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Authorities Return To Ghost Town To Search For Teen Friends Missing Since A Deadly 1999 Arson And Shooting During Sleepover
Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman, both 16, disappeared after someone shot Ashley's parents to death and set their home on fire in 1999. Now police are searching a toxic superfund site for the girls' remains.
Authorities are again searching for the bodies of two 16-year-old teenage friends believed to have been murdered in 1999. The search is taking place in a former mining town in northeastern Oklahoma.
Lauria Bible had been sleeping over at Ashley Freeman’s home when the trailer where the teen lived with her parents was found engulfed in flames on the morning of Dec. 30, 1999, according to an arrest affidavit. Authorities found Ashley’s mother, Kathy Freeman, 38, shot to death in the rubble of the rural Welch, Oklahoma home.
The teenage girls, as well as Ashley’s father, Danny Freeman, were nowhere to be found.
“A tip was called into authorities stating they saw Danny Freeman with the two girls in a white Ford truck,” Lauria’s mother, Lorene Bible, told Oxygen.com. “The authorities thought Danny killed Kathy and abducted the girls.”
But the following day, Lauria’s parents found Danny Freeman’s burnt body on the scene. Like his wife, he had a shotgun wound to the head.
In 2018, authorities arrested Ronnie Busick for his role in the murders and named Warren ‘Phil’ Welch II and David Pennington as co-conspirators. Investigators say more than a dozen witnesses made statements against the three Kansas men claiming that they kept the girls alive for two weeks, abused them and photographed their captivity.
Welch and Pennington have since died over the course of the investigation.
On Friday, multiple agencies returned to Pennington's home in the ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma, nearly 30 miles from the crime scene. Pennington lived less than half a mile from Welch’s trailer, where witnesses say the girls were murdered.
Declared the most toxic city in America by the Environmental Protection Agency, Picher was designated a superfund site. Residents evacuated in the 2000s due to undermining hazards. Then an EF4 tornado ripped through the town in 2008.
Neither one of the homes that belonged to Pennington nor Welch in 1999 exist today.
As the hunt to find the possible remains of the teenage girls begins again, relatives and searchers spoke to Oxygen.com from the scene.
“As far as Picher goes, it really is a ghost town,” said Caleb Landers, who is currently working alongside the Quapaw Nation Department of Emergency Management. “It’s a creepy feeling, just being in this town.”
Landers said he has spent recent weeks with families clearing the property and preparing a team of canines trained to detect human remains.
For Lorene Bible, who has long championed the crusade to find her daughter and her best friend, leads in the case have come in around Picher for years.
“At the very beginning, when the girls first disappeared, there were leads pointing to this group of men,” Lorene told Oxygen.com. “Back then, Picher was a place that a lot of drugs were cooked and done.”
Witnesses, including Ronnie Busick, said a disagreement over meth led to the murder.
“It should have never happened over a cheap piece of dope,” Busick told the Tulsa World from jail. “It should have never happened over anything.”
In 2020, Busick pleaded guilty to an accessory to murder charge and is currently serving a 10-year sentence.
Busick claimed that Phil Welch shot and killed Kathy and Danny Freeman before ransacking their home and stealing money and marijuana, according to the Tulsa World. After one of the suspects set fire to the home, the girls escaped, he said; then, in the light of the fire, the men captured the girls. They’d then attempted to hide in the surrounding fields, Busick added.
“Dave went after one,” said Busick. “And Phil went after the other.”
Busick claimed Welch beat the girls and injected them with methamphetamine at his home. Witnesses also cited Welch as the mastermind behind the murders.
“The reason we are here is because Ronnie Busick stated David Pennington said the girls could be found in a root cellar,” Lorene said.
This is the second time searchers are on the Pennington property; plans to return were delayed due to weather.
“Unfortunately, it rained a whole lot in the spring, then when it turned off, it turned off too hot,” Bible told Oxygen.com. “We’ll be excavating more, with three different plots ready to be excavated.”
Hugh Murray, a K9 handler for the Quapaw Nation Department of Emergency Management, was also at the scene, saying he hopes to continue the searches into next week.
“There are a couple of spots of interest, [that] look to be wells, potentially a septic tank,” Murray told Oxygen.com. “We don’t want to leave anything undisturbed. We know one of these guys lived here, so it’s certainly an area of interest that has caught the attention of the Bibles and the OSBI, so we’re going to run this thing very thoroughly.”
Bible, especially, shows no sign of stopping.
“If nothing is found today, my next approach is where will I have to go from here?” she said. “What will I have to make happen to get the talk started?”