Having four jigsaw puzzles dumped into one pile and being asked to sort one out.
That’s how Gary Stansill describes the cold-case investigation into the December 1999 disappearance of two teenage girls from Welch that he and Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent Tammy Ferrari were tasked with solving.
Danny and Kathy Freeman were found dead in their torched trailer home, and their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, and her sleepover guest, Lauria Bible, vanished. Previous law enforcement theories have proven bogus and searches for shallow graves and even convicted murderers’ basements have been fruitless.
“We had so many good, viable suspects — who do you zero in on? Who do you eliminate? There were a lot of red herrings here. It was like a dog chasing its tail for a while,” said the District 12 District Attorney’s investigator and retired Tulsa Police detective.
Stansill and Ferrari gave their first in-depth interview on the case during a recent outing to Picher, Oklahoma, where they’ve been making a lot of trips of late. They’ve zeroed in on the toxic superfund site-turned-ghost town as the most likely location for the girls’ remains.
While the duo has made the only arrest they say they will likely ever make in the kidnapping and deaths of 16-year-olds Ashley Freeman and Bible and slayings of Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy, they want the public to know one thing: Their investigation is more active than ever.
“To me, it isn’t justice, so much as finding the girls. Recovery of the girls is more important in this case,” Stansill said.
The hunt continues
For years, the Freeman and Bible families have been outspoken in their belief that early oversights and bogus theories by local and state law enforcement initially assigned to the case are to blame for the case going cold so quickly.
Stansill’s and Ferrari’s response to that has been in deeds, not words.
“All of the things that have happened in the past with the investigation, things that were done and not done, we can’t control or change that” is all Stansill will say of the matter.
In April, they arrested 67-year-old Ronnie Dean Busick, the only living person among the three suspects they think are responsible. He is in the Craig County jail, awaiting trial on four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of first-degree arson.
Two other suspects — Warren Philip Welch, 61, whom they believe was the “mastermind,” and David A. Pennington, 56 — died in 2007 and 2015, respectively.
These days, the investigators are in constant communication with the two families about their dogged hunt for the girls’ remains.
Most roads — not all — keep leading them back to Picher, a town destroyed by the toxic effects of decades of lead and zinc mining, and the site of the trailer home where suspect Phil Welch lived in December 1999.
Ferrari said she sometimes finds herself telling the girls, “Help us find you.”
“I think about them every day as if they were my children,” she said. “If it were our kids, we would not want to give up. We are not going to give up on this case.”
A netherworld of twists and turns
There are about 1,200 shafts throughout the former Picher minefield, along the border of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas.
Some are relatively shallow, while others plunge deep into the earth and link up with others in a netherworld of twists, turns and dead ends. Most of them are filled with water — groundwater from below and rain water from above.
Over the years, some of the shafts were sealed, their entrances laid over with thick concrete slabs. But others, looking like mouths frozen in mid-scream, are still open.
Those that are easily accessible are choked with natural debris and people’s trash and discarded belongings.
Compounding the challenge of a search is the fact that the swiss-cheese terrain is dangerously unstable, as evidenced by a shaft collapse in early August that created a hole the size of a moon crater in an open field.
What tripped up the cold-case investigators for so long, according to Stansill, was understanding the motive in the case.
“Doors have opened in this case. We started finding out who these guys were — it starts making sense,” he said.
From the time Kathy and Danny Freeman were found shot dead in their torched trailer home, it has been law enforcement’s theory that the case was somehow related to Danny’s drug use and possible dealing.
The pieces of the puzzle finally started coming together when Stansill and Ferrari learned that deceased suspects Welch and Pennington had documented histories of violence against women, and Welch’s prison record included terroristic threats.
“Since we started focusing in on this stuff, there haven’t been any dead ends,” Stansill said.
‘Mission impossible is not impossible’
Stansill’s and Ferrari’s seemingly impossible hunt has become laser-focused, thanks to the aid and assistance of a Picher native named Ed Keheley.
The retired nuclear engineer moved back to the area after decades in California and meticulously documented every one of the former mine shafts leading up to a federal buyout of much of the superfund site in the late ’90s.
He never dreamed his effort would serve the purpose it is now. But when he heard that the prime suspect in the Welch girls case had a Picher address in 1999, he dove into his old treasure trove of minefield maps, databases of mine shaft conditions and dates, and even aerial photographs.
The search quickly became personal for him. Asked recently why he’s doing it, Keheley choked up.
“I just want to find those girls — for the families,” he said, as he stood atop one of the giant mountains of white mining chat that tower above what little is left of the town of Picher.
Already, the shafts believed to be the best possible location for the girls’ bodies have been narrowed to a handful. Keheley’s records revealed which mines were open in 1999 and which would’ve offered the easiest access from Welch’s trailer home at 412 S. College St.
That trailer, along with most every other structure in Picher, is long gone, but it was captured in precise detail in an old aerial photo in Keheley’s collection. Investigators have been able to use that new piece of evidence to corroborate the accounts of newly interviewed witnesses.
Among the shafts investigators would like to check is one they just recently identified — one that a new witness claims Phil Welch led her to and threatened to throw her deep inside.
Ferrari said cold-case work is daunting, but in this case, “it has been really fascinating to find witnesses that are still alive and track down evidence that is still viable.”
Stansill goes so far as to call the progress over the past year and a half “miraculous.” And he’s not one to just casually throw the word around.
A man of deep religious convictions, in addition to his detective’s nose for facts, Stansill said he prays regularly for a favorable outcome and can’t help sensing a divine hand at work in some of the recent developments.
Those convictions are partly why he refuses to accept what some people still say: That it’s a hopeless quest, and the girls’ remains will never be found.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s not possible,’ and I say, ‘No, unh-uh. I have seen miracles happen,’” Stansill said.
For example, he had been looking for one major witness for two years, when, searching for something else in an online court docket, he happened upon the person’s name. The best part: He knew where they were going to be — the witness had a court appearance two days later in Tulsa.
“Bingo! It’s unbelievable the things like that have happened,” Stansill said. “What started out to me as mission impossible is not impossible.”
What investigators need most right now, they say, is more help.
Hoping to narrow down the number of sites to search even further, they have a special message for people who have information but have remained silent for fear of possibly incriminating themselves.
They can speak up without fear, Stansill said, emphasizing they are not looking to charge any other suspects in the case.
“The only goal now is to find the girls,” he said.
What could also be helpful to them are people with specific knowledge or experience with the suspects, regardless of whether they know anything specific about Ashley Freeman’s or Lauria Bible’s whereabouts.
“I just believe there is somebody out there who could guide us,” Stansill said.