This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 11, 2014.
Police shed new light on an almost 39-year-old missing person case Tuesday when they identified a convicted sex offender they believe may have had contact with two Kensington girls the day they disappeared.
The girls, Sheila and Katherine Lyon, ages 12 and 10, walked to Wheaton Plaza, as it was known at the time, for lunch on March 25, 1975, and vanished.
At a press conference Tuesday, Montgomery County Police identified 57-year-old Lloyd Lee Welch, a convicted sex offender, and said they have confirmed he was at the mall the day the girls disappeared.
Investigators have traveled to Delaware, where Welch is serving a prison sentence for raping young girls, to talk to him, Assistant Police Chief Russell Hamill said.
Chief J. Thomas Manger declined to comment on how those interviews have gone and what police have learned in them.
Welch has served jail time for multiple convictions of sexual offenses and raping young girls in Virginia, South Carolina and Delaware, Manger said.
He has not been charged in connection with the Lyons’ case.
“If we were able to charge someone, we would have done it,” Manger said.
According to police, witnesses from that day told investigators they saw Welch “paying attention” to the girls and he may have spoken to them.
On Tuesday, police said they are looking for answers about an event that, still years later, remains a mystery. The case riveted the attention of the greater Washington area as police and volunteers spent weeks searching for the girls. Police combed the area with helicopters and dogs; citizens-band radio enthusiasts combed the woods. There was an alleged sighting of two girls bound and gagged in a car in Manassas, but that tip went nowhere.
Police said they are trying to find out more information about Welch, whom they say worked for many years as a carnival ride operator.
According to police, his job allowed him to travel across the country, including Austin, Texas, and Sioux City, Iowa. Police said they have documented his travels from 1974 to his incarceration in 1997 through locations in Maryland, Florida, California, Iowa, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, and possibly New York. Investigators are trying to figure out if Welch was involved in any criminal activity in those places.
The girls’ disappearance “really rattled the community, I think the entire county. Everyone in Montgomery County was shocked by this,” said Harry Geehreng, a detective with the department’s Juvenile Aid Unit when the girls vanished.
“We got more tips than we could handle,” he said in a phone interview after the press conference. “So many tips, so many leads. It was difficult to follow them all, but we did.”
He welcomed the news that police believed they might be closer to solving the girls’ disappearance.
“If they could crack this case, I’d be so happy,” Geehreng said.
“It’d be very welcome news to all of us and to the community ... if for no other reason than to know what happened to these girls,” he said.
Welch bore a similarity to a sketch that police created, using information a witness provided of a man who may have been following the girls, Manger said.
During the press conference, he gave more details about Welch, whom he said may have had a connection to the area around the Walter Reed Annex in Silver Spring.
Welch was once arrested in the mid-1970s in connection with a burglary just blocks away from Wheaton Plaza, which is now called the Westfield Wheaton Mall. The outcome of that case couldn’t be determined on Tuesday.
Welch had a reputation as a drifter who frequently hitchhiked and walked along the railroad tracks between Kensington and Silver Spring. He sometimes worked as a landscaper, Manger said.
In many of those travels, his girlfriend, Helen Craver, accompanied him, Manger said. She also worked for the carnival company. She died in 2009.
“That’s what our cold case detectives have been able to establish,” he said, before asking for help from the public.
“We know we’re asking people to remember things they may not want to think about,” said Steve Vogt, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Baltimore, stressing the importance of the public providing any information they had.
“The family deserves closure, just as you do. ... Please contact us if you have anything to share,” he said.
Investigators are trying to find out more information about Craver, as well as a security guard working at the mall the day the girls disappeared, Manger said. The security guard — whom police are trying to identify — may have had contact with Welch, he said.
“All of these folks, we believe ... could help us fill in some of the blanks and assist us and determine more information about Mr. Welch ...,” Manger said.
Through police, the Lyon family released a statement Tuesday about the disappearance of their daughters.
“Throughout these years our hope for a resolution of this mystery have been sustained by the support and efforts of countless members of law enforcement, the news media and the community. The fact that so many people still care about this case means a great deal to us. ... We are grateful for any information the public can provide to help bring this story to its conclusion, and ask that the family’s privacy be respected during this time,” the family said.
Anyone who may have encountered Welch has been asked to call investigators at 1-800-CALL-FBI or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov.