This story was corrected on Feb. 12. An explanation follows the story.
The story of a disappearance almost 39 years ago has haunted Montgomery County, resurfacing periodically with remembrances or potential leads to a still unsolved crime. Two young girls walking a half-mile to the Wheaton Plaza were never seen again.
On March 25, 1975, the Lyon sisters went to the mall for pizza and window shopping. They vanished, shattering a sense of safety that made it common for kids to walk to the local mall unattended.
“These things don’t happen, we thought, in Montgomery County,” said Hedda Kenton, who had two young daughters at the time. She would listen to the girls’ father, John Lyon, on WMAL radio as she drove to different schools for her job as a speech therapist.
Chris Core of WTOP radio worked with Lyon at WMAL when the girls went missing. He said listeners loved Lyon’s “smooth style, soft humor.” And he recalled Lyon’s courage in coming back to work several weeks later.
“When you’re on the radio, it’s a very intimate medium,” especially with the personality-driven radio of the time, Core said.
“It’s like the story can never go away,” he said. “It’s something that’s stuck with the Washington community in such an incredible way, partly because everything about it was so innocent.”
People still ask Core about the case.
“I can remember years later when my daughter was that age and wanted to go to the mall, and I was just sick to my stomach,” Core said.
Montgomery County Police said Tuesday that they believe a convicted sex offender, who is now incarcerated, may have had contact with the girls at the mall the day they disappeared. Police are asking for the public’s help in filling in details about the man, his former girlfriend and a mall security guard.
Jamie Freedman of Gaithersburg was just three when her parents took her to the Wheaton mall that day to see her first movie, “Escape from Witch Mountain.” When they exited the theater, “the place was swarming with police,” Freedman’s parents told her.
Growing up in Potomac, she remembers the case coming up often throughout elementary school in safety talks.
Jane Harding saw police sweeping the woods behind her house on McComas Avenue, just south of the mall, after the girls went missing. They wouldn’t tell her what happened at first. Her daughter was a few years older than the Lyon sisters.
“It was such a tragedy,” she said.
“Everybody was so frightened. ... [Our kids] couldn’t go anywhere or do anything because we were so traumatized by it,” said Toni Ward, another neighbor.
Her son, Dan Parker, was in Sheila’s seventh-grade class. Ward said Parker often walked to the mall and local swim club with his high school-aged siblings.
Parker saw the sisters walking down Drumm Avenue around the time of their disappearance, though he wasn’t sure if it was the evening before or the day the girls went missing. He rode the bus to school with the Lyon sisters and said Sheila was “a quiet, nice person.”
“We used to cut through the woods and go up to the plaza,” Parker said. But “everything kind of did change. Everyone was on this heightened alert, and it was scary as a kid.”
Ward told her kids to stop taking the cut-through path in the woods.
John Hanrahan, who was working at a clothing shop at Wheaton Plaza the day the girls disappeared, said it had been a busy day. He thought he saw the girls stop by. It was one of the last places they were reportedly seen.
The police came in during their investigation shortly after the sisters went missing, and posted Sheila’s and Katherine’s pictures around the mall, he said.
Hanrahan’s father, an amateur radio enthusiast, was one of hundreds of people who combed the woods for weeks and walked along the Beltway looking for them, he recalled.
“It was a different world back then. People were a little more community-oriented back then,” he said. “It felt like you had lost part of your innocence when it happened.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Hedda Kenton’s last name.