PICHER – The latest search for two missing girls from Welch did not turn up any new evidence, authorities reported Wednesday afternoon.
The new search for the bodies of the Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman began in Picher Tuesday.
The girls were just 16 when they were kidnapped in 1999 and have not been seen since. This is reported to be the first large-scale dig for the girls’ remains since 2005.
Crews used ground-penetrating radar, an underwater drone, and a dive team from the Tulsa Police Department, which was searching one pond, and possibly two.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations (OSBI), the Craig County District Attorney’s Office, and Quapaw Tribe officials were also involved in the search.
According to Lorene Bible, mother of Lauria Bible, the investigative teams also brought in a cadaver dog to aid in the search.
“It’s just another avenue that we are able to search to see if there is anything here,” Lorene Bible said Tuesday. “If there’s not then we are able to cross it off the list and decide where we go next.”
“People say things like, ‘I lived in Picher 20 years ago and moved away. You need to go look here…’”
“He lived in Picher right here (referring to Warren Philip Welch II, one of the accused in the murder of the teens, who went by the name Philip Welch),” Lorene Bible said, indicating the property where investigators were searching. “It may be nothing, but at least we are able to check it off and say ‘The girls aren’t here.’
“It’s kind of like the second day when we found Danny’s body (Danny Freeman, father of Ashley Freeman). We tore that trailer down to the ground. When I walked away I was 100% sure there were no other bodies in that fire,” Lorene Bible said.
The bodies of Danny and Ashley Freeman were found in a burned-out mobile home on Dec. 30, 1999.
“They (investigators) know that when they are done here…they have that mentality that they (the girls) are not here. But they’ve got new technology that 20 years ago we didn’t have,” Lorene Bible said. “Hopefully, if there’s something here we find that out and if there’s not then we cross it off and say, ‘Now where do we go’?”
Investigators say Ronnie Busick, Philip Welch and David Pennington shot and killed Danny and Kathy Freeman, started a fire to cover their crime then kidnapped the two girls, holding them for days before murdering them.
Welch and Pennington are now both deceased. Busick is awaiting trial on four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of felony kidnapping, and arson in the first degree in Craig County while mental competency exams are conducted.
Busick is next due in court on Sept. 27 at 9 a.m. He remains in the Craig County jail in Vinita with bail set at $1 million.
This week’s investigation focused on several sites in Picher, including the property where Philip Welch lived on College Street, which is the last place the girls were reportedly seen alive.
One pond across the street from the College Street property was partially drained and trees and brush in the area were cleared away in preparation for the searches. Another pond nearby was not drained and that is where the TPD divers began their search Tuesday.
Mines and shafts around the search area once used to find and extract lead and zinc have collapsed over the years and filled with water, creating ponds as much as 25 feet deep.
The TPD Dive Team serves in “recovery” mode, usually searching for weapons used in violent crimes, stolen vehicles, evidence and human remains, according to the OSBI and the Office of the Craig County District Attorney.
They were working cooperatively on the investigation with co-lead investigators Tammy Ferarri, OSBI Special Agent, and Gary Stansill, Craig County District Attorney Investigator, as well as the Quapaw Nation, Quapaw Marshalls, and Jeff Reeves, the Quapaw Nation’s Director of Public Safety.
Ferarri and Stansill’s work through the years resulted the three suspects being identified and the evidence they found led to the arrest of Busick in April 2018.
“Searches like these have been carried out for many months and will continue until Ashley and Lauria’s remains are found and brought home,” Ferrari said.
“The case was widely considered to be a cold case at the time, 12 and a half years after the crimes. We’re not going to give up. Tammy and I always have this case at the front of our minds,” Stansill said.
The public is asked to contact authorities if they have any information about the missing girls; they can remain anonymous.
A $50,000 reward is still being offered for any information that leads to the girls’ remains.
Lorene Bible can be contacted on Facebook (FindLauriaBible).