CRAIG COUNTY – One little card held the key to answers, but a 29-page probable cause statement filed in Craig County District Court for the arrest of Ronnie Dean Busick is filled with shocking, disturbing, and maddeningly frustrating details of the 1999 disappearance of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman, and the subsequent seemingly mishandled initial investigation.

Craig County District Attorney Matt Ballard announced Monday that Busick, an inmate in the Harvey Kansas Jail, has been arrested and charged with the Welch girls' murders, more than 18 years later. Ballard claims Busick and two other men, Warren Philip (Phil) Welch, and David A. Pennington, now both deceased, committed the crimes reportedly over an unpaid drug debt.

Busick has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder for killing Kathy Freeman, Danny Freemen, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Two counts of kidnapping for the abductions of Ashley Freemen and Lauria Bible and a final count of first-degree arson for setting fire to the Freeman home, Ballard announced.

The affidavit was prepared by Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) Special Agent Tammy Ferrari and Craig County District Attorney Investigator Gary Stansill and filed April 23. Ferrari and Stansill joined investigative efforts in 2013 after many years of a stalled out investigation under the direction of then Craig County Sheriff Jimmie Sooter.

On Dec. 30, 1999, the Welch Fire Department received a fire call at 5:30 a.m. to the Freeman mobile home at 7856 South 4390 Road in Welch, and upon arrival found the home fully engulfed in flames. Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman's bodies were discovered later in the fire debris. The girls were nowhere to be found, and have remained missing to this day.

According to the affidavit, just two days after the murders of the Freemans, an insurance verification card was found by members of a search party near the crime scene in Welch. The card belonged to Phil Welch's girlfriend, identified only as “EB,” also known as “EH” in the affidavit.

EB was first questioned on Jan. 3, 2000 by an FBI Agent as to why her insurance card was found near the murder scene. The card could not be located by Stansill in the evidence file, which should have contained a list of all physical evidence in the case.

EB told the agent she had no idea why her card was found there, but her boyfriend, Phil Welch, knew who Danny Freeman was, but did not associate with him.

This discovery and identification of Welch has proved to be critical information overlooked at the time because several witnesses, at least a dozen, later told investigators Welch, Pennington and Busick were involved in the Freeman murders, arson of the Welch home, the kidnapping, rape and torture of Lauria and Ashley and had caused their deaths.

The three men cooked and sold meth, according to several witnesses, and a drug deal connected them to the Freemans.

Many of these same witnesses told investigators as early as 2001 the three men killed the Freemans because they had owed them money for drugs and the couple had been killed during efforts to collect the debt.

Referred to only by initials in the affidavit, the unnamed witnesses interviewed by investigators from 2001 to 2017 identified as girlfriends, friends and family members of the three suspects claimed the girls were kidnapped and held at Welch's mobile home in Picher for days and were tortured and raped by the men, and then murdered by strangulation at some point. The witnesses interviewed told investigators the girls’ bodies were then thrown in mine shafts or in a cellar and covered with concrete.

Bible/Freemen Case Crime Scene Locations - Click +/- to zoom and the house icons on the map for more info

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These witnesses reported to have been shown Polaroid photos by Welch and Pennington of the girls bound with duct tape and gagged, lying together on Welch's bed identified by a recognizable bedspread.

A witness referred to as “TW,” another girlfriend of Welch's, told OSBI Agent Steve Nutter in 2001 in a report, “A poster with pictures of the two missing girls from Welch, Oklahoma, which advertised a $50,000 reward had been nailed to a wall in Welch's house in Picher by Welch,” and she had seen “several Polaroid pictures, which Welch kept in his soft leather briefcase of the two girls.”

Welch himself, was interviewed by Kansas Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Steve Rosebrough in February of 2003. Welch admitted to his friendship with Pennington, whom he described as a “kingpin” supplier of meth. He also verified he had been living with EB during the time of the murder but had no idea how her insurance verification card was found near the murder scene.

Pennington's girlfriend “LE” was interviewed in February of 2016, and she told investigators she was afraid to come forward because Pennington threatened to kill her too if she talked and would be thrown in the pit with them if she did.

LE told investigators Pennington told her the murders were the result of a bad drug deal and they decided to, “take the girls and have fun with them. You know what I mean?”

EB was interviewed again in February of 2016 telling Stansill she lived with Welch at the time of the murders and he often drove her blue vehicle, which the insurance verification card belonged in and she kept the card in the glove box. She told the agent her blue car had been sold to an auto salvage.

“TW” was located by Stansill in 2016 and she reported seeing those same photos of Lauria and Ashley taken on Welch's bed and told officials the photos were real.

After Welch assaulted her and her son, TW said Welch was arrested and while incarcerated she found 10 to 15 Polaroid photos of the girls in his briefcase, in some photos Welch was seen lying next to the girls.

“She stated she ended up putting the briefcase in the trunk of one of the cars at their residence that she was planning to 'scrap,'” Stansill reports in the affidavit, but TW did not know what had happened to those photos and they may have been hauled off to salvage by the landlord of the trailer house while Welch was in jail.

On Feb. 11, 2017, Stansill received a call from Craig County Undersheriff Tony Chenoweth stating a crate of files related to the Freeman case and missing girls had been discovered by Craig County Heath Winfrey shortly after he took office.

The crate was found in the office of former Sheriff Sooter, and on Feb. 14, 2017, Ferrari and Stansill reviewed the contents containing information previously unknown to the investigators, which led the agents to conduct additional interviews.

During one of those subsequent interviews in April 2017 with Busick's friend “RH,” he told the investigators Busick was “running his mouth” about his involvement in the Freeman murders and girls' disappearance. Busick told RH that Lauria and Ashley had been raped and tortured in Welch's trailer house in Picher and had been kept alive for several days.

According to the witness, Busick claimed Welch was the shooter in the Freeman murders and he and Pennington set fire to their mobile home. The men then “hauled off” Lauria and Ashley in EB’s blue car, and RH also was told of the photos.

LE’s son RE was interviewed in March of 2005 and again in April of 2017 and reported to agents he was dating “CB” at the time of the murders and had asked her to stay the night with him on the night of the Freemans’ murders. CB was supposed to spend the night at the Freeman’s for Ashley’s birthday, and that he had saved her life by having her stay with him.

“RE stated Phil Welch would come to their house and sing Bible hymns. He stated Phil Welch was ‘evil’,” the agents wrote in the arrest affidavit.

RE claimed Pennington and Welch told him they raped and violently strangled the girls and he also saw the photos and that Welch kept the photos as a “trophy.”

“JR” was interviewed in May of 2017 while incarcerated in the Department of Corrections and told Stansill he walked into a CM’s trailer home in Chetopa and observed Busick, Pennington, and Welch sitting on a sectional all looking at photographs they quickly gathered and put away. JR said he saw one of two girls duct taped to a chair with their hands bound.

In May of 2017, the agents interviewed “AS” who reported Pennington, Busick and a man she believed to be Welch at a bonfire and overheard their conversation five or six years ago.

AS said she heard Welch was the one who killed Danny Freeman because he “messed him over,” and all three men were involved and had dumped the girls in a mine shaft or cellar later covered in concrete. She reported that the Freemans were shot and that the girls came out of the back room unexpectedly, and the men didn’t know what to do with the girls at first and ended up taking them.

Another witness, “WH” was interviewed in July of 2017 and again on January of 2018 and he reported he had heard Welch and Pennington talk about the Freeman murders and the girls and based on what he heard believed all three men were involved.

“WH stated when Phil Welch and David Pennington talked about the (missing) girls they referred to them as ‘them two little bitches’ and that if they wouldn’t have taken off running from one of their vehicles they would still be alive,” the agents wrote in the affidavit. WH went on to say they were there to burglarize the Freemans to recover money Danny Freeman owed them.

Ferrari and Stansill learned that two private investigators, Joe Dugan and Tom Pryor, hired by the Freeman family had investigated the case.

Dugan died in May of 2009 leaving files, notes and other investigative materials regarding the Freemans’ murders and the missing girls' case. Relatives reported after Dugan’s death the materials were taken to the Craig County Sheriff’s Office where it was refused and that it was eventually destroyed y Dugan’s relatives.

Ferrari then made contact with Pryor in August of 2017. Pryor stated he had a few documents from their investigation, and one of those documents was an insurance verification card that checked to EB, which had been found by Dugan in the Freeman’s driveway just a few days after the murders after the scene had been released by law enforcement.

Pryor and Dugan found the card 50 feet from the west side of the Freemans’ driveway and reported the find to law enforcement, but they did not take possession of the card. Pryor told the agents he found EB’s vehicle at a salvage in Picher and was given permission to go through the vehicle, and requested law enforcement process the vehicle, but they refused saying the vehicle had gone through too many hands to be processed for evidence.

Pryor produced EB’s insurance card and Ferrari took possession of the card for evidence, as well as other documents Pryor gave to Ferrari.

Pryor’s information corroborated much of Stansill and Ferrari’s investigation. Pryor said he stopped investigating the case after being told by law enforcement he was interfering and that his private investigator license would be canceled if he didn’t cease.

Another witness was interviewed in January of 2018 who said Pennington told him Welch was the “mastermind” and similar details of the murders and missing girls case.

On July 11, 2017, Ronnie Busick was first interviewed in Wichita, Ks. by Ferrari and Stansill and was informed of the agents' investigation. Busick’s story changed about where he lived at the time of the murders. He admitted to knowing Pennington and that Welch’s name sounded familiar.

A reward poster for the missing girls was placed in front of Busick and he was asked again if he knew Welch and he replied, “No, not really.” When he was told the girls were believed to be dead, Busick later blurted out, “I wouldn’t put nothing past Philip Welch.”

Busick then told the agents that he, Welch and Pennington, “we were all dope buddies.” After being told many witnesses claimed the three of them were involved in the murders and missing girls case, Busick said, “We were pretty tight back in those days,” but again denied involvement.

Busick told the agents Pennington told him Welch helped burn the trailer, but he did not know where Lauria or Ashley were located.

The agents wrote that throughout the interrogation, “The vast majority of the time Ronnie Busick would not make any denials or respond when accused. Much of the time he would just stare at the reward poster.”

Busick told the agents he would tell them if he knew where the girls were located.

Stansill asked Busick who knew, and he replied, “I’d probably say Phil and Dave,” and that he had asked Pennington but he “sort of hushed up,” and that he was pretty sure Welch knew because the two told him they knew.

Busick later said Pennington and Welch were involved and Welch had bragged about it, and he had something in his trailer he did not want Busick to see.

The agents interviewed Busick again on Aug. 29, 2017, in Newton, Ks. and again on Nov. 2, 2017, and told the investigator he believed the missing girls were in a mine shaft in Picher and that Welch had been the shooter in the Freeman murders but continued to deny having direct knowledge and never disclosed his involvement after several hours of interview and interrogation.

The probable cause arrest affidavit prepared by Ferrari and Stansill and filed by Ballard was signed by Craig County District Court Judge Sheila A. Condren on April 20 for the charges listed with a warrant for Busick’s arrest and setting bond at $1 million.

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.