THAXTON, Va. – The disappearance of two young Maryland sisters shook the suburbs of Washington, and remained an agonizing mystery for more than four decades.
Now another region 250 miles away is linked to the crime. Authorities say convicted sex offender Lloyd Lee Welch Jr. burned at least one of the sisters' bodies in a fire on his cousins' property on Taylors Mountain, in west-central Virginia.
Following Welch's guilty plea this week, the people of Taylors Mountain are hoping to put an end to any association between their home and the slayings of 10-year-old Katherine and 12-year-old Sheila Lyon. The sisters vanished in 1975 after walking to a shopping mall near their home in Kensington, Maryland.
"All of us feel like he stained all of our reputations. We had nothing to do with it. It's something we'd rather have not had happen here. We wouldn't want to see it happen anywhere," said Danny Johnson, who runs an apple orchard and winery on the mountain.
Taylors Mountain is perched in the Blue Ridge Mountains, north of U.S. Route 460, between Bedford and Roanoke. The mountain was settled by Cherokee Indians in the 1700s. Much later, it was known for its thriving tomato canneries, where many of the local residents worked, and its moonshine, including "some of the best brandy in this world," Johnson said.
A 1924 article in The Washington Post describes a confrontation when officers went up the mountain to shut down a still during Prohibition. Several residents warned them not to go any farther. When they continued up the mountain anyway, shots were fired at them from several directions. No one was hurt, but the officers "made a hasty retreat," according to the article.
The mountain kept its reputation for decades thereafter as a rough-and-tumble place where people watched out for each other and were reluctant to deal with outsiders.
"If something happened, they would get together then and decide how they wanted it to end up before they went to town," Johnson said.
Welch did not live on the mountain, but he had cousins, an aunt, uncle, and other relatives who did. And for 38 years, the mystery remained unresolved, despite what they and their neighbors saw back in 1975.
Only when detectives from the cold case unit in Montgomery County, Maryland showed up in 2013 did people on Taylors Mountain start talking. Welch — long imprisoned for sexually assaulting another girl, had become a "person of interest" in the sisters' disappearance by then, based on a review of evidence in the case file.
Two of his cousins told police they remembered an unexpected visit to their home on Taylors Mountain that spring. The Lyon sisters disappeared on March 25, 1975.
One cousin said Welch had a duffel bag containing bloody clothing, and told her he had been using it to carry ground beef. Another told them Welch had two army-style duffel bags with reddish-brown stains on them, and that he helped Welch put the bags into a fire.
Other people who lived on the mountain told investigators they remember a fire that burned for days that had "the stench of death," Bedford County Commonwealth's Attorney Wes Nance said during Welch's plea hearing Tuesday.
Authorities began digging on the mountain in 2014, trying to recover the girls' remains. They did recover a tooth, according to documents filed in court, but authorities have never said if they were able to match it to the girls' dental records.
Welch's relatives sold their home on the mountain five years ago now. Locals bristle at the renewed attention the case has brought.
Jennifer Thomson, a librarian at the Bedford Museum and Genealogical Library, said the mountain is made up of "good, hard-working country people," although some locals who live in Bedford derisively refer to it as "the redneck capital of the county."
"People are kind there, they look out for his families and they'd look out for a stranger there, too. Very good people," Johnson said.
Homes on the mountain range from small, dilapidated ranch-style houses built more than 50 years ago to a handful of larger, newer, high-priced homes. And while a handful of families had lived there for generations, today there are newcomers in the mix. The last cannery closed in the late 1970s. The last publicized arrest for bootlegging was in the 1980s.
Now people are hoping Welch's guilty plea will finally remove the spotlight.
"People resent the fact that they brought the children here. I resent it, too. We're not a dumping ground for bodies, and it was just quite a blow to everybody that somebody would do that," said Ronnie Laughlin, a retired Bedford County deputy sheriff. "They live quiet and peaceful, and they didn't ask for this to happen."