DSC_9874 Search For Welch Girls

A camera equipped with lights is lowered into a mine shaft as part of the ongoing investigation into the disappearance and presumed deaths of two Welch girls. Gary Crow/for the Tulsa World

PICHER — A camera outfitted with lights was lowered 175 feet down an old mine shaft by members of the Tulsa Dive Team as part of an ongoing investigation into the disappearance and presumed deaths of two missing 16-year-old Welch girls — Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible — 20 years ago.

The abandoned mine shaft is in the Tar Creek area of northern Ottawa County.

“It’s the same mine shaft where a witness reported to authorities he saw three men,” said Gary Stansill, investigator for the District 12 District Attorney’s Office.

The witness came forward after seeing media reports and later identified two of the men as Warren Phillip Welch II and David Pennington. The two now-deceased men are implicated in the kidnapping and presumed deaths of the teens.

“This sighting was sometime in 2000. He remembered it was warmer weather,” Stansill said. “He also remembered the vehicle they were in. He gave details of the vehicle and description of the individuals he saw.”

Stansill declined to release information about the type of vehicle the witness said he saw.

Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, were shot, and their mobile home was set on fire on Dec. 30, 1999. The two girls were missing from the home after the fire.

Authorities think the girls were held captive for days and raped repeatedly before ultimately being killed and thrown into a pit or mine shaft in Picher.

The witness said he ran into the two men later at a store and that one man looked at him intently, he said.

Stansill stressed that Tuesday’s camera drop was not a search for the Welch girls but to see whether a camera could navigate through the mine shaft. After reviewing video, investigators will make a return trip to the mine shaft.

“We want to study the mine workings to see if when the water ran down the shaft it could have washed the remains into another area,” Stansill said.

The temperature of the water in the mine is in the upper 50s, and the remains could have been preserved, he said.

Tuesday’s camera drop showed images of leaves and some fish.

“We were at this mine shaft on Memorial Day weekend,” said Lorene Bible, Lauria’s mother.

“We will search, and if the girls are not there, we will check it off and go to the next one,” Bible said.

Ronnie Busick, a known associate of Welch’s and Pennington’s, was arrested and charged in Craig County District Court in April 2018 with arson, murder and kidnapping in the case and remains in the Craig County jail in lieu of $1 million bond. He has denied any involvement or knowledge of the whereabouts of the girls’ remains.

“The court case is not closure,” Bible said. “When we find remains or the bodies — that’s closure.”

“Everyday I tell her (Lauria) we are trying to find you,” Bible said.

Welch died from ALS at age 61 in 2007, and Pennington died at age 56 in 2015 after a long decline in health related to drug use, authorities said.

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