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.
Richard at the trial.
Photograph by Judy Morning News

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.”

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