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By The Associated Press

WHEATON, Maryland — Forty years after two young sisters vanished from a suburban Maryland mall, an imprisoned sex offender has been charged with murder, authorities said Wednesday.

Lloyd Michael Welch Jr., 58, told authorities he was with the girls when they were abducted in March 1975 but denied any role in their deaths. Sheila Lyon, 12, and Katherine Lyon, 10, had walked a few blocks from their house to the Wheaton Plaza Mall to shop for Easter decorations and eat lunch. They never came home.

After decades of investigating leads and periodically identifying suspects, a break in the case came in 2013, according to an affidavit. A cold-case detective uncovered an interview that Welch gave to police in 1975. The detective compared a photo of Welch to a composite sketch from a witness who saw someone following the girls at the mall, and he saw "a strong likeness," the affidavit said.

Related: The Mysterious Case of the Lyon Sisters

Welch, who is serving a lengthy prison term in Delaware, was indicted by a grand jury in Bedford County, Virginia, on Friday on two charges of first-degree felony murder, though the girls' bodies were never found. The indictment, unsealed Wednesday, says the murders were committed during an abduction with intent to defile.

"We know what Katherine and Sheila were like. ... These were wonderful, wonderful, naive, young children," said John McCarthy, state's attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland.

The girls were killed sometime between March 25, 1975 — the date of their abduction — and April 15, 1975, according to the indictment.

At the time of their disappearance, Welch was an 18-year-old carnival worker and drifter who had been spending time in the Wheaton area. Then, Welch told a mall security guard that he was at the mall the day of the girls' disappearance. Welch said he saw the sisters get into a car with a man. Welch spoke to police and failed a polygraph test, according to the affidavit, but investigators did not pursue him further as a suspect.

He was later convicted in two burglaries and served prison time. In 1994, he pleaded guilty to molesting a 10-year-old girl in South Carolina and was sentenced to 18 months. He is now sentenced for sexually abusing another 10-year-old girl.

In interviews from prison following the rediscovery of his 1975 interview and the sketch, Welch told police that he left the mall with the girls in a vehicle on the day they disappeared, and that the next day, he saw his uncle, Richard Welch, molesting one of the girls at his home, according to the affidavit. Lloyd Welch said he left and never saw the girls after that, according to the document.

Richard Welch has been identified as a person of interest in the slayings but has not been charged. Richard Welch's wife, Patricia, was charged with perjury after testifying before the grand jury in December. A person who answered the phone at their home in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Wednesday said they weren't home and refused to take a message.

Officials stressed Wednesday that the investigation remains active and more charges are possible.