VINITA — Eighteen years after two teenagers from Welch disappeared, police have arrested one of three men they say tortured and held the girls for days before strangling them to death.
The killers bragged that the bodies of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible, both 16, are “in a pit in Picher,” according to an affidavit released at a news conference Monday.
Ronnie Dean Busick, 66, of Wichita, Kansas, faces a host of charges in the 1999 deaths of the girls and Freeman’s parents, Kathy and Danny Freeman. He is in custody at the Harvey County, Kansas, jail.
Two other suspects — Warren Philip Welch II, 61, and David A. Pennington, 56 — are now dead. Welch died in 2007; Pennington died in 2015.
Kathy and Danny Freeman’s remains were found in their burned mobile home. “The girls were kept alive for an unknown number of days following the fire,” and “Polaroid photographs of the girls in their final days were seen by multiple people,” said Matt Ballard, district attorney for Craig, Mayes and Rogers counties.
The teenagers were kidnapped, tied up, raped and held in a mobile home at 412 S. College St. in Picher for a “matter of days” before being strangled, according to the affidavit. Photos of the girls bound and gagged and lying on a bed with Welch, one of the suspects, are described in the affidavit.
“They’ve (the Freeman and Bible families) learned these young ladies’ final days were certainly horrific, and today’s announcement no doubt comes as little solace to their grief,” said Ballard, who did not take questions during the news conference.
A number of Bible’s and Freeman’s survivors attended the news conference, sitting in chairs set up specially for them next to the podium.
“There are several someones out there that can bring the girls home,” Lorene Bible said of finding the girls’ bodies. “It’s time to bring the girls home.”
“Hopefully I will get to look at him (Busick) right in the eye and say to him, ‘Tell me where my child is,’” Bible said.
Bible said she wants the death penalty for Busick, who is charged in Craig County District Court with four counts of first-degree murder and accessory and arson charges.
“There is nothing you wouldn’t do for your child,” Bible said.
Around midnight or in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1999, the three men visited the Freeman home on the outskirts of Welch with plans to sell drugs to one of the parents when the teens walked in unexpectedly, according to the affidavit.
Other witnesses said the killings were carried out over a drug debt, the affidavit states.
An accelerant was placed near the wood burning stove, and by daybreak the mobile home was engulfed in flames, investigators have said about the crime scene in the early phase of the investigation.
When the smoked cleared, Lauria’s car was still parked in front of the Freeman mobile home with the keys in the ignition, and her purse, containing money, was found in the charred rubble of the Freeman mobile home.
Danny and Kathy Freeman had both been fatally shot in the head, according to autopsy reports.
The details of the rest of the night have been cloaked in secrecy for almost two decades.
Welch and Pennington were overheard calling the victims “two little bitches” several years after the crime, the affidavit states. Witnesses also said the men said that “if they wouldn’t have taken off running … they would still be alive.”
Welch had nailed the teens’ missing poster to a wall of his mobile home, witnesses said.
Welch also had photos depicting the teens “lying on a bed, facing each other, with their hands tied and their mouths gagged,” according to witnesses quoted in the affidavit. In some photos, the affidavit states, Welch was lying next to the teens.
One witness stated “the girls looked ‘emaciated,’ and another witness said the girls “appeared to ‘be tied up against their will,’” the affidavit states.
The Polaroids were kept “like a ‘trophy’” and stored inside a leather briefcase to be passed around the ringleader’s circle of drug dealers, the affidavit states.
Insurance card links Welch
The photographs of the girls’ last days were never found, but multiple witnesses told investigators they’d seen them. They were tied to key evidence found by private investigators that allowed law enforcement to crack the case.
A day or two after the slayings in 1999, private investigators Joe Dugan and Tom Pryor found an insurance card alongside the road near the Freemans’ home. It was a critical discovery, although it took nearly two decades for that to become apparent.
The insurance card belonged to Welch’s former girlfriend, though she reportedly told the FBI she didn’t know why her card was near the scene, the affidavit states. Witnesses say Welch frequently drove the girlfriend’s dark-blue sedan, which was believed to have been seen near the Freeman residence early the morning of the slayings.
Witnesses described the suspects as “holy rollers” who cooked methamphetamine, the affidavit states.
Welch is believed to be the “mastermind” behind the killings who shot Danny and Kathy Freeman, while Pennington and Busick are believed to have set the Freeman mobile home on fire, the affidavit states.
Welch reportedly kept a poster with the photos of Ashley and Lauria, which advertised a $50,000 reward, nailed to a wall in his Picher mobile home.
One witness described him as “evil,” and Busick told investigators Welch “had a bad temper.”
Welch was charged in Ottawa County District in 2000 with first-degree burglary and in Neosho County, Kansas, on Feb. 14, May 1, May 15, 1993 with assault, battery and terroristic threats, according to Kansas Department of Corrections. He was incarcerated at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility from Aug. 29, 1994 to Sept. 6, 1995, according to prison records.
Pennington is referred to by witnesses as a drug “king pin,” and his obituary states he was employed as a welder at Boss Tank in Oswego, Kansas.
Both men were physically abusive to former girlfriends and threatened their lives, the affidavit states.
Busick was charged on Monday with four counts of first-degree murder with malice aforethought, four counts of accessory to first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, one count of arson and one count of accessory to first-degree arson.
He has several drug-related convictions in Kansas.
He was charged in March 1986, October 1995 and June 2000 in Labette County, Kansas, and May 2012 in Harvey County, Kansas, with drug possession. He has served several stints in Kansas prisons and is currently being held on a motion to revoke on a drug-related offense in Harvey County, Kansas.
Pennington also was charged in Labette County with burglary in 1980, court records show.
Pryor, one of the private investigators, found the blue sedan linked to the insurance card in a Picher salvage yard and contacted authorities early in the investigation. The affidavit says Pryor was told that “the vehicle had gone through too many hands to be processed” for evidence.
Two FBI lead sheets dated Jan. 3, 2000, mention the insurance card, which Pryor kept. When authorities questioned him on Aug. 18, 2017, he gave the card, car registration and rental receipts naming Welch to Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Tammy Ferrari, the affidavit states.
Pryor and Dugan abandoned their investigation after being told by law enforcement officers that they were “interfering” and that their private investigator licenses “would be cancelled,” according to the affidavit.
After Dugan died in 2009, his family attempted to turn over his investigation files to then-Craig County Sheriff Jimmie Sooter, who turned them down, the affidavit states. The family destroyed the files.
Investigators who cracked the case said they received a crate full of reports and files in February 2017 from Craig County Sheriff Heath Winfrey shortly after he succeeded Sooter. Investigators described finding in the crate critical information that was not in the OSBI’s case file, including the names of people they subsequently interviewed.
Ballard’s investigator, Gary Stansill, and Ferrari filed Monday’s 29-page affidavit.
During the decades since the slayings, tips were investigated, divers explored Grand Lake, cameras were dropped down mineshafts, and discovered bones were scrutinized.
Two convicted murderers — former Miami, Oklahoma, resident Jeremy Jones and Tommy Sells — confessed to killing the teens and later recanted.
Shortly after the mobile home fire, some suspected that Danny Freeman, who was said to have sold marijuana, had killed his wife and fled with the girls. His wife’s body had been found in the rubble, but his had not.
That theory fell apart the day after the shootings. After authorities removed the yellow crime-scene tape around the charred remains, Danny Freeman’s body was found by Lauria Bible’s parents, who were searching through the rubble for clues to the whereabouts of their daughter.
Lorene and Jay Bible noticed that the Freemans’ dog, a Rottweiler, had been lying next to the man’s unrecognizable body as if guarding him.
Investigators apparently had been stepping on and around Freeman while processing the crime scene.
A reward poster featuring the two girls was prominently displayed on billboards, restaurant windows, tollbooth windows, trucks and most truck stops across the county.
The teens quickly became the subject of a nationwide search that stretched from Canada to Mexico.
Rumors also surfaced about the Craig County Sheriff’s Department. Almost a year before the Freemans were killed, their teenage son was shot to death by then-Sheriff’s Deputy David Hayes. Shane Freeman was accused of theft and was running from authorities, police reports state. But Hayes and his brother, former Craig County Undersheriff Mark Hayes, said their polygraph tests in 2000 cleared them of any involvement in the Freemans’ deaths or the teens’ disappearance.
Ashley was declared legally dead by her family in 2010, according to court records.
The Bibles kept the family Christmas tree up so Lauria could take it down when she got home. Lorene Bible said the tree fell apart in 2006.