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LAKE STATION — The first time Larry Pope saw a picture of his sister Sharon it was a newspaper photograph of her body lying lifeless outside of a city sewer lift station.

Pope was 17. He'd been handed a manila envelope from his case worker. In it, she told him, was something he needed to know. The envelope contained newspaper clippings chronicling the deaths of his sisters, Sharon Pope DeJesus, 20, and Lillian Pope, 18, four years earlier.

He'd never met his sisters, who were murdered on a snowy night in December 1973. Their bodies were found, fully clothed, lying next to each other near a sewer lift station in Lake Station. Both women were pregnant at the time of their deaths.

His family, which included 12 siblings, was dysfunctional and he was in foster care at the time of their deaths.

The envelope changed his life, the Valparaiso man said.

"The day I was handed that manila envelope was the day I decided to find justice for them," Pope said.

He, his siblings and other family members have been trying to find justice for Sharon and Lillian. No one has been charged in their deaths.

The Popes took the cold case to Lisette Guillen of the television program "Case Files Chicago." Guillen and a two-man crew taped interviews with Larry Pope, his sister Martha Pope-Hoag, of Florida, and Lake Station Detective Mark Adkins on Thursday for an episode of the program to air sometime in September. The program airs at 11 p.m. on Saturdays on the CW network.

The program highlights unsolved homicides, violent crimes and missing persons in the Chicagoland area.

A family's never-ending grief

"They were family members. They stood up for our family. Who is standing up for them? It could have been me and my sister," said Pope's cousin Pam Bottila, of Lake Station, about the family's battle to find the sisters' killer or killers.

Pam knew the sisters. She baby-sat for Sharon's two sons.

"Sharon was a wonderful mother," said Bottila, adding her cousins' deaths, and the lack of a resolution, continues to haunt her.

"They need to know somebody gives a (expletive)," Larry Pope, a retired union laborer, said about his crusade to find his sisters' killer or killers. He said resolving his sisters' murders would be better than winning the lottery.

Sharon, who lived in Gary, worked at Calvin's Drive In on Dunes Highway in Miller at the time. Lillian, who lived in Portage, worked at 12-20 Bowl just down the street.

Sharon had two sons with her estranged husband and was six months pregnant at the time of her death. The nearly full-term baby Lillian was carrying would have been her first child. The two unborn children were buried with their mothers. The sisters lay side by side at Calvary Cemetery in Portage.

"They were last seen leaving work together on a cold December night," Larry Pope said. "They had each other, that's all they had.

"They were with the wrong people at the right time," said Pope, who has been researching files and interviewing people for nearly 40 years, not only to help solve their murders, but to learn about who they were.

Both were shot with a shotgun at close range. Sharon had been beaten so badly before she was shot that police told Pope no one would have recognized her, he said.

"That had to be some sort of vendetta," he said, adding that one sister had to have witnessed the other sister's killing before she was killed herself.

"They went through so much in their lives. It's wrong they died so young," said Pope, adding he wants a resolution to give himself, his family and his sisters some final peace.

Sharon may have had an older daughter the family didn't know about until recently. Just a few weeks ago, a young woman, born in 1969, came forward and told the Pope family she was Sharon's daughter. The young woman had been adopted and on her adoptive mother's death bed, the woman told her she was the daughter of Sharon Pope. The family has not had time to prove or disprove the claim.

Sharon's two sons were raised by a woman who had been living with their father. The father left the area after the Pope sisters' deaths. One of the sons died a few years ago.

Someone has to know something

"I have pestered everybody in this world to have it solved," Pope said. "It really blew my mind that no one, in all these years, has come forward." He said someone they knew or worked with had to know what happened to them that night, if they got into someone's car or where they might have been intending to go.

That's why he turned to Guillen nearly six years ago to have the cold case featured on the television show.

"All I know is whoever did this needs to pay for it," said Botilla, adding that some people called the sisters "trash." 

"They are pissing me off when they talk about them as trash," Botilla said. "None of us is expendable."

"I've been hot and heavy at it a long time," Pope said. "I often wonder if there wasn't a cover-up of some sort. Sometimes I feel they think their lives didn't matter. I wonder had they been from a prominent family, if it would have been different." 

Detective Adkins disagrees.

"It is a cold case," said Adkins, who was 2 years old at the time of the Popes' murders.

There have been no leads, no new information. Adkins said Police Chief Dave Johnson assigned him to look into the case again.

"At this point I am just trying to gather information. Law enforcement has changed significantly since 1973," Adkins said. The Police Department agreed to be on the television program in an effort to generate new leads in the case, he said.

"I personally get frustrated anytime there is a case that comes to a standstill," Adkins said, adding there is no DNA evidence in the case and some records were lost several years ago to a flood.

He believes the Pope sisters' murders can be solved.

"I think there is somebody out there that knows what happened 45 years ago and they may want to ease their conscious," said Adkins, acknowledging that the killer or killers may themselves be dead by now.

Still, he said, there is someone who knows something about the case.

Anyone with any information about the case is asked to call Adkins at 219-962-1186 or email madkins@lakestation-in.gov.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.