Deceased Southeast Kansas men suspects in missing Welch girls case
VINITA, Okla. – “It’s like it was day one,” Lorene Bible said Monday during a press conference, “Until I find the girls I’ll do everything it takes to be with them, if it takes my last breath to bring them home. I have to do that.”
The Bibles have been waiting and wondering now for over 18 long years for answers to their 16-year-old daughter, Lauria and her friend Ashley Freeman’s mysterious disappearance from Welch in 1999. Today some answers came.
Craig County District Attorney Matt Ballard called a press conference at 2 p.m. Monday at the Craig County Fairgrounds releasing information after the ongoing investigation by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Investigator Tammy Ferari and Craig County D.A.’s Special Victims Unit Investigator Gary Stansill uncovered information which resulted in the arrest of Ronnie Dean Busick.
Busick 67, is currently in the custody of Harvey County Kansas Jail.
The room was packed with media members and members of the Bible and Freeman families as investigators gave details leading to Busick’s arrest.
“Mr. Busick is charged with acting in concert with two other men as follows; Four counts of first degree murder for killing Kathy Freeman, Danny Freemen, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Two counts of kidnapping for the abductions of Ashley Freemen and Lauria Bible and a final count of first degree arson for setting fire to the Freeman home,” Ballard announced.
The two other perpetrators were identified during the course of the investigation, Warren Philip (Phil) Welch II, and David A. Pennington, both of whom are now deceased, according to Ballard. Welch, 61, rural Columbus, died Sunday, July 29, 2007, at his home. Pennington, 56, of Chetopa, passed away on Sunday, June 14, 2015, at his home.
“Members of Ashley and Lauria’s families were briefed this morning regarding the arrest, charges and details brought to light by investigators Ferrari and Stansill. Here, again, I want to extend my condolences to the girls’ families,” Ballard said before giving more details.
The suspects were known to the investigators and the families for some time.
“They’ve learned these young ladies’ final days were certainly horrific and today’s announcement no doubt comes as little solace to their grief,” Ballard said. “We’re standing together releasing this statement, however, because we believe there are people with knowledge of this crime who can assist in recovering the girls’ bodies and bring some closure to their families.”
According to Ballard, Welch, Pennington, and Busick killed Danny and Kathy Freeman, abducted the teenage girls and set fire to the Freeman home in Welch.
A probable cause affidavit filed in Craig County District Court for Busick's arrest alleges the teens were kidnapped, tied up and raped by the three men while being held in Welch's mobile home located in Picher at 412 South College Street, according to witnesses. The murders were reportedly connected to drugs and drug debt over "meth," according to the witnesses interviewed in the affidavit.
“Information is also filed within the affidavit revealing the girls were kept alive for an unknown number of days following the fire, that Polaroid photographs of the girls in their final days were seen by multiple people and Welch, Pennington and Busick made many statements to multiple people in their lives about their crimes,” Ballard said. “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.”
The Polaroid photos were kept and passed to drug dealers involved, according to the affidavit.
Lauria's and Ashley's bodies were dumped in mine shafts or possibly a cellar filled with concrete, according to witnesses interviewed in the affidavit.
OSBI Special Agent in Charge Aungela Spurlock said the nearly two-decade investigation culminated in Busick’s arrest after countless hours spent interviewing witnesses, conducting searches, thousands of miles traveled to follow leads and used various investigative techniques including polygraph, underwater cameras, site excavation, any witness interviews, cadaver dogs, and drones.
“While there have been challenges in this case, there have also been successes,” Spurlock said, crediting Ferrari and Stansill for remaining passionate to the case from the moment of their involvement.
“The main investigators in this most recent phase of the Bible/Freeman case have found witnesses that prove the three co-defendants talked…a lot. There was physical evidence in the form of photos and we can be certain several people out there could come forward right now and tell us where to find Ashley and Lauria,” Craig County Sheriff Heath Winfrey said.
“While today is a day for each of us to take a moment to recognize the significance of why we have gathered, the filing of the murder, kidnapping and arson charges against Busick is by no means the end of their investigation,” Spurlock said. “The investigation will continue as a priority for the OSBI. We will not rest until we have brought Ashley and Lauria home to their families.”
Lauria's parents Jay and Lorene Bible, have continuously pushed the investigation and sustained hope that information would be uncovered or brought forward and the girls would be found.
“Since taking office 15 months ago it has been a goal of our administration to help bring those involved in these crimes to justice and to locate Lauria and Ashley,” Winfrey said. “Today a major step toward that goal was taken with the arrest of Ronnie Busick. We want to convey to everyone we will not stop working until we bring Lauria and Ashley home. We are asking for any information that will help us find the girls who have been missing for 18 years. We will never quit searching and will do what is necessary to bring them home to their families.”
Nineteen years ago, Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman disappeared late Dec. 29, 1999 while spending the night at Ashley's home in rural Welch with her parents Danny and Kathy Freeman, to celebrate Ashley's 16th birthday.
Danny and Kathy Freeman were fatally shot sometime that same night and their bodies were found in the ashes of the home later on Dec. 30, 1999. The Freemans had sustained gunshot wounds that shattered their skulls, according to autopsy reports. A shotgun blast sheared off the bottom portion of Danny's face, according to an autopsy report. Kathy was shot in the back of the head and was found by investigators lying face down on the couple’s waterbed
Authorities think the killer or killers set the fire to cover up the murders. Lauria’s car was found at the Freeman home with the keys inside and her purse was found in the fire rubble. Ashley and Lauria have not been seen since that night.
Danny’s remains were found the next day near the waterbed by the Bible’s while they were searching through the ashes.
Lorene Bible said in an interview years after, “I remember the last words said were, ‘I love you. See you tomorrow.' Not a day – not an hour – not a minute goes by without us praying for knowledge of where to find her.”
For years investigators have looked into several theories. Lauria and Ashley’s story has been profiled locally, statewide and nationally, and yet, still remained unsolved.
“It’s been 18 years, three months and 26 days to this point, and we’re not finished, you know it’s just a start of another way for us to go to because I will not stop until we bring the girls home,” Lorene Bible said. “I do feel like the investigators are saying there are people out there over this process that are afraid to talk because they’re fearful for their life. They can remain anonymous, they can make calls.”
Lorene said in 2015 she began using online social media, which sparked life back into the investigation.
“There are people out there I feel in my heart who still know something, however little it may be to them it’s like a puzzle piece, but somebody knows where these girls are, and for me, I need to bring my daughter home,” she said her voice wavering with emotion.
“We’ve missed her for a long time, we’re going to bring her home, and we’re going to hold onto that,” Jay Bible said breaking into tears.
Jay Bible thanked Stansill and Ferrari, “Because it was a wild mess before they became involved. The first 15 years seemed like it was fruitless. The last three years the Lord answered a lot of prayers for us.”
Jay also thanked all law enforcement involved in the investigation and for the arrest and thanked media members for continued coverage and keeping the story alive.
“I just want to thank them all for their participation and help in this case,” he said.
All acknowledged without Lorene’s fierce and undaunting tenacity the case may never have gotten the attention needed.
“When your child goes missing you know you leave it to the authorities because they’re the experts, unfortunately, we found out with our case sometimes they’re not, or their hands are tied beyond what they can do,” Lorene said. “John Walsh told me the third day out, ‘You have a choice you have to make – you’re either going to hide in a closet and in six months nobody will know who Lauria Bible or Ashley Freeman was, or you’re going to become a voice, and in five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years people will know who Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman were, because you will be their voice,’ and I decided that’s what I am. I’m their voice.”
Lorene said it has been a fight but one she remains committed to until her daughter and her friend are found.
The Bibles believe the death penalty should be sought in the case.
“The first five months out I could have shot him myself, but that means I’m no better than they are,” she said.
Lorene said she did not know who the suspects were until she “made it her business,” to know, and two had died by that time.
Jay Bible said he hoped Busick would now cooperate with authorities to help them find the girls bodies.
“You need to look me right in the eye and you need to tell this mother to her face where my child is,” Lorene said when asked what she would say to Busick. “You who have children, it isn’t anything you wouldn’t do for your child.”
Lauria’s 35th birthday would have been April 18 of this year.
“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,” Lorene said.
Winfrey acknowledged Stansill, Ferrari, the DA’s investigators, Craig County Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff’s Offices in Ottawa County Oklahoma, Labette, Cherokee, Sedgwick and Harvey Counties in Kansas, the Chetopa Police Department Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Harvey County District Attorney’s Office, the FBI, U. S. Attorney’s Office in Northeast Oklahoma, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Agent Spurlock and Sheriff Winfrey encourage anyone with information about the case to contact the OSBI at 1-800-522-8017 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. A $50,000 reward still stands.