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The last stone
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New York Times Review
On March 25,1975, two young girls went missing from a shopping mall in Wheaton, Md., a suburb north of Washington. Sheila and Kate Lyon were sisters, just 12 and 10 years old, from a solid, middle-class family. Until that day, their lives seemed to lack the slightest hint of drama; they had no reason or plan to run away. Decades after the leads ran dry and the searches stopped, the disappearance of the Lyon sisters resonated. Here was every par- ent's nightmare - or, as Mark Bowden remembers it, "a regional trauma." Bowden was 23 that year, starting his career on the police beat of The Baltimore News-American. Recalling his visits with the girls' parents, he writes, "I could not witness their pain dispassionately." Since then, Bowden has written more than a dozen books, including "Black Hawk Down," and returned often to the subject of police work, including a provocative 2003 piece in The Atlantic about the problematic gray areas between coercion and torture. When, in 2013, detectives in Maryland started to question the first solid witness in the Lyon case in nearly 40 years, Bowden was ideally positioned to revisit the first major story of his career. A native of one of the destitute hollows of Appalachia, Lloyd Welch was 18 when the Lyon sisters vanished. He had been at the mall that day, and a few days later he told police he'd seen another man talking with the girls there. When, years later, cold-case detectives learned about the crimes Welch had committed in the intervening decades - including child molestation - they could not help wondering if he should be less a witness than a suspect. But when they visit Welch in prison, where he is hoping for an early release, he gets the jump on them, saying he knows exactly why they're there (we learn later how he found out). And for much of his questioning, Welch seems almost drunk with power - "like a fairy-tale goblin guarding a treasure, speaking in riddles." The challenge facing the detectives: "How do you get a compulsive liar, one with every reason to lie, to tell the truth?" In "The Last Stone," Bowden focuses on 21 months of questioning by a revolving cast of detectives, telling a stirring, suspenseful, thoughtful story that, miraculously, neither oversimplifies the details nor gets lost in the thicket of a four-decade case file. This is a cat-and-mouse tale, told beautifully. But like all great true crime, "The Last Stone" finds its power not by leaning into cliché but by resisting it - pushing for something more realistic, more evocative of a deeper truth. In this case, Bowden shows how even the most exquisitely pulled-off interrogations are a messy business, in which exhaustive strategizing is followed by game-time gut decisions and endless second-guessing and soul-searching. An interrogator's most important job - like a journalist's - is to keep the subject talking. "The problem was to convince him that it was in his best interests to reveal what he knew," Bowden writes, "even though it manifestly was not." Dave Davis, the detective who spends the most time in the room with Welch, has the softest touch. "Criminals saw the man, not the badg0e," Bowden writes; Davis uses empathy as a tactic, even if being empathetic around Welch "meant donning moral blinders." As another detective with a nurturing style, Katie Leggett, puts it: "We had to endure the 'friendship' and go through the crap to get as many of the answers as we could." Readers will probably recognize a triedand-true strategy here: good ???/bad cop. When Leggett loses her temper with Welch, still another detective steps in to smooth things over, saying, "I actually think you are still the nice person we thought you were." Their interrogation target, is, in Bowden's telling, an audacious foil, not to mention a colossal narcissist - "natively bright but deeply ignorant and cocky beyond all reason." Welch seems driven to keep tabs on what the police know. So rather than shut them down entirely, he plays a riskier game, admitting just enough to keep them coming back, but not so much that he could be charged with another crime. His capacity to lie is bottomless, and the lies themselves are rather ingeniously "built around the known facts." Each time new information contradicts him, Welch alters his story just enough to make sense; each new set of facts resets the cones on the slalom course, and off he glides again, as if on skis. "The ease with which Lloyd made these shifts never ceased to amaze," Bowden writes. "He acted as if he had never told the story differently." Bowden is very good at showing how both sides in this protracted interrogation are lying. Deceit and trickery are tools of the trade for the police, at least in American interrogations. But they are perilous tools. "Once you get into the really interesting stuff," Bowden writes, "you descend, by necessity, a moral ladder onto slippery ground." At worst, forcing a narrative onto a suspect can lead to false confessions, as, for example, the wrongly convicted men in the Central Park Five case can attest. And so for a time, we are in a weird area with this book, where the only evidence is what people say, decades later, and the persuasiveness of that evidence depends entirely on whether what those people say can be believed. The more Welch talks, the more the detectives wonder if everything he is saying is simply catering to their own biases. Hours of tall tales, "then five minutes of half-truth," Bowden writes. "Were the detectives zeroing in on the truth, or was Lloyd just desperately inventing?" this self-doubt - this perpetual selfscrutiny - is what separates these detectives from, say, the one in Netflix's "Making a Murderer" who, on video, spoonfeeds a confession to poor Brendan Dassey, a teenage boy so intimidated that he gurgles back what was said to him. (Dassey's conviction was eventually tossed out, only to be reinstated on appeal to the federal Seventh Circuit.) The best interrogators, Bowden explains, "are connoisseurs of untruth." Again, Bowden the reporter feels a kinship with them: They, too, must assemble a cogent narrative from a morass of chaos. "What we call history," Bowden writes, is at best "artful, informed, honest speculation." The detectives are, in the end, writing a story. Hopefully a true one. The more they investigate Welch's claims, the woollier his story gets. The only thing more odious than Welch himself might be his family, the venal, abusive, incestuous clan that forms the book's gothic subplot. In the end, even a skilled liar like Welch can't keep all his stories straight. "Making him rattled and weary," Bowden writes, "became a strategy." A slip of the tongue helps the cops pry out a new admission, and the Lyon family has the beginnings of an answer. Right through to the end, Welch's only concern is himself. "I can't believe that you're doing this to me," he says - with no mention of the two girls whose lives were destroyed long ago. "Lloyd's clumsy mendacity kept the thing alive," Bowden writes. That and the dedication of his inquisitors, who were ready to make Welch think the best of them - to trust them, to like them. "You're a cop but you're a good guy," Welch tells Davis, during one of their last encounters. "You have a good heart." For an interrogator, there may be no higher compliment. Bowden's story is complex, but he never gets lost in the thicket of a four-decade case file. ROBERT KOLKER is the author of "Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery." His next book, "Hidden Valley Road," will be published in 2020.
Library Journal Review
The latest from Bowden (Black Hawk Down) marks the conclusion of five decades of reporting on the 1975 murder of the Lyon sisters in Maryland, a case the author began covering for the Baltimore Sun. The disappearance of the two sisters from a mall outside Silver Spring remained unsolved for decades, despite many promising leads. Bowden focuses on the transcripts of interviews with a convicted pedophile that had come forward with information in 1975, his story then dismissed as a fabrication. Fabrication plays a large role in the interviews; both the suspect and the interrogators use lies and deception to reveal the truth, or at least some semblance of it. Bowden largely stays in the background, offering commentary on the interviews and new leads the investigators follow based on them. This account doesn't break new genre ground, but Bowden's journalistic expertise provides a gripping and detailed narrative of cold case justice and exposes the delicate and often futile nature of police investigations. VERDICT An intriguing firsthand look at the nebulous justice meted out by necessities of time and the desire for closure, as seen through the focused lens of a seasoned journalist.-Bart Everts, Rutgers Univ.-Camden Lib., NJ © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
Bowden (Black Hawk Down) delivers a narrative nonfiction masterpiece in this account of fiercely dedicated police detectives working to close a cold case. In 1975, Sheila Lyon, 12, and her sister Katherine, 10, disappeared from a shopping mall in Maryland. Despite reported sightings and extortion attempts, the Lyon sisters' fate remained a mystery for decades. The break came in 2013, when Montgomery County detective Chris Homrock chanced upon a witness statement that he'd somehow missed. Shortly after the disappearance, then-teenager Lloyd Welch told the police that he'd seen a man talking to two young girls, who then left the mall with him. At the time, Welch was dismissed as a liar, and his account was forgotten. The police found Welch serving time in Delaware for sexually abusing a minor years earlier. Though he was initially viewed as a possible source to incriminate the man who was viewed as the leading suspect in the abductions, Welch's contradictory stories, told over the course of multiple interrogations, ended up making him a person of interest. Bowden makes extensive use of taped recordings of those conversations to bring the reader inside the interrogation room as the detectives inch closer to the truth. This is an intelligent page-turner likely to appeal even to readers who normally avoid true crime. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
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