WELCH – A cold case that most everyone in the area is familiar with is receiving new national attention after the release of a new book about the missing Welch girls and the deaths of Danny and Kathy Freeman.
A recently released book, “Hell in the Heartland,” by author Jax Miller is about the “stranger-than-fiction” cold case from rural Welch and the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, possible police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth, that has stumped authorities for two decades.
“The book pretty much covers the story from beginning to end. Actually before the beginning, and it talks about events preceding the murders of Danny and Kathy Freeman,” Miller said in a recent telephone interview. “I go over theories and it’s written in my own narrative and my own experience with researching the story. It ends with the 2018 arrest of Ronnie Busick (one of three suspects in the girls’ disappearance and the murders of the adult Freemans.”
Busick received a 10-year sentence as well as a five-year suspended sentence Monday, Aug. 31 at the Craig County Courthouse.
Busick, 69, who pleaded guilty in July, was given the option of a reduction in his sentence to five years in prison by showing authorities where the bodies of Bible and Freeman were located.
But numerous searches over the years, including two of an old root cellar near Picher in August, did not recover remains of the girls.
As a result, he was sentenced on one count of accessory to murder.
“What drew me to the case was that I saw potential for a story. I came at it from a story-telling point of view because I thought it was stranger than fiction, had a lot of plot twists, and was rich in character…all the makings of a good story. But that said, I think I was very naïve coming into it because I didn’t anticipate forming the friendships and relationships I have over the years. And I didn’t anticipate becoming so immersed in the story. Or seeing it evolve like it has, over the last four years especially. It became more than just telling a story. I became incredibly attached and it became a mission for me. It started as one thing and finished as another,” Miller continued.
Sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover on Dec. 30, 1999, in Welch at the Freeman family home. The next morning Danny and Kathy Freeman were deceased, their home was in flames, and both the girls were missing.
While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police corruption abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls have never been found.
Miller, who had been haunted by the case, decided to travel to Oklahoma in 2015 to find out what really happened on that winter night, and why the story was still a hot topic more than 15 years later. What she found was more than she bargained for: “evidence of police negligence, communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.”
Miller said she spends a lot of time with the families of the victims and calls them nearly daily.
“And I was here for Christmas and the candlelight ceremony for the Freemans and the missing girls. It was a very beautiful event. So many people came and showed their support, and it was a real testament for the community. I think that is what has held this case together for so long…the families that are still fighting and the community that surrounds them. I’ve grown very close to the families and it’s not just a work relationship…I care for them very much.”
Miller went on to say that the hardest part about writing the book was having to be the one to constantly reopen the wounds for the families that are grieving. “They pour their hearts out and it reopens those memories.
“I think Lauria’s mother, Lorene Bible, has been out there fighting for so long because no one else really was. It was up to a lot of people across law enforcement to search for these girls and they failed her. It was disheartening and she really did have to put that hat on and play investigator and be that woman who is constantly searching. And 20 years later she is still that woman,” Miller said.
The new book, having just been published, is seeing a good response with preorders and media coverage. “It’s been very positive and I have gotten some great reviews. Now we will see what readers think,” Miller added.
Miller is an American author who, while hitchhiking across America in her twenties, wrote her first novel, Freedom’s Child, for which she won the 2016 Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle and earned several CWA Dagger nominations. She has also received acclaim from the New York Times, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and many more.
She now works in the true-crime genre and acts as creator, host, and executive producer on the true-crime documentary series Hell in the Heartland on CNN’s HLN network. She loves films and music (especially rock ‘n’ roll), and has a particular passion for writing screenplays.
The print version of “Hell in the Heartland” is available through Penguin Random House publishing at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/608159/hell-in-the-heartland-by-jax-miller/
It is also available on Amazon, Kindle, and Barnes & Nobles, ISBN: 9781984806307, 335 pages.