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Missing Welch girls case: Dive team, ground-penetrating radar brought in for new search for remains of Lauria Bible, Ashley Freeman

PICHER — The search for the remains of two teenage girls who disappeared from the scene of a double homicide in December 1999 was renewed here Tuesday.

Ground-penetrating radar and the Tulsa Police Department’s dive team were brought in to assist in an in-depth examination of the last location that authorities believe 16-year-olds Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible were seen alive.

“This is the first time that we’ve had this,” said Bible’s mother, Lorene Bible. “That’s technology we didn’t have before.”

Since Dec. 31, 1999, when Freeman’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, were shot dead and their mobile home outside of Welch burned to the ground, the whereabouts of the two teen girls, who were best friends having a birthday sleepover, have remained a mystery.

A break in the case came in the spring of 2018, when prosecutors charged Ronnie Dean Busick in the deaths of the Freemans and the two girls and implicated two other men who are now deceased, Warren Phillip Welch II and David A. Pennington.

Cold-case investigators from the Craig County District Attorney’s Office and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation revealed at that time that they believed the girls were held captive for a number of days after their kidnapping at a trailer house at 412 S. College St. in Picher.

During that time they were reported to have been tortured and raped before eventually being strangled.

The cold case investigators were joined Tuesday by the Tulsa Police Department’s dive team and investigators from the Quapaw Tribe in searching the vacant site where the trailer once stood, as well as nearby ponds.

Lorene Bible, who has never stopped investigating what happened to her daughter, was the first to arrive about 8 a.m.

She said she didn’t necessarily have her hopes up but will never give up the search.

“You never know. It’s like a checklist you can check off and say, ‘You know, the girls aren’t there,’ and you go to the next place,” Bible said.

She said she even pushed to get the throng of reporters and photojournalists at the site up-close access to see the searchers at work because she believes it could help persuade people who have information to come forward.

“Let’s say this turns out to be absolutely nothing. We still want people to know,” Bible said. “There’s somebody out there that knows something, or there could be four or five people (who) know something that could bring closure.”

The search wrapped up about 4 p.m. Tuesday after a backhoe was brought in to explore anomalies identified by radar in the soil 3 to 6 feet deep.

The search is expected to resume Wednesday morning a few blocks away at a large pond created by a mine collapse across the street from Picher High School in 1967.

Law enforcement officials plan to share their observations from the search on Wednesday afternoon.

Bible noted that the 20-year anniversary of the girls’ disappearance is approaching and that it would be nice for their remains to be found.

“Five years was the worst. Then there was the 10-year (anniversary), then 15 years. That’s no place for a mother and father to be,” she said. “Everybody gets to go to the cemetery, and you get to honor your loved ones. I don’t have no place.”

Busick is being held in jail as he awaits trial. The victims’ families and investigators have pleaded with him to reveal what he knows of the whereabouts of the girls’ remains.

As for the other two suspects, Welch died in 2007 at the age of 61. He was described by witnesses in newly filed court documents as the “mastermind” in the killings of Lauria Bible and the three Freemans.

Pennington died at age 56 in 2015.

Sanders, Warren clash with moderates over 'Medicare for All'

DETROIT — Liberal firebrands Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren slapped back against moderate rivals who ridiculed “Medicare for All” during a fierce Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night in which lesser-known pragmatists warned that “wish-list economics” would jeopardize the presidency.

The tug-of-war over the future of the party early in the 2020 season pits voters’ hearts against their heads as they balance their desperate desire to find an electable candidate to take on President Donald Trump with their strong preference for dramatic change. Over and over, Sanders and Warren insisted their plans to transform the nation’s economy and health care system make up the core of a winning message.

“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” said Warren, a Massachusetts senator, decrying Democratic “spinelessness.”

Standing at Warren’s side at center stage, Sanders, a Vermont senator, agreed: “I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas.”

The fight with the political left was the dominant subplot on the first night of the second round of Democratic debates.

Twenty candidates are spread evenly over two nights Tuesday and Wednesday. The second night features early front-runner Joe Biden, the former vice president, as well as Kamala Harris, a California senator.

While much of the debate was dominated by attacks on the preferred liberal health care policy, the issue of race emerged in the second hour. The candidates were unified in turning their anger toward Trump for using race as a central theme in his reelection campaign. Sanders said Trump exploited racism, and others said the president’s rhetoric revived memories of the worst in the country’s history, including slavery.

“The legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression is alive and well in every aspect of the economy and the country today,” said former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, adding that he supported the creation of a panel to examine reparations for the descendants of slaves.

Tuesday’s debate was notable for its friction and substance. And in many respects, it is only beginning. The Democratic nomination won’t be secured until the party’s national convention next July in Wisconsin.

Despite the long road ahead, there is an increasing sense of urgency for many candidates who are fighting for survival.

More than a dozen could be blocked from the next round of debates altogether — and effectively pushed out of the race — if they fail to reach new polling and fundraising thresholds implemented by the Democratic National Committee.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is working to keep her campaign alive, aligned herself with the struggling pragmatic wing Tuesday night: “We are more worried about winning an argument than winning an election.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, in his first debate appearance, took a swipe at Sanders: Working people “can’t wait for a revolution,” he charged. “Their problems are here and now.”

While he avoided any direct confrontations with his more liberal rivals, Pete Buttigieg tried several times to present himself as the more sober alternative in the race. Substantive and composed, he rejected extreme positions, quoted Scripture and abstained from calling out his opponents.

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also subtly emphasized the generational difference between himself and Sanders and Warren, two candidates in their 70s.

Perhaps no issue illustrates the evolving divide within the Democratic Party more than health care.

Sanders’ plan to create a free universal health care system, known as Medicare for All, has become a litmus test for liberal candidates, who have embraced the plan to transform the current health care system despite the political and practical risks. Medicare for All would abandon the private insurance market completely in favor of a taxpayer-funded system that would cover all Americans.

In targeting Medicare for All, the more moderate candidates consistently sought to undermine the signature domestic policy proposal of the top two progressives on the stage. They variously derided Medicare for All as too costly, ineffective and a near-certain way to give Republicans the evidence they needed that Democrats supported socialism.

“They’re running on telling half the country that their health care is illegal,” former Maryland Rep. John Delaney said.

“We have a choice: We can go down the road that Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for All, free everything and impossible promises,” he continued. “It will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”

Yet Sanders and Warren did not back down. And while they are competing for the same set of liberal voters, there seemed to be no daylight between them Tuesday.

“Health care is a human right, not a privilege. I believe that. I will fight for that,” Sanders said.

For his part, Buttigieg called on his party to stop the infighting.

“It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” Buttigieg declared. “It’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.”

A new set of candidates, none with more to lose than Biden, will face off on Wednesday.

There, Biden will fight to prove that his underwhelming performance during last month’s opening debate was little more than an aberration.

It won’t be easy.

The 76-year-old Democrat is expected to face new and dangerous questions regarding his past policies and statements about women and minorities — both key constituencies he needs to claim the Democratic Party’s nomination and ultimately defeat Trump.

Meanwhile, Trump said earlier in the day that he would watch Tuesday’s primetime affair from the White House. His Twitter feed was silent — through the debate’s first two hours, at least.

Medicaid expansion advocates start gathering signatures to get State Question 802 on ballot before deadline

OKLAHOMA CITY — Supporters of an initiative petition seeking to expand Medicaid began gathering signatures on Wednesday.

The group Oklahomans Decide Healthcare has been pushing to get the required signatures needed to get State Question 802 on the ballot.

Approximately 177,958 signatures must be turned in to the Secretary of State’s Office by Oct. 28, said Amber England, a spokeswoman for Oklahomans Decide Healthcare.

England said specific locations for circulating the petition have yet to be publicly announced but will be posted on social media at the Yes on 802 Facebook and Twitter accounts and

The group expects to use volunteer circulators, but could use paid circulators if necessary, England said.

“It allows the state to expand the Medicaid pool in Oklahoma up to 138 percent of the poverty level,” England said of SQ 802.

According to her organization, the measure would ensure that an additional 200,000 people get covered.

It would also help individuals making less than $17,000 a year or a family of three making less than $29,000 a year, according to Oklahomans Decide Health Care.

If passed, it would bring in $9 federal dollars for every $1 in state funds, England said. It would take effect no later than July 2021.

Because it seeks to amend the Oklahoma Constitution, SQ 802 requires a higher threshold of signatures than an initiative seeking to make a statutory change. The figure required is 15 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

The previous figure was 123,725 signatures, but it was based on a lower voter turnout.

Voters on June 26, 2018, approved State Question 788, a statutory change to allow medical marijuana.

Since it was a statutory change, it required a lower percentage of signatures — 8% — than what is required to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The previous requirement was 65,987 signatures. The new threshold is 94,911 signatures.

The signature-gathering is taking place as a legislative working group tries to come up with an Oklahoma plan.

Members of the legislative working group were announced Monday.

It comes after lawmakers for years refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, saying the state could not afford it and that the federal match may be reduced later.

“I think it will be interesting to watch what comes out of that working group,” England said. “For almost a decade, the Legislature has yet to come up with a plan to bring back all the federal dollars we are losing every year.”

The initiative petition effort will continue unless the working group comes up with a plan to maximize the match, she said.

Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the working group will not just look at Medicaid, but also ways to make health care more affordable and increase access rates in underserved areas.

Anything lawmakers might consider would come before a potential vote on the state question, Treat said.

“I don’t think we can sit here and do nothing and wait and see if the petition gets enough signatures to go on the ballot and wait and see what the outcome of a potential ballot vote would be,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. “I think the Legislature needs to be proactive.”

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Improve Our Tulsa renewal package expected to be finalized next week

The final town hall meeting on the Improve Our Tulsa II renewal proposal was held Tuesday night, and like nearly every other public discussion of the plan, it was a tame affair.

And that’s just fine with Mayor G.T. Bynum.

“I think the main thing is that people understood that this is not a wildly controversial, glitzy program,” the mayor said after his presentation at Booker T. Washington High School. “This is a bread and butter infrastructure program.”

The public will have another chance to comment on the proposed $639 million package Wednesday night when the City Council takes comments at its regularly scheduled meeting.

Councilors are scheduled to vote on the final project list next week. The proposal will go to the public for a vote Nov. 12.

The Improve Our Tulsa II package is a continuation of the $918.7 million Improve Our Tulsa program approved by voters in 2013. It would run 6½ years and would require no tax increases.

About two-thirds of the funding for the package would come from bond sales, financed with existing property taxes, and a third would come from a sales tax continuation.

Bynum, in consultation with the City Council, initially proposed a six-year, $597 million package, but after a series of town hall meetings in April and May, city officials realized they had missed a few critical things.

“The first round we did, we realized we didn’t have enough money for fire truck replacement; we didn’t have any money for bridges; we didn’t have any money for matching grants and a number of other things,” the mayor said.

So the program’s length was extended six months, enough to raise $42 million. The renewal would begin in fiscal year 2020 and end midway through fiscal year 2026, which is the end of December 2025.

“I think people largely have been eager to get on board,” Bynum said of the proposed package.

Among those who haven’t been are some of Tulsa’s golfers, who have questioned why the proposal includes no additional funding for the city’s Page Belcher and Mohawk Park golf courses.

Bynum said last week that the golf courses simply didn’t make the cut, noting that only 30% of the $2.1 billion in identified city needs will be funded in the Improve Our Tulsa II program.

But on Tuesday night he held out some hope for golfers. The renewal package includes $30 million for the Park and Recreation Department, more than half of which is allocated for general facility improvements.

Moving forward, Bynum said, the city will work with neighborhood residents across Tulsa to identify how those dollars should be used in their local parks.

“Based on the feedback that we get there, (we will) really determine what people want for their parks, and I would include our golf courses,” he said. “I think because the golf course folks didn’t see it as a line-item, they thought the golf courses were totally excluded, and that is not the case.”

The Improve Our Tulsa renewal proposal includes $427 million in streets and transportation projects, $193 million in capital projects and $19 million for the city’s Rainy Day Fund.

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