Eighteen years after two girls vanished following a fire that destroyed an Oklahoma home and left one of the girl's parents dead, police have arrested one of the three men they say killed the teens after torturing them for days.
Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible, both 16, were last seen alive on Dec. 29, 1999. The girls planned to celebrate Ashley’s birthday with a sleepover at her Welch home.
But it immediately became clear to emergency responders who rushed to the Freeman home after receiving calls about a fire the next morning that the previous evening had gone horribly wrong.
The bodies of Danny and Kathy Freeman, Ashley’s parents, were discovered in their burned mobile home. An accelerant had been placed near the home’s wood-burning stove. Both Danny and Kathy Freeman had been shot in the head, according to autopsy reports.
Lauria’s car was still parked in front of the Freeman home with her keys in the ignition. Her purse, which contained money, was found in the rubble.
And Ashley and Lauria were gone.
For nearly two decades, mystery surrounded the fates of the girls.
But on Monday, officials announced that they finally had answers to questions that have dogged them for nearly two decades.
“For 18 years the community in Craig County ... have followed the case of the deaths of Danny and Kathy Freeman, the mysterious disappearance of their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley Freeman, and Ashley’s friend, 16-year-old Lauria Bible, and the arson of the Freeman family home. Yesterday, there was an arrest in the case," Craig County District Attorney Matt Ballard said at a press conference Monday.
As he spoke, the parents of Lauria and relatives of Ashley stood nearby.
“They’ve (the Bible and Freeman families) learned these young ladies’ final days were certainly horrific and today’s announcement no doubt comes as little solace to their grief," he continued.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1999, Ronnie Dean Busick, Warren Philip “Phil” Welch II and David A. Pennington visited the Freeman home either to sell drugs to one of the parents or settle a drug debt when the teens unexpectedly walked in, according to an affidavit filed by the state of Oklahoma.
Witnesses told police the men spoke of what they did to the girls numerous times over the years, calling Ashley and Lauria "two little b*****s" and saying, "Yeah, we got them, didn’t we?" the affidavit said.
Witnesses told police they had been told the girls were kept for several days in a trailer, where they were raped and tortured, the affidavit said. The girls were then strangled and their bodies were dumped in an undisclosed location.
Welch had about 10 to 15 pictures depicting the girls “lying on a bed, facing each other, with their hands tied and their mouths gagged," and duct-taped to chairs, witnesses said.
The girls appeared to be held against their will and emaciated, and in some of the photos, Welch was lying next to the teens, witnesses said.
"Polaroid photos of the girls and their final days were seen by multiple people,” Ballard told reporters.
The photos were kept "like a trophy" and stored inside a leather briefcase, the affidavit said.
Investigators have not found the photos, but numerous people confirmed they saw the disturbing images.
The photos were tied to an insurance card found by private investigators along the road near the Freeman home a few days after the 1999 killings. The insurance card belonged to Welch’s ex-girlfriend, whose dark blue sedan was frequently driven by Welch and was believed to have been seen near the Freeman home around the time of the murders and abduction.
Witnesses told police Welch, Pennington and Busick were “holy rollers” who cooked methamphetamine, labeling Welch as the “mastermind” behind the killings.
Welch is believed to have shot Danny and Kathy Freeman, while Pennington and Busick are thought to have set fire to the home, the affidavit said.
Described as "evil," Welch reportedly kept a missing poster of Ashley and Lauria offering a $50,000 reward for information tacked up in his Picher mobile home.
Several witnesses told police they were threatened by Welch to keep quiet about what they may know and said they were afraid for their lives. Both Pennington and Welch were also said to have been abusive toward former girlfriends, whom they also threatened, the affidavit said.
Welch died in 2007, while Pennington died in 2015.
In several interviews with police in 2017, Busick said he hung out with Pennington and Welch, saying, "We were pretty tight back in those days."
He denied any involvement with the killings or abductions of Ashley and Lauria, oftentimes not responding to the investigators’ questions, according to authorities.
“Much of the time he would just stare at the reward poster," the affidavit said.
In a third interview, Busick said he was scared of what his sister would think if he told the truth, but refused to elaborate, the affidavit claimed.
Busick, 66, was charged on Monday with four counts of first-degree murder and malice aforethought, four counts of accessory to first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, one count of arson and one count of accessory to first-degree arson.
“Although the criminal case against Mr. Busick has commenced, we must stay focused on the recovery of Ashley and Lauria for the sake of the families and our entire community,” Ballard said.
The families of Lauria and Ashley welcomed the arrest years in the making, but also noted there was still much work to be done to get closure.
"Somebody knows where these girls are," Lorene Bible, Lauria’s mother, told reporters. "And for me, I need to bring my daughter home."
Should Busick be convicted, Bible said she wants the death penalty for him, whom she hopes to one day speak with directly.
"Hopefully I’ll get to look at him, right in the eye, and (say), 'You need to tell me,'" Bible said. "'You tell this mother to her face, where my child is.'"
Witnesses told police the suspects said the girls’ bodies were dumped in a mine shaft or cellar that was later covered in concrete.
In his threats to keep others quiet, Welch reportedly told one witness, "Don’t you ever tell anybody or you will end up in a pit in Picher like those two girls.”
Bible said she will not rest until her daughter’s body is found and she and her family have a place to lay their grief.
"Lauria turned 35 on the 18th of April," Bible said. "She’s been gone more than half her life. I need a place that I can go and say, 'That’s where my daughter is.'
"I used to go to the end of the Freeman’s driveway and I’d put up wreaths," she continued. "But it’s just a driveway. When you lose a loved one, you can go to a cemetery. I don’t have that. And that’s what I want."
Busick’s arrest comes after years of investigating by several law enforcement agencies and in spite of roadblocks encountered by many.
Private investigators Joe Dugan and Tom Pryor, who found the insurance card days after the murders and abductions, went on to find the blue sedan linked to the card in a Picher salvage yard.
Pryor was told “the vehicle had gone through too many hands to be processed,” for evidence, according to the affidavit.
Pryor held onto the insurance card and went on to give it to investigators in August 2017. He also gave the car registration and rental receipts naming Welch to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the affidavit said.
Pryor said he and Dugan abandoned their investigation after being told by law enforcement that they were interfering and if they continued their probe, their private investigator licenses “would be canceled,” the affidavit said.
Dugan died in 2009, and his family said they attempted to turn over his files on the investigation to the Craig County Sheriff's Office, which was under the leadership of Sheriff Jimmie Sooter at the time, the affidavit said. The sheriff's office turned them down and the family eventually destroyed the files, according to the affidavit.
Then on Feb. 11, 2017, not long after he assumed office, Craig County Sheriff Heath Winfrey discovered a crate containing reports and files on the Freeman murders and missing girls. He turned over the long-lost investigative notes to the OSBI, which reviewed the files and found critical information not previously known, including the names of people they have since interviewed.
In the decades since the murders, countless tips and areas have been investigated, divers have explored Grand Lake, cadaver dogs and drones have been utilized and cameras have been dropped down mineshafts to search for Lauria and Ashley, officials said.
“We will not rest until Ashley and Lauria are brought home to their families," said Aungela Spurlock, OSBI Assistant Special Agent in charge of the northeast regional office.
Officials and family members urged anyone with information to come forward. They can contact the OSBI at 1-800-522-8017 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A $50,000 reward still remains.
"There are people out there... that are afraid to talk, because they’re fearful for their lives," Lorene Bible said. "They can remain anonymous."
She and Lauria’s father, Jay Bible, remain steadfast that their daughter will be brought home.
“We’ve missed her for a long time, but were going to bring her home and we’re going to hold on to that,” Jay Bible said, his voice cracking.
"We might as well be up at the Freeman farm, digging through the ashes right now again," he later said. “That’s kind of what it feels like. At least we’re doing something and we’re making some progress now. We weren’t back then."