PICHER, Okla. — Dogs capable of detecting human remains aided Friday in yet another search in Picher for Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible, two 16-year-olds who went missing 21 years ago and have become known as "the Welch girls."
Crossroads K-9 Search and Rescue of Shreveport, Louisiana, worked alongside the Quapaw Nation Emergency Management K-9 Search Team in the continuing search at a site they had started on in April.
Investigators began digging several new holes on empty lots at 629 and 627 S. Ottawa St. in Picher to pick up where they left off. The dogs showed an interest in the area.
“They showed some behavior changes, but that’s all we’re willing to say,” said Caleb Landers, K-9 handler. That was it as of late Friday afternoon, but the digging could continue this weekend.
Gary Stansill, an investigator for the Craig County district attorney’s office, said the area was once the home of suspect David Pennington, who moved to 629 S. Ottawa in January 2000.
Pennington is one of three men believed to have been involved in the Dec. 30, 1999, slayings of Ashley Freeman’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, of Welch, Oklahoma, and the abduction of their daughter and her friend Lauria Bible.
Stansill said that they decided to return to the site this fall after receiving additional information from witnesses that certain structures had been on the property, including a root cellar.
“We also had information that when Pennington lived here, he moved here a couple weeks after the murders,” said Stansill. “Two of his relatives, his ex-stepdaughter at the time and his ex-wife at the time, both described some type of a cellar, or below ground structure, that they were not allowed to be around. But we take that information coupled with what Ronnie Busick has said that he had heard Pennington talk about a root cellar.”
Ronnie Dean Busick pleaded guilty July 15, 2020, to being an accessory to first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Ashley Freeman’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, the burning of their home near Welch, and the abduction and presumed slayings of the two girls.
“He (Busick) didn’t say that Pennington held the girls in the root cellar, but he said he was led to believe, based on statements that Pennington had made, that they may be in the root cellar,” said Stansill.
With his guilty plea, Busick admitted having withheld information from investigators about the involvement of the other two suspects in the case, Warren "Phil" Welch and Pennington, both of whom have since died without ever having been charged with the murders.
Investigators believe the girls were held and sexually abused at Welch’s home on College Street in Picher for a couple of weeks before being killed and their bodies disposed of in some manner. Stansill said witnesses suggested digging at other spots on the property.
“Like Gary referred to, we had some more information that came in, and we kind of put it on hold,” said Tammy Ferrari, a special agent with the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. “A lot of things came up scheduling wise, and then with more information, we were like we have to go back out there. We just want to make sure that when we go at it this time, we don’t leave anything unturned.”
Lorene Bible, the mother of Lauria Bible, still believes the girls’ remains are located somewhere in the immediate area in Picher.
“They’re close, and we’ve always known that,” Bible said to reporters on Friday.
The mother said she was in much better health on Friday after having received a liver transplant in April.
“Every time we come out, look and search, I say, ‘OK, Lauria. Today’s the day,’ Lorene Bible said. "I took it with my liver that God needed to fix me, so I’m able to do this, recover her body and deal with that,” she said.
“These were two 16-year-old girls who had the rest of their lives, and people took it upon themselves to end their story,” she said. “They didn’t get to go on and graduate high school, go to college, get married, have children and have a career. For them, this is who they were.”
As of 4:20 p.m. Friday, investigators said the search had not yielded any results. Stansill said if they didn’t finish, then they will most likely resume the search this weekend into Monday, depending on weather conditions.
“If we finish here today and don’t find anything, and are satisfied that we have searched the area, and that’s our satisfaction that we don’t believe they’re here, then we’ll go on to the next few places in Kansas, based on some information that we will look at,” said Stansill.