Details of Disappearance
Ashley resided in a trailer home outside of Welch, Oklahoma with her parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, in 1999. Her older brother, Shane, experienced behavioral problems in 1998 and early 1999. Photos of Danny, Kathy and Shane are posted with this case summary.
The family was ordered to participate in a counseling program through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in 1998 after Shane stole his uncle's pickup truck. Shane returned to his previous behavior after a short period of respite.
Danny was charged with abusing his son in late August 1998 after a school counselor notified authorities that Shane's buttocks were bleeding and bruised. Danny maintained that the incident was overblown, while prosecutors contended that he used excessive force. Shane told the court that he was no longer fearful of his father during a pre-trial hearing. Several relatives stated that Shane's problems stemmed from attempting to please Danny.
Several of the Freemans' family members stated that Danny had a violent temper. He was charged with beating his father-in-law after the latter trimmed his bushes without consent in 1985. Kathy's parents told reporters that Danny's temper often hurt her and their children. He also reportedly grew marijuana for his own usage near the family's trailer home.
Danny was occasionally unemployed as a result of a work-related injury and the family relied on Kathy's income from her job with Doctor's Optical Supply Company Inc. Kathy was described as a dependable and caring person.
Shane broke into the residence of Ashley's best friend, Lauria Bible
, in early January 1999. The Bible family filed a complaint with authorities, stating that Shane took some of Lauria's belongings and money. Shane also stole several of the Bibles' firearms.
Oklahoma law enforcement officer David Hayes shot and killed Shane on January 8. Hayes was on duty at the time of the incident. Shane was on a country road in possession of a stolen vehicle at the time he was encountered by Hayes. The car had apparently broken down. Hayes claimed that Shane reached behind his back and pulled a gun, prompting Hayes to fire at him. The incident was investigated and Hayes's actions were found to be justified.
The Freemans believed that Shane was attempting to run away from Hayes at the time of his death. Several of their family members believed that the autopsy results proved that Shane was killed as his back was turned towards Hayes. His uncle said that Shane always ran from the authorities when confronted in the past.
Danny reportedly inquired about the location of Hayes's residence one month after his son was killed. Investigators apparently believed that Danny was planning to avenge Shane's death. The Freemans claimed that several officers' cars were parked near their trailer afterwards, leading them to believe that the sheriff's department was attempting to intimidate them.
Additional witnesses supported the family's statements. Kathy and Ashley searched for a new residence in Louisiana shortly afterwards, but they returned to Oklahoma when Kathy elected to ignore the alleged harassment.
Danny's trial for the child abuse charges began in March 1999, two months after Shane's death. The jury deadlocked and asked the judge if they could order him to attend counseling. Danny was acquitted of all charges after the jurors' request was refused. The Freemans' relatives reported that tensions were extremely high between Danny and law enforcement at the time.
The Freemans' trailer did not have running water and was primarily heated by a wood-burning stove in the living room. The family was described as avid hunters and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoyed living in the remote location.
The trailer was equipped with telephone service and electricity. There were numerous firearms stockpiled inside the home and Ashley assisted with hunting food. Danny enjoyed walking along Cabin Creek behind their mobile home to search for arrowheads. His relatives stated that he had an extensive collection of the items, which were rumored to be valuable.
Lauria spent the evening of December 30, 1999 at Ashley's home to celebrate the latter's birthday. Lorene Bible, Lauria's mother, said that Kathy took the girls to the Pizza Hut in Vinita, Oklahoma during the evening. Lorene's statement contradicts authorities' belief that Kathy and the girls visited Big Bill's Barbeque in the 300 block of North Wilson Street in Vinita, Oklahoma. The group traveled in Kathy's blue Toyota and picked up feed for the Freemans' livestock, as well as water from Kathy's mother's house.
Ashley's boyfriend, Jeremy Hurst, told investigators that he met the women at a local Wal-Mart after their dinner. He gave Ashley a silver chain with a heart-shaped pendant embedded with her birthstone for her birthday present.
Hurst said that he returned to the Freemans' home with the women shortly afterwards. He said that nothing appeared to be amiss and he departed at approximately 9:30 p.m. One of Danny's relatives visited their residence during the evening and claimed that Hurst actually left at 10:30 p.m.
Authorities said that no outgoing telephone calls were made from the family's home during the night. Kathy planned to take Ashley to her driver's test the following morning. She also planned to stop by the county courthouse, as the Freemans were considering filing a civil lawsuit against the sheriff's department as a result of Shane's death. Lauria had a dental appointment scheduled for the following morning and planned to leave the trailer shortly beforehand.
A passing motorist reported a fire in the vicinity of the Freemans' residence at approximately 6:00 a.m. the following morning. Authorities discovered Kathy's remains inside the debris during the afternoon. Investigators initially stated that they were positive no other bodies were inside the home and did not secure the location during the overnight hours.
Danny was considered the prime suspect in his wife's murder; authorities believed that he may have abducted Ashley and Lauria and traveled elsewhere, but all of the Freemans' vehicles were parked near their home. Lauria's car was also nearby and the keys were inside the ignition. Lorene discovered Lauria's purse propped inside the trailer, but there was no other evidence of the girls at the scene.
Jay Bible, Lauria's father, discovered Danny's body in the bedroom of the mobile home during the following morning. The Bibles returned to the trailer in an attempt to gather more evidence as to their daughter's whereabouts. Both Danny and Kathy had died as the result of gunshot wounds. Danny's body was partially covered by debris inside the bedroom, explaining why his remains were overlooked.
The medical examiner determined that Danny's right collarbone had been fractured prior to the entrance of the fatal wound. The coroner determined that Kathy died at approximately 5:00 a.m. Investigators believe that the fire was intentionally set in an attempt to destroy evidence of the crimes. An extensive search for the girls produced no evidence as to their whereabouts.
Lorene told reporters that Ashley had been saving her money to purchase a used vehicle in December 1999. Lorene said that she believed Ashley had accumulated $1200 in her savings account.
Hurst said that Ashley actually claimed to have saved between $3000 and $4000 for the car. She was employed part-time at Roscoe's, a convenience store in Welch. Hurst said that Ashley did not have a bank account; she kept her money sealed in a Tupperware container in the family's freezer. Authorities were unable to locate any evidence of the cash after the fire.
Lorene stated that Ashley and Danny had been arguing earlier in the month regarding the vehicle. She claimed that Ashley wanted to purchase a different car than Danny had desired.
There was speculation that Ashley and Lauria were involved in the Freemans' murders after the searches failed to produce evidence as to their whereabouts. Investigators stated that there was nothing in either girl's background to suggest they could be capable of such brutal acts. Authorities disclosed that there were rumors Ashley had been sexually abused, but they were unable to confirm the theories.
Ashley was a member of the National Honor Society and Lauria was regarded as an excellent student. She was also a member of the Welch High School basketball team, although she was unable to participate in the 1999 season as the result of an ankle injury. Lauria was a cheerleader and planned to become a cosmetologist after her high school graduation. Both girls were viewed as being well-behaved in 1999.
The Bible family believes that Danny's alleged drug dealing may have triggered the murders and disappearances. They claimed that he may have become involved in something out of his control, which led to the incidents in late December 1999. The Freemans' loved ones theorize that local law enforcement may have played a role in the cases. There is no evidence to suggest either theory is correct.
Hayes, the officer who killed Shane, and his brother, who is also a law enforcement officer, said they both took polygraph exams after the girls' disappearances. Neither of them are considered suspects in the investigations. Hayes and his brother have not participated in the active cases.
Several possible suspects were investigated over the years, including the serial killers Tommy Lynn Sells and Jeremy Brian Jones. In April 2018, eighteen years after the two teens vanished, police announced that they had made a serious break in the case.
Authorities now believe that three men, identified as Warren Phillip "Phil" Welch II, David A. Pennington and Ronnie Dean Busick, went to the trailer that night, killed Danny and Kathy, set the fire and took the girls. Pennington and Welch are now deceased and Busick has been arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of arson. A photo of Busick is posted with this case summary.
According to investigators' theory, Ashley and Lauria were kept alive for an unknown number of days after they were abducted. The three suspects took Polaroid photos of the girls while they were captives. They told multiple people they were holding them, and showed them the pictures.
Busick is awaiting trial for Ashley and Laura's murders. Authorities still hope to recover the girls' bodies, and the case remains under investigation. Foul play is suspected in their cases due to the circumstances involved.