Innocence lost
Mar. 29, 2005
Charlotte Tucker and Chris Williams
Staff Writers

Dan Gross/The Gazette

Frances Kuester, a neighbor of the Lyon family on Plyers Mill Road, gave birth to her daughter Judy a week before Sheila and Katherine Lyon vanished. Kate, as Kuester called Katherine, had planned to visit Judy on March 25, 1975.

See related story: Intense search only left police, community frustrated

Sheila and Katherine Lyon left their

Kensington home on a spring afternoon in 1975 to eat pizza and window-shop at a nearby mall.

As many kids did in that simpler time, the sisters walked the half-mile to Wheaton Plaza shopping center. Their mother just expected them to be home in time for dinner.

Instead, the girls vanished without a trace. And with them went a way of life.

The disappearance of the Lyon sisters on March 25, 1975, just days before their 13th and 11th birthdays, changed their neighborhood

and changed Montgomery County.

Theirs had been an idyllic suburban community, where families knew and looked out for each other, and the thick trees lining old streets lent an air of solid security.

That illusion of safety was shattered by the terrible events of 30 years ago.

In the days and weeks after the Lyon sisters disappeared, parents began to realize that the suburbs could be touched by tragedy just as easily as inner-city communities.

"This was a quiet place," said Kensington Mayor Lynn Raufaste, who has lived in the town since 1971. "Connecticut Avenue wasn't what it is today. We all thought of Wheaton Plaza as quite safe. It changed the way parents thought at the time about keeping their children safe."

Although old newspaper clippings about the case have long since faded, the investigation remains open and there are few who lived here who don't remember the search for Sheila and Katherine, and the wave of fear that forever changed the community.

"It was never forgotten; we still talk about it today," said Jeannette DeLawter, who has lived in Kensington with her husband, Douglas, for 38 years. "A lot of young couples have moved into the neighborhood and want to know what it was like back then, and the Lyon girls always come up in the conversation. ... Back then, that type of thing didn't really happen."

Although the Montgomery County Police Department would not comment on specifics of the investigation, Lt. Philip C. Raum said detectives in the Major Crimes Division's Cold Case Unit continue to follow old leads, even traveling out of state in the last two months.

"I don't think there's anything that you would call fresh, but I think there are things to do, to continue to follow up on things that existed a long time ago," he said.

Ron Jones, a case manager at the nonprofit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he hears from people about the Lyon case regularly.

"I received a lead from a young lady just a few weeks ago," he said. The woman told him that as a child she was approached around the time of the Lyon girls' disappearance by a man who exposed himself to her and tried to get her into his car. But her mother came outside, Jones said, and the man got into his car and drove away.

"She said she still has dreams about it."

A community in wait

The story gripped the community from the start. One reason was that the girls' father, John Lyon, was a well-known and well-liked radio personality on WMAL in Bethesda.

"Those of us who know him personally know that that's absolutely real and he's even nicer than you could ever tell from being on the air," said Chris Core, longtime talk radio host on WMAL. "John and Mary are just the nicest people and such good parents. That was particularly tough."

The story has had a profound influence on Core, who began working full time at the station about a month before the Lyon sisters disappeared and has remained close with their father.

"It's in that group of moments where the community just held its breath," Core said. "Partly because John was a well-known celebrity and partly because here are two innocent little girls going to the mall and disappear off the face of the earth, never to be heard from again."

Frances Kuester, a neighbor of the Lyon family on Plyers Mill Road in Kensington, knew the younger Lyon sister well. Kate, as Kuester called her, would stop by occasionally to take Kuester's daughter Cathy, a toddler at the time, to nearby Homewood Park.

"We would sit on the porch and talk sometimes if it was a nice day," she said. "Those were before the days that kids had every minute scheduled."

Kuester had given birth to another daughter, named Judy, a week before the girls disappeared. Katherine had stopped by on March 24 hoping to see the baby, but Judy was asleep.

"I told her to come by the next day," Kuester said. "I promised her I'd be sure to have Judy up."

When Kate didn't show, Kuester called the girls' mother, Mary Lyon, who said the girls were running late and should be back any moment.

Sheila and Katherine walked along Drumm Avenue that day with less than $4 in their pockets. It was enough for pizza at The Orange Bowl and browsing the shops at Wheaton Plaza, which was still an outdoor mall at the time. They most likely walked a popular shortcut, along a footpath through some woods, and then up Drumm Avenue and Faulkner Place.

Peg Dunne, a mother of seven who lives on Drumm Avenue, said it was not uncommon for children to walk to Wheaton Plaza without adults.

"It was quite a coincidence," she said -- it was the first day she let two of her younger children go to Wheaton Plaza without their older siblings. "I told my son to watch out for his sister."

When the Lyon sisters didn't return from the mall in time for dinner, their parents called the police.

Police began their search for the girls immediately. One of the investigators was Harry Geehreng, a detective with the department's Juvenile Aid Unit. Geehreng, 62, a former sergeant, has been retired since 1994 but still has vivid memories of the case that commanded the attention of the entire department.

"As far as the frustration of not being able to solve a case, this has to be at the very top," he said. "You'll have killings that you can't solve. You have someone who's been murdered and you don't catch the person responsible. But this one, when you just don't know what happened to them, is the most frustrating."

Life began to change

Reports indicated that police knew early in the girls' disappearance that they hadn't run away from home, a notion backed up by virtually everyone who knew Sheila and Katherine.

"They got along great with their parents," Kuester said.

Though the circumstances surrounding Sheila and Katherine's disappearance were suspicious, Gordon Crump recalls that at first, the community was certain the girls would be found.

"Everyone was very positive that they'd show up," said Crump, who grew up in the area and graduated from Albert Einstein High School in 1980, the year Sheila would have graduated.

Bob Redmond was the principal at Newport Mill Middle School, where Sheila was in seventh grade. On the day yearbook pictures were released, Redmond delivered Sheila's photo to her mother.

"I guess we were optimistic," he said. "They were missing, but they would be found. We were hoping against hope that they'd be found."

Crump remembers that the disappearance changed the amount of freedom his parents gave him.

"The biggest thing I remember is before then, I could just run out on my bike and Mom wouldn't ask me where I was going. I could just ride anywhere," he said. But after the girls disappeared, "My mom wanted to know where I was, when I was going to be home. If I didn't show, she would get worried."

In some ways the part of Kensington where the Lyon girls lived has remained the same. Many of the people who lived in those homes in 1975 still live there today. Tall trees arch over the roofs, dwarfing the homes, unlike the delicate saplings that have been planted around new construction.

But the neighborhood has also undergone many of the changes seen in the rest of Montgomery County over the last 30 years. Tiny Cape Cods have added second and sometimes third floors. An orchid orchard was cleared to make way for expensive new townhouses.

The most dramatic change may be in the attitudes of the people, and part of that change is because of what happened to Sheila and Katherine.

"The difference I really see is the awareness of parents," said Core, who has a 10-year-old daughter. "Parents have certainly changed. We live in a really nice safe Chevy Chase community where, theoretically, my daughter should be able to walk around like I did [at her age], but we just don't do it."

Time passes,

but memories remain

Over the years, the public spotlight has dimmed on the Lyon case, but the story remains fresh at the county police department, which has strong family ties to the case. The girls' older brother, Jay Lyon, is a police officer.

"This case has always had a very deep connection with this police department," Raum said. "For years, it was the most high-profile case in the county, and now Jay's been a police officer for the better part of the 30 years -- it's a hit-home case. And it's one of the first ones our Cold Case guys are looking at."

Jones said he contacts the police when his office receives a lead, and that he always appreciates when people share even the tiniest memory.

"Any little lead can help find them and who might have taken them," he said.

Even those not directly connected to the search say they've had a hard time forgetting about Sheila and Katherine.

"My daughter Judy was just a few days old when they disappeared," Kuester said. "Every year around her birthday I think of them."

Core, who has lived in Chevy Chase since 1971, said the experience made him much more protective of his own daughter.

The county lost its innocence on March 25, 1975, he said, and that day enters his mind in just about every decision he makes when it comes to his little girl.

"It was a jolt," Core said. "We would be different in 2005 than we were in 1975 with or without the Lyon case. But that accelerated the process here, making people take note, saying this is how we have to protect our kids."