An Oklahoma judge sentenced the last living defendant in the 1999 disappearance of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman Monday as emotional family members read victim impact statements in court. Ronnie Busick, 68, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years of probation for his involvement with the disappearance and presumed deaths of the Welch girls, who were 16 when they were last seen on Dec. 29, 1999.
They were discovered missing after Ashley's parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, were found dead in their burning mobile home.
Police say that on On Dec. 30, 1999, Busick, Warren Philip “Phil” Welch II and David A. Pennington went to the Freeman house and killed Ashley's parents before burning their home. Lauria was sleeping over Ashley's house that night, and the girls were never seen again. Investigators believe they were killed shortly after they were last seen, but their remains have never been found.
Busick originally faced a first-degree murder charge in connection to the case. Busick admitted he withheld information in the case and pleaded guilty to one count of accessory to murder in the first degree. He will receive credit for his 2018 arrest in connection to the crime.
“He’s an evil man,” Lorene Bible, the mother of Lauria, said as she spoke to the court reading an impact statement Monday.
“They were young and beautiful, but you know that,” Bible said. “They were innocent, but you and your other buddies took that from them.
“She was not yours for the taking, but you did anyway,” the mom continued. “When you took her though, you messed with the wrong girl. You see, though you stole her from us and all of her future from us, you will never steal our memories of her. They aren’t tainted by the awful things you did to her.”
"And we, the family of Lauria Bible, are faced with a choice of forgiveness. That's a tough place to be, because forgiving you would mean betraying her. Would she forgive you? The answer is yes. She would have forgiven you if she had the chance," Bible said as she looked at Busick.
Investigators last month searched for Freeman and Bible's remains at the site of an old root cellar, but the search yielded nothing, frustrating authorities hoping to bring closure to the girls' families 20 years after they went missing.
The lack of progress also frustrated Lorene Bible.
“To me, because of 20 years of up and down, up and down, you don’t get all your hopes up because you’ve put all your faith that today’s the day because, as it turned out, it's not here," Bible told KTUL in Tulsa.
Investigators focused on the old root cellar in Picher after being led there by Busick. He is the only known living person connected to the case.
Busick pleaded guilty in July in a deal that noted if he helped investigators locate the girls' bodies before his sentencing, his sentencing could be reduced.
"I feel fairly confident that [Busick] is going to tell us what he basically can, because it is in his best interest," Ottawa County district attorney investigator Gary Stansill said during a press conference at the time. "If the girls are recovered for anything that he gives us, his sentence will be reduced. So I believe he is trying, to what degree, I don't know."
After failing to find the girls' remains in the root cellar, investigators are next planning to search three mine shafts.
The case had garnered renewed media interest because of the Aug. 31 deadline, but investigators emphasized then that even if the girls' remains weren't found before then, they will not stop looking.
"We're still going to be doing our search efforts, we still want to recover these girls, so even though there might not be a bunch of media after the 31st, after his sentencing date, please do not let the calls end," Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Tammy Ferrari said during the press conference. "We are still going to be doing our search efforts, so please don't forget about the girls."