Charles Stone had fully expected his new tenant to make the place his own.

But at least one requested change to the rent house came as a surprise to him.

“He said he was an ordained minister,” the property owner recalled. “And he asked if the living room could be vaulted instead of finished off like the other rooms — he said it would make a good chapel.”

Gaining Stone’s consent, Phil Welch would follow through on creating a chapel space. Soon after moving in, he began holding regular “church meetings” in it.

Stone never attended one. But every time he dropped by, he noticed “there was always gospel music playing in that house. Always.”

Today, more than 10 years later, any music at the site has long since been silenced. In fact, not much of the small residence — located out in the country between Chetopa and Columbus, Kansas — is even still standing.

Shortly after Welch died there from ALS in 2007, it was struck by lightning and burned.

Stone never rebuilt and had little reason to think about the house again. But earlier this year, a big news story changed that.

In April, prosecutors in Craig County, Oklahoma, announced a break in a high-profile, 20-year-old cold case — the 1999 killings of Danny and Kathy Freeman of Welch, Oklahoma, and disappearance of their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, and her friend, Lauria Bible, now believed to be dead as well.

The shocking part for Stone was who they claimed was responsible.

Named along with two other suspects was his former tenant Phil Welch.

The late Welch was even described in an affidavit as the “evil … mastermind” behind the slayings.

Hearing these allegations about Welch, Stone admits, was “very strange and surprising.” But looking back, he said something had always struck him as not right about the self-professed man of God.

And it’s caused him to wonder again about the fate of that rental house.

“Shortly after he died, it was struck by lightning is what the investigator said,” Stone said. “There used to be a light pole on one corner, and they said it ran down the wire and got right into the fuse box.

“It wasn’t even a big storm. Just a small cell.”

It was almost, Stone added, as if the storm came straight for that house.

‘A complete monster’

Ever since the infamous cold case was cracked earlier this year, everyone from locals like Stone to people following the story from around the world have found themselves asking the same question:

Just who, exactly, were the men authorities say are responsible?

Along with Welch, the two others implicated were David Pennington, also deceased, and Ronnie Busick, who was arrested and charged in the four deaths.

A picture of the trio, who all had ties to Chetopa, has emerged only in pieces. But it’s now possible to get a better idea.

And it’s as bewildering as it is damning.

Included in the litany of claims leveled against Welch and his two associates are not only the killings of Danny and Kathy Freeman — witnesses say it was over a drug debt or drug deal gone wrong — but also new details about the fate of the girls.

Kidnapped from the scene by the three suspects, authorities say, they were held captive at Welch’s trailer in Picher, where they were tortured and raped over several days.

They were finally strangled to death, their bodies possibly disposed of in one of the area mine shafts.

“It shocks you to your innermost,” said the Rev. Raymond Whetstone, who’s among the many area residents trying to grasp what he’s learned about the suspects.

Pennington and Welch attended Whetstone’s church, Faith Baptist Church in Chetopa. Welch was a regular participant late in his life, while Pennington, who died in 2015, came sporadically.

Whetstone even helped conduct their funerals.

The pastor had known Welch since the early 2000s, after meeting him while doing jail ministry at Labette County Jail in Oswego.

Whetstone learned a little about Welch’s drug involvement. Beyond that, though, he “never talked to me about (his past), and I never asked him anything.”

“I was totally dumbfounded when I found out what they’d done,” he said.

Two family members of Welch, who asked not to be identified, said they are still grappling with the revelations.

Welch, according to one, had been estranged from much of his family since a prison stint in the ‘90s.

“Right now, our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with the grieving families,” said the relative, adding that it’s too hard to talk about Welch, who “turned out to be a complete monster (and) sick and twisted.”

The other family member, who had contact with Welch later in his life, said of the slayings, “I do believe he did it.”

Although probably sincere in going to church and trying to change, he “had a lot of baggage” and still had his “abusive ways.”

This family member only learned about the latter after his death: “He was terrorizing a relative to the point she was fearing for her life. She couldn’t tell anyone because she was afraid he would kill her. I was angry to learn about this.”

The portrait that continues to emerge of Welch and Pennington is hard to reconcile with that of their church involvement.

This is especially true for Welch, who even claimed to be an ordained minister.

The veracity of the claim is still not clear, although one family member said he was probably, at best, a “self-proclaimed” one.

According to his obituary, Welch, 61, had “assisted” at a church in Hallowell, Kansas.

People associated with the now-defunct Hallowell Community Church say Welch was never a minister there but did attend in the early 2000s and liked to give testimony as to his “changed” life.

He spoke openly about his previous involvement with drugs and physical abuse against family.

Welch later started attending Whetstone’s church in Chetopa.

He never performed any ministerial role there, Whetstone said. Regardless, he was an engaged churchgoer and presented himself as genuinely penitent for past sins.

That image is hard for the pastor and others there to square with the vile acts of which he’s accused.

‘Utterly evil’

For relatives of Ronnie Busick, the lone surviving suspect, that squaring has been less difficult.

Busick’s niece Misty Nuckolls said to her knowledge, no one in the family knew anything about his possible tie to the Welch case. But for her, “there was never a doubt that he could do something like that.”

Nuckolls was familiar with the killings and the missing girls.

“It was all anyone talked about for a long time” in the Chetopa area, she said.

But news of her uncle’s alleged involvement hit her like a thunderclap.

“I became physically ill, nauseous, shaking, enraged,” she said. “He’s always been dumber than a box of hair — he definitely wasn’t the mastermind. But go along with it? Pull the trigger, light the match, rape those girls for days? Sure. I can see that easily.”

Busick, 67, who like Pennington grew up in Chetopa, has the longest rap sheet of the three suspects. He has been in and out of prison, primarily for drug-related convictions.

Nuckolls, daughter of Ronnie’s late older brother Clarence Busick, said her dad made sure that she spent as little time as possible as a young girl around Ronnie. But when she visited her grandparents in Chetopa, it was unavoidable.

“(Ronnie) lived with them when he wasn’t in jail,” said Nuckolls, adding that encounters with him there left her feeling “creeped out to the point of revulsion.”

And for good reason. Her uncle, she said, enjoyed making crude sexual remarks and gestures to her.

She said Busick — who referred to women as “bitches” and “whores” and boasted of sexual assaults — proudly wore a belt buckle with a sexually explicit image on it.

“When I was young enough to be about eye-level with it, he’d catch me staring at it and wink and lick his lips at me,” Nuckolls said. “He wore that belt buckle everywhere, for years — even to his mother’s funeral.

“I remember that buckle better than I remember his face.”

Another time, she accidentally walked in on Busick and his then-girlfriend in the middle of a sex act.

“He winked and motioned me over,” she said, adding that she “ran like hell.”

Nuckolls said the things her late father shared about his younger brother were troubling. At some point, Busick, fighting over a girlfriend, had even gotten himself shot.

However, none of what she knew could prepare her for news of his alleged role in the Welch slayings.

Nuckolls said it’s hard for her to convey her “absolute disgust that he could do something so utterly evil.”

“I don’t use that word a lot; I’m an atheist,” she added. “But this was evil.”

New leads point to old suspects

The names of Welch, Pennington and Busick had been on authorities’ suspect list from almost the beginning of the case. But so, too, were the names of a lot of other suspects considered viable.

Working with new leads, investigators began looking at the three more closely about five years ago.

What they eventually discovered was, despite not having the kind of documented history of violence other suspects did, the three men in question were “more than capable of the acts,” as district attorney investigator Gary Stansill put it.

Welch, described by witnesses as a “kingpin” in an area meth operation, emerged as the alleged ringleader, a dangerously volatile man whose very reputation inspired fear.

It was this fear, investigators say, that kept witnesses quiet.

And there were many of them because the trio reportedly discussed and bragged about the slayings and rapes openly.

Welch reportedly even kept “trophies” from the crimes — Polaroid photos of the girls lying bound and gagged, as well as a missing persons flier of them that he displayed on his wall.

Whatever he might’ve been like at church, this — say authorities — was the real Phil Welch.

For Whetstone, who thought he knew him, that’s a hard reality. Harder still for the pastor, though, has been accepting the real David Pennington, as he’s been depicted by witnesses.

“It’s been a hard thing to swallow that David would do” what he’s been accused of, the minister said.

Whetstone had a much longer relationship with Pennington, having met him after moving to Chetopa in 1976.

He ran into him often over the years and knew “he was having trouble with drugs,” he said.

Also, Pennington had a history of domestic violence and would “beat the tar” out of his wife, said Whetstone, who visited him in jail after a couple of the incidents. “He could get kind of mean” when he’d been using drugs.

Whetstone said he knew “David was not a good man (and) had a dark side.” But he didn’t give up on him and would always invite him to church.

Pennington’s ex-wife, Sheila Pennington, also seemed taken aback by the allegations.

Briefly defending her former husband, she said, “If he did it, I don’t know. If he didn’t do it, I don’t know. But it doesn’t sound like the David I knew.

“I don’t have anything bad to say about him,” Sheila Pennington added, declining to comment further and not addressing her ex-husband’s reported violence against her.

Although he can’t help questioning it now, Whetstone, too, believed he knew a different Pennington.

A few years ago, the minister’s home flooded — it was so bad he and his wife had to be rescued by boat.

Pennington showed up afterward. He gave them some money to help with their recovery.

“You guys,” he told them, “are the only ones who ever treated me right.”

One thing that Whetstone is sure of: Welch and Pennington “knew the Bible. … They were not ignorant of the word of God.”

But knowing and doing are two different things. That’s where the drugs factored in, he believes.

“Drugs have absolutely ruined so many people,” he said. “The biggest problem was with drugs, and they did stupid things under the influence.”

It was the toll of drug use, Whetstone added, that killed Pennington. He was 56 at the time of his death.

Connecting the dots

The accused trio’s motive is still a mystery, but witness claims that it was drug-related are what cold-case investigators say is most credible. All three were linked to illicit drugs, and Danny Freeman was known to grow marijuana on his property.

Also interesting to authorities: Welch, up until a few months before the killings, had been the Freemans’ nearest neighbor, staying in a house less than a mile to the south.

Danny’s father, Glen Freeman, said he remembers Danny warning him about Welch.

“I don’t know if they were acquainted or not, but Danny said stay away from him,” Freeman recalled.

Welch didn’t live there long but then he rarely stayed in one place more than a few months, records show.

The last place he lived — and where he passed away — proved one of his longest stops, at more than two years.

Since the break in the case, Stone, who farms the surrounding acres, has been recalling the things about his “minister” tenant that struck him as off.

For one, he seemed overly controlling of his wife, Cindy.

“He was overbearing — ‘Go get this, go get that,’ ” Stone said, adding that she was expected to do most of the upkeep.

An odd thing Stone remembers: Welch’s habit of having his wife sing a song on command. He would always have her sing when they came to pay their rent, Stone said.

There were other signs that all was not what it seemed with Welch. Once, Stone sold a used car to him and was advised later by a bank employee who had assisted them with the title transfer to be careful.

“She told me he was not a good man,” Stone said.

If Welch was truly the kind of man he’s been painted to be, it would be hard to find a more fitting memorial to his life than that last house.

Now a total ruin, the parts that are still standing are scattered with his belongings — clothing and shoes; greeting cards, letters and other papers; fragments of drywall and prescription pill bottles. On and around this mess, the new occupants — bugs and mice — scurry and dart.

Many of the walls and ceilings, including in the “chapel” area, are black from the fire.

About the lightning strike that started the blaze, Stone still doesn’t know what to make of it. Probably just an odd coincidence, he said.

But it does give him pause.

Coming so soon after Welch’s death, “it’s definitely a little creepy,” he said.

Divine justice?

Not long before he died, Welch reportedly made a cryptic observation.

Whetstone heard it secondhand from his daughter but said the gist of it was this:

“He said he knew he was dying — and that he knew why.”

Whetstone can’t be sure what Welch meant. But it sounds like, at least, he believed he’d been struck with the fatal illness as a punishment.

If that’s the case, the statement takes on more ominous overtones now, with his implication in the slayings.

But if Welch truly viewed his ALS as some kind of divine reckoning, it failed to elicit a confession. Whatever secrets he had, he took them to his grave, as far as Whetstone knows.

As Welch’s body succumbed to the disease, it reached a point that he was confined to a motorized wheelchair.

“Slowly, everything was beginning to shut down,” Whetstone said.

In the end, “he died a terrible, horrible death.”

While it’s too late to hope for a confession from Welch or Pennington, Busick remains in jail, his fate still to be determined.

Nuckolls had not seen her uncle in years, until the news broke in April and then suddenly, there he was — staring back at her from his mugshot.

The last time she saw him in person had been at her father’s funeral in 2009.

“I can say this without hyperbole: If my father had known what Ronnie did, he’d have killed him,” she said. “I’m glad he died before this news came out.

“My heart absolutely breaks for those families,” added Nuckolls, who works as a funeral director. “I know intimately how important it is to have the remains, to know where they are.”

If there’s any consolation, Nuckolls said, it’s that Busick is “finally locked up for something that will keep him away from women for the rest of his life.”

“I hope they execute him,” she said.

As for Whetstone’s hope, it’s that the full truth will come out about the men he thought he knew and that the girls’ remains will finally be found.

He had believed Welch was sincere in his contrition for past sins.

But if so, then why not speak up — tell the families the truth and allow them to bury their dead? Surely, God would expect no less.

“I believe there’s a line you cross, and I think (Welch) crossed it. And I think there was no going back.”

Of the “vicious deaths” that befell Welch and Pennington, Whetstone said he won’t speculate on whether it was “divine justice or not.”

“I only know I’m glad I’m not in their shoes,” he said.

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Tim Stanley

918-581-8385

tim.stanley@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @timstanleyTW

Andrea Eger

918-581-8470

andrea.eger@tulsaworld.com

Twitter: @AndreaEger

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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