THE MURDER OF NANCY LYON
-As related by the Lyon's neighbor
THE KILLER NEXT DOOR
---THROUGH THE WALL OF OUR DUPLEX, RICHARD AND NANCY LYON SOUNDED LIKE A HAPPY COUPLE. THEN SHE TURNED UP DEAD--AND HE WAS ACCUSED OF POISONING HER.
THE KNOCKS CAME AFTER midnight. We were in bed upstairs, sleeping so soundly that the noise seemed, at first, just part of a dream.
"That's the door?" I asked, turning to see my husband already heading downstairs. I followed. Standing on the stoop outside was Richard Lyon, our duplex landlord, holding a baby monitor. His face was pale; his eyes were deep and tired. He spoke in a low, hoarse voice: Nancy, his wife, had been vomiting for hours. He was taking her to the emergency room. Could we please look after his daughters while he was gone?
We took the monitor without a thought. In the nearly six years we had lived side by side--sharing, as we did, a wall, a front porch, a back yard, and the cramped conditions of middle-income Park Cities housing--we had come to rely on each other for life's little emergencies: electronic baby-sitting, pet care during vacations, newspapers retrieved from the rain. During the past year, especially, as their marriage crumbled and Richard was frequently gone, we had often come to Nancy's aid. We helped when she was sick, collected her mail, listened for her phone. Now this.
"Don't worry about the kids," I said, as Richard headed back to his door. "And tell Nancy I hope she feels better."
Six days later, she was dead.
Within two months, the official word was that Nancy Dillard Lyon had been poisoned. The Dallas County medical examiner, who ruled her death a homicide, found lethal concentrations of arsenic in her body. Richard, then 34, was arrested and charged with her murder. Less than a year later, he was convicted and given a life sentence.
From the start, the Lyon murder attracted national publicity and local curiosity. The victim was the daughter of a prominent Highland Park family and a partner in one of Trammell Crow's residential companies. From her death on January 14, 1991, to Richard's trial in December, there was a constant flow of new twists: suggestions of other suspects, rumors of incest, revelations about chemical purchases, and Nancy's own suspicions that she was being poisoned. Throughout those eleven months, I did all I could to believe that Richard had not poisoned his wife. At every opportunity, I turned distrust and fear into doubt and denial. I refused to follow the tide of opinion about my neighbor, refused to convict him without proof of his guilt. I knew Richard, I thought. We had lived so close--close enough to hear, as I did the night he took Nancy to the hospital, his last tender words to her in their bedroom. "I'm warming up the car," his voice crackled through the monitor, inches from my ear. "Do you think you can make it downstairs? I'll carry you."
But what did I know? What does anyone know about anyone, even those who share your walls for years? You see their lives, hear them, only in fragments--steps on a stair, casual glimpses through a window, doors closing and opening, the sound of running water, a child's cry or laugh. The pieces of their lives enter your consciousness, become as much a part of you as your own life. But in the end, you can only imagine what's in their souls, even if it is unimaginable.
When I decided to write about Nancy's death, many who knew her wouldn't talk to me. They worried that I would take Richard's side, or that I would expose too much, having lived so close. Am I violating some neighborly code of privacy? I only know I wouldn't be writing this if Nancy had not died as she did. If anything, I would have written some nice little testament to the loss of a good neighbor. Maybe it would have inspired some nice little neighborly acts.
But this is not a nice little story. It is a story of lies and betrayal, ugly accusations and cold, calculated murder. And there is no inspiration in any of it. IT'S HARD TO SAY WHEN MY SUSpicions began. My sense is that I felt inklings of a sinister aura over Nancy's illness from the start, but they were deep, intuitive, ill-defined. I couldn't pin them down.
Maybe it was nothing more than the shock of it all. A 37-year-old woman, in seemingly good health, was suddenly lying in an intensive care unit with a team of doctors unable to stop her swift decline. At 1:50 a.m., when Nancy first entered Presbyterian Hospital's emergency room, the doctors tried several medications to stop her vomiting. By 8 a.m., she was no better. She had been retching uncontrollably; her pulse was racing at 144; her blood pressure had dropped to 50 over 18.
When she was transferred to the ICU, doctors first suspected toxic shock syndrome. For more than a week, Nancy had complained of vaginal itching; two days earlier, she had begun taking Zovirax capsules for pimplelike lesions on her cervix. But she lacked the rash and high fever of toxic shock. Food poisoning looked doubtful too. Although she said she had eaten old pasta the night before, her symptoms had lasted too long. Puzzled, her doctors began to test for infections.
Within hours, family and friends gathered. Eventually, they would fill the waiting room and spill out into the hall. Most had known Nancy's parents, Bill and Sue Dillard, for years. They had watched them bury one of their four children, thirty-year-old Tom, who died of,a brain tumor in 1985. But nobody expected that Nancy would not make it. As she thrashed in pain, her family members urged her to fight. To boost her spirits, friends played tape recordings of her daughters, four-year-old Allison and two-year-old Anna, singing and talking to their mother. Only when she continued to deteriorate did tensions escalate. On January 10 a friend of the Dillards' showed up on our doorstep and suggested that we visit Richard in the waiting room. "There's a lot of anger," she said. "It's the Dillards on one side, Richard on the other. What he really needs is friends."
I WENT TO THE HOSPITAL THAT afternoon. The anger toward Richard didn't surprise me. I knew the Dillards thought he had put Nancy through hell for the past year.
Nearly everyone was surprised, especially Nancy, when Richard grew so unhappy with the marriage. When we first became their tenants in 1985, they seemed a compatible, warm, active couple, with a homey friendliness and virtually no flash or friction in their lives. We never once heard them fight. Nancy was bright, ambitious, and full of cheerful energy, a small woman with short dark hair and a pretty face marked by jet-black eyes, alabaster skin, and large white teeth. Richard, a short man with wavy brown hair and chiseled features, was congenial, calm, conservative, and relentless in his puttering around the yard
They had met six years earlier at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, where they studied landscaping and development together, and had come to Dallas at the crest of its land boom. They were intent on working hard, but they also freely took help from Nancy's real estate developer father--Big Daddy, as his children called him--in the form of loans and business clout. In 1982, Nancy accepted a management job with longtime family friend Trammell Crow's residential company. She rose quickly and made partner in a year. In 1984, in part from Bill Dillard's recommendation, Richard was hired by developer Kenneth Hughes to oversee construction of his firm's largest projects.
The couple busied themselves nearly all the time: sprucing up their property, directing family Christmas pageants, making Allison's dollhouse shingle by shingle. At Harvard, they had Beamed up on all their projects, working through the night until collapsing together in the single bed they shared. According to friends, Nancy had the ideas, Richard the speedy execution.
The constant activity bridged the striking differences in their backgrounds. Nancy had grown up among the manicured lawns and large brick homes of Highland Park, a rarefied world of close-knit, affluent, churchgoing families whose children sang Christmas carols together and spent summers at the country club pool. Richard had none of that breeding. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in small-town Connecticut, where his father sold insurance and his mother was a teacher's aide. When he met Nancy in 1979, he didn't even own a suit. At their wedding three years later, his relatives were daunted by the Dillards' money and what they perceived to be their in-laws' clannish ways. It bothered them that Richard didn't quite fit in. His parents bristled when Nancy's older brother, Bill Junior, jokingly toasted Richard at the rehearsal dinner as "a Yankee and a yardman."
If Richard resented his wife's family or her success, however, he never let on in those early years. The couple ate burgers at regular Dillard picnics by the Dallas Country Club pool and went on Dillard family vacations each summer. Richard worked with Nancy on her Junior League philanthropy projects. Particularly after Allison's birth in 1986, the couple's life meshed easily with Highland Park expectations: They hired a full-time nanny; they got their children on waiting lists for the best preschools; they taught in the Sunday school nursery. Yet they were never blatant materialists. Their life in the 1,100-square-foot duplex appeared simple and earnest. They spent weekend nights at home, renting old movies. On their own they transformed the once-scrawny back yard into a little paradise, planting trees and wisteria, driving bricks into sand to make a patio, hanging chimes and a hammock. But my husband and I could see the stresses build. By 1988 the real estate boom had gone bust. Richard's work with Hughes was slowing. In January 1989 their second daughter, Anna, was born with a hip problem. Their cramped space seemed nearly intolerable. All through that summer, we would listen to Anna's crying in their bedroom. Richard was gone on business often.
In the fall of that year, we had heard only hints that the marriage was troubled, that Richard had met another woman and wanted out. The first real sign of their break came sadly and quietly the day after Christmas. We awoke to see their tree already stripped of its ornaments and lying on the front sidewalk to be hauled away. Richard was crouched in the driveway with a packed duffel bag on the ground beside him, his face bitter and unhappy as he held an arm around little Allison and spoke softly in her ear. Then he threw his bag into his red 1966 Mustang and drove off.
The separation left Nancy dumbfounded and distraught. He had told her he was going to a family counseling program in Arizona, but he ended up joining his girlfriend on a ski trip. Two weeks later he was back--only to move out again within a month. Yet through the next year, Nancy was endlessly willing to endure Richard's occasional, always short-lived attempts at reconciliation, much to the increasing chagrin of her family and friends. "I know the real Richard," she used to say. "This isn't like him. He's a family man. He's sick, but I know he'll come around."
By early summer 1990, the separation was taking a physical toll on Nancy. She grew alarmingly thin. One morning she knocked on our door, handed us Anna, sat down on our front step, and vomited. We got a bucket and called her parents. Later that day I took her some soup. Her doctor attributed the illness to antibiotics, she said. Two weeks later she told me that she tried taking the same pills again and again got sick. The incident became, for me, a metaphor for the sense of rot I began to feel at the duplex that summer. Maybe it was just the image of their garden--which once lavish, was now withered and infested. I began watering and tending it. Each night, I straightened up the yard and washed off the porch.
When Richard filed for divorce in September, I was actually relieved. The finality seemed to strengthen Nancy. Her attorney requested that she get sole custody of the children, child support, and rights to as much as $260,000 in separate assets. One settlement proposal suggested that Richard was willing to give Nancy most of what she wanted. For the first time, I heard her speak hopefully about herself. She mentioned moving to Washington, D.C., to work.
Then, by mid-November, Richard began appearing at the duplex. We were surprised and skeptical at first. When I asked Nancy about it, she told me that Richard wanted to reconcile and that she had asked him to prove it. Suddenly the place came alive. The couple began planning a new back yard, including a playhouse that Richard was building himself, working late into the freezing nights to finish it before Christmas. He put a wood-burning fireplace in the living room and, at Nancy's request, painted the downstairs walls a funky red. In the evenings he built pillow forts with the kids and played his guitar. The atmosphere was so lively that my 21-month-old son, Shawn, began yearning to visit. One morning, without my knowing it, he wandered out of our door. I found him eating apple slices at their breakfast table So that was my view on January 10, 1991, when I decided to visit Richard in the hospital waiting room. I had a certain amount of compassion for him. If there was anger, I thought, it was because the Dillards didn't understand how much he had been around, how so much had seemed to change.
I entered carrying a bag of deli sandwiches. The waiting room was crowded. Richard was sitting in one corner with a group, looking pale but refreshed from a shower. I went directly to him, gave him the sandwiches, and hugged him.
"I'm so sorry," I said.
"About what?" he asked.
I flushed and paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. "Well," I said, "I'm sorry Nancy's so sick."
SIX HOURS AFTER I LEFT, Nancy's lungs failed. She was sedated and placed on a respirator. She never communicated again. By the time she was taken off life support on January 14, she was a bloated, unrecognizable figure. The intravenous attempts to bring up her blood pressure had pumped nearly forty pounds of excess fluids into her body.
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