A lot of the books that end up on my TBR come from other reviews, which isn’t ideal for reviewing purposes but usually by the time I get around to reading them I’ve forgotten what the book is about, let alone what a reviewer said about it. That’s the case with The Last Stone by Mark Bowden.
It was easy to see why I wrote it down for my future self to read: an ice-cold case revived by dogged police work and covered by a journalist who broke the story forty years before. Lots of great elements there. Yet by the time I was halfway through The Last Stone, I was angry at Bowden and angry at myself for putting this extremely sketchy book on a list that’s supposed to be reserved for great reads.
In 1975, two young sisters disappeared from a shopping mall outside of Washington, D.C. Despite a massive search and a multi-agency investigation, the girls were never found. But in 2013, a cold-case investigator re-examined the case and found one potential witness to the crime that hadn’t been followed up on. The man, Lloyd Welch, was now serving a thirty-three-year prison sentence for molesting his girlfriend’s young daughter, prompting the investigator to wonder if Welch did more than witness the abduction.
Investigators question him, and then question him some more. Welch is full of lies and half-truths, claiming he can’t remember events well because of his past years of drug use. But remarkably, investigators find that he started to give more details when he was tired and exasperated at the end of hours-long interviews. The information he gives in these instances takes him from sketchy witness to suspect, and investigators are off to the races. As his constantly changing stories start including names of family members, investigators turn their energies to the entire Welch clan, uncovering a whole cemetery’s worth of skeletons in their collective closet—but little to nothing about the missing girls. And yet, the detectives continue to dig, both literally and figuratively.
A few positive notes before I say what’s on my mind. There are a lot of true crime books out there, and one of the most interesting things to me is how the writers first discovered that respective crime. Often, it is journalists who work their long-form writing muscles to expound upon their reporting and sources. That’s the case here, but Bowden’s angle is a little more novel given that he broke the story of the missing girls four decades ago, when he was a young and hungry reporter. The Black Hawk Down author is definitely not young or hungry now, but he does get to tie up the loose ends he had to leave dangling earlier in his career.
Now onto the good stuff.
I think there’s a lot of value in re-examining old cases—new technology, fresh eyes, and time can all help break open a case that might have been hard to crack when it first happened. The dedication with which the investigators tried to solve this one before the girls’ elderly parents passed away is also admirable. However, it’s hard not to wonder if that dedication didn’t become recklessness; if they tried to break this thing wide open with the finesse of the bull in the proverbial China shop.
Details from the original investigation were sparse—a few witnesses said they saw a hippie talking to the girls in the crowded mall where they disappeared, while others described a man with a tape recorder. There were a few leads, including one from Welch—one that was so obviously boloney that investigators dismissed it immediately. Coming to Welch to follow up on his statement, which they know is boloney but figure he might have seen something helpful anyway, is smart police work. Sitting the already imprisoned man in an interrogation room for hours upon hours as he tells them provably false story after provably false story quickly seems like it’s harassment.
We have only Bowden’s word, and the fact that there wouldn’t be a book about this Welch guy if he didn’t do it, that investigators are on the right trail. But without that assurance, the lengths to which the detectives go and the low-blows they deal seem less than heroic. Just as Welch lies to investigators, they lie to him about immunity deals and believing his ridiculous stories. This is sometimes a necessity in policing, I get that. But it’s hard to look past the fact that the investigators had no such assurance from Bowden or the existence of a published work. They didn’t know their pushing was definitely leading them to some portion of the truth. Suppose they had stumbled upon someone who entertained them because he was intellectually disabled, or seeking attention, or just bad at avoiding the verbal pitfalls of interrogation. All of their work would have just as easily put the wrong person behind bars for the rest of his life, and frankly, it’s a little shocking that didn’t happen here.
If that were merely the state of the investigation that Bowden faithfully reported, that would be one thing. But Bowden’s writing, such as it is (the majority of the book is adapted almost wholesale from interview recordings, so Bowden had very little actual writing to do, but that’s a quibble for another day), often reads as though such trickery is impressive. Here’s one example: As one detective gets Welch to name names of his alleged co-conspiritors, Bowden writes, “All of this [the detective] had orchestrated. He had taken Lloyd’s own story and thought it through more carefully. Neither Lloyd nor [his cousin] would have had a car. So somebody else had to have been with them. [The detective]’s hunch was [Lloyd’s uncle], so he had led Lloyd into naming him. It was an iffy interrogation practice, but, technically, he had gotten Lloyd to volunteer [the uncle]’s name.”
Incidentally, that little trick is one of several things that leads to Maryland declining to bring a case against Welch, though the murders likely happened in that state. So at least someone has an eye toward ethical interrogation processes.
Bowden is also uncomfortably uncritical when detectives are investigating Welch’s extended family. The family comes from rural Virginia, and the D.C.-area detectives are amused at the conversations they hear over the wiretap: “Occasionally the conversations were amusing, as callers wrestled with the fine points of jurisprudence, logic, and the English language. One described making ‘chicken salad’ from turkey scraps. An affidavit was ‘an afro-davis’; asserting the right to avoid self-incrimination was ‘taking the Fourth’; a pedophile was a ‘pedifier’; and someone with proverbial skeletons in the closet had ‘a lot of shelves in his closet.'” The malphorisms might be more amusing if it didn’t seem like the people saying them were being ridiculed for their upbringing. It’s important to note that none of the extended family members have been charged for the crime, which makes not only that moment of ridicule but also the lengthy unspooling of their dark family secrets (while naming names and speculating of worse things yet to come to light) feel snobbish at best and voyeuristic the rest of the time.
I know the ethics of policing and investigation wasn’t Bowen’s goal when he wrote The Last Stone, but in this day and age you’d think he’d feel some need for criticism or explanation. Yes, it was written pre-latest civil rights movement, but 2019 isn’t the dark ages. The police work detailed in the book only started in 2013. It’s a little surprising no one in the publishing process tried at least dialing down the rhetoric.
We can applaud these investigators because we have the assurance that we are following the good guys as they put away a bad guy who has evaded justice for too long. But we do so because we trust those tactics are only used on the bad guys—and that the good guys are always good at telling just who is the bad guy. It’s a lot of trust. In the case of The Last Stone, that trust is rewarded. In so many stories in the news, it’s violated. Our relationship with crime and punishment is complicated under the current system, and I’m not sure what would bring it more clarity. It’s unfair to ask The Last Stone to address such an issue, but it’s also one we have to consider as we read it—and that should have been considered as it was written.