Lisa Howorth says her debut novel, Flying Shoes, which came out in paperback last spring, was rattling around in her head for years. In it, a reporter begins looking into an unsolved crime that occurred 50 years ago, when a 9-year-old boy was sexually molested and killed on Mother’s Day in 1966.
In real life, Howorth’s stepbrother, Stevie Johnston, also went missing on Mother’s Day in 1966, and was found dead a day later near the intersection of Little Falls Parkway and what is now the Capital Crescent Trail in Bethesda. Stevie, who was 9, had been sexually molested and stabbed.
The case rocked Bethesda and the Washington, D.C., area, garnering a front-page story in The Washington Post. Rick Neumann, one of Howorth’s three surviving brothers, says the tragedy seemed to mark the end of innocence in what had been a quiet and bucolic suburb.
Another of Howorth’s brothers—who asked that his name be left out of this story—began to look into the case more than a decade ago.
Howorth says her brother has reviewed documents at police headquarters in Rockville that indicate that authorities eventually zeroed in on a suspect: a man who was questioned in a 1967 molestation case involving a young boy in Bethesda. The suspect’s physical description seemed to match a composite sketch the police had made in Stevie’s case, and also seemed a possible match for a shoe print near the place where Stevie’s body was found. But somewhere along the way, the police apparently lost track of the physical evidence in Stevie’s case, and the Johnston family was never told that police had a suspect.
Howorth believes an “egregious” series of mistakes by Montgomery County Police is responsible for the homicide still languishing in the cold-case files. “It was Keystone Kops all the way,” says Neumann, who runs Neumann Associates, a floor refinishing company in Bethesda. The police declined to discuss the case with Bethesda Magazine.
Howorth and her husband, Richard, own Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, a community with a strong literary tradition (William Faulkner was a longtime resident). She spent years crafting the novel while raising three children, managing the bookstore with her husband, and writing nonfiction for magazines.
In Flying Shoes, there is no question that art takes inspiration from life. The narrator is Mary Byrd Thornton, a woman whose story and background are similar to Howorth’s. In the book, there’s a sudden break in the case. Thornton and her family meet with a detective who describes the police department’s mishandling of evidence and the likelihood that the killer was behind bars for other molestation cases, but soon may be freed. A review in Entertainment Weekly called the book “a potent mix of Southern melancholy and charm.”
As the 50th anniversary of Stevie Johnston’s killing looms, Howorth, her three brothers and her mother are hoping that the publication of Flying Shoes, paired with the unrelenting detective work of the brother who has become the family sleuth, might help to finally bring the case to a conclusion. The family would like to see the police pursue the still-living suspect from five decades ago. There is no statute of limitations on a murder charge, so if police and prosecutors could come up with solid evidence—there was no DNA testing in the ’60s—they might be able to bring a suspect to trial.
But Howorth says she’s been disappointed that the book has not yet spurred any movement on the case. “This is a very old case, but it still is very much alive to me and to my family,” she says. “When I finished the book, I expected to feel elated, and I expected a real sense of accomplishment and a sense of moving things forward. I had hope.”