Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman had been best friends since kindergarten. Lauria’s mom fondly recalls their friendship: “Lauria and Ashley would call each other at least once a week. What one was thinking, the other was thinking. It’s kind of like when two people—one can finish the sentence when the other one starts one.”
The two girls lived in a small town in rural Oklahoma; Ashley played basketball, and Lauria was a cheerleader. Ashley loved to hunt and fish. Lauria raised hogs to show at livestock competitions.
December 29, 1999 was Ashley’s 16th birthday, and the girls planned to celebrate with a sleepover at Ashley’s. After eating pizza at a local restaurant, Ashley, Lauria, and Ashley’s mother retreated to the Freemans' home.
Mere hours later, around 5:30 A.M., firefighters were summoned to the Freemans' mobile home. The whole trailer was engulfed in flames. After extinguishing the fire, the firefighters located the body of Kathy Freeman, Ashley’s mother. She had been laying near the bed, shot in the head before the fire started. Ashley’s father, Ashley, and Lauria were missing. The first theory: Danny had killed his wife, kidnapped Ashley and Lauria, and burned the home down to ruin any evidence.
This theory was quickly disproven. When Lauria’s parents came to the charred remains of the mobile home to search for a clue as to their daughter’s whereabouts, they discovered new evidence. What remained of Danny’s Rottweiler lay next to a pile of debris–and underneath was Danny Freeman's body. It was clear that Danny had been shot prior to the fire as well. With Danny’s body now located more questions arose. Where were the girls? Who shot the Freemans? Did the shooter take the girls?
The next discovery made by authorities was Lauria’s purse. Inside, they found her driver’s license and almost $200. Authorities drew two conclusions from this discovery. First, Lauria, in leaving behind her purse, likely did not leave the home willingly. Second, robbery seemed less plausible as the reason for the violence, as any thief would have taken the money.
Theories continued to abound. Danny was a rumored drug dealer. Perhaps the homicides had been a drug deal gone bad. Ashley and her father didn’t get along. Maybe the girls murdered Ashley’s parents and then fled. Yet none of the theories held up to scrutiny. All the authorities knew for sure: A couple was dead, and two girls were missing.
The local authorities launched a search for the teenagers. Nearby lakes, mine shafts, and quarries were searched to no avail. The search stretched far beyond Oklahoma's state lines, but to no avail. At least two convicted killers even confessed before recanting their statements. Soon, the case went cold.
Then, in 2017, nearly two decades after that fateful December night in Oklahoma, there was a break in the case. The Craig County Sheriff’s Department discovered a box of previously unknown notes and documents related to the investigation. The previous sheriff’s administration had reportedly stashed the documents. Among the cache were the names of witnesses and statements providing fresh leads. One of the most important pieces of evidence rediscovered was an insurance card found at the crime scene. The insurance card belonged to a woman who lived with a man named Phil Welch, who had borrowed her car around the time of the murders.
Phil Welch was a meth dealer with a criminal record. Investigators believed that Welch and two of his cronies–David Pennington and Ronnie Busick–visited the Freeman home that night about a drug deal. The confrontation grew heated; the men killed the Freemans. After killing the couple, the men abducted the girls and set the home on fire.
According to witnesses, the trio took Ashley and Lauria to Welch’s trailer, where they were bound and raped. After a “matter of days”, they were strangled and “thrown in a pit”.
Welch, the sick ringleader, supposedly covered the walls of his trailer home with the missing posters of Lauria and Ashley. He also took disturbing pictures of his victims.
Welch possessed about a dozen Polaroids documenting the torture he inflicted on the young girls. He kept them hidden in a leather briefcase. When his girlfriend discovered the pictures, she said that he threatened her life: “Don’t you ever tell anybody or you will end up in a pit ... like those two girls.” Another witness claims that Welch and Pennington had shown him the pictures of their own volition, bragging about what they had done.
While Oklahoma law enforcement never recovered the photos, they had received reports of images; the three suspects were even on their radar. Yet there was never enough evidence to secure a conviction. The newly discovered cache—from the witness reports to the borrowed car and insurance card—was enough to pursue charges.
Both Welch and Pennington had passed away before this major break. However, Ronnie Busick, now 66 years old, was still alive. In April 2018, he was arrested in Wichita and charged with four counts of murder.
Despite the arrests, the families of Lauria and Ashley have yet to find solace. As stated in a post on their Facebook page, the Bible family will never find peace until the bodies of the two teenagers are found: “At this time all focus is on finding Lauria and Ashley. We welcome all information leading to their recovery. Until they are home with us, this will never be over.”