryland, to shop for Easter decorations and grab a bite to eat. They were never seen or heard from again.
Welch was sentenced to 48 years in prison as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. However, his sentence won’t start until after the completion of a sentence he is serving Delaware for molesting a 10-year-old girl
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As part of his deal with prosecutors, Welch agreed to plead guilty to two unrelated child sex abuse cases, according to his attorneys, with sentencing concurrent with his term for the felony murders. Montgomery County prosecutors reportedly further declined to pursue charges of their own as a result of Welch’s plea.
Bedford County prosecutors did not immediately return a call.
Welch’s admission so many years after the girls were killed — and despite a lack of physical evidence, including bodies — was heralded by some this week as an accomplishment by law enforcement.
“I think what they did was unprecedented,” Robert Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told the Post.
Welch was only developed as a suspect in recent years, after he was already incarcerated in an unrelated sexual assault case. However, he eventually gave multiple incriminating statements about his role in the Lyons case to law enforcement, only some of which were suppressed ahead of trial.
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Welch’s plea meant “we can all be assured that [he] will never be free to victimize another child or destroy another family,” said Montgomery County Police Chief Tom Manger, according to the Post.
Authorities have reportedly said they believe Welch did not act alone in abducting and killing the Lyons, but other participants are either dead or their roles could not be proven.
His attorneys — Tony Anderson, Melissa Friedman and Aaron Houchens — said the plea deal was agreed to by the Lyon family while noting it was not “absolutely what they wanted,” which would have included the location of the girls’ remains.
“Mr. Welch had deep remorse for his role in these disappearances, and by his plea and by his sentence, certainly collectively, it was our hope that it would in some small measure bring some closure for the Lyon family,” Anderson tells PEOPLE.
Katherine and Sheila’s parents and siblings were reportedly at the hearing on Tuesday. Afterward their dad, John Lyon, addressed the media.
“We just want to say thank you,” he said outside the courtroom. “It’s been a long time. We’re tired, and we just want to go home.”
• Reporting by ADAM CARLSON