Details of Disappearance
Ashley resided in a trailer home outside of Welch, Oklahoma with her parents, Danny Freeman and Kathy Eketa 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.
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, as Danny blamed the police for his son's death and had spoken out against them in the media.
The Freemans' trailer did not have running water and was primarily heated by a wood-burning stove in the living room, but it did have phone service and electricity. The family was described as avid hunters and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoyed living in the remote location. 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 well-behaved.
The Freemans' loved ones theorized that local law enforcement may have played a role in the cases. Hayes, the officer who killed Shane, and his brother, 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 were deceased by the time they were named as suspected, but Busick was been arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of arson.
Photos of Busick, Pennington and Welch are posted with this case summary. Welch, described as "evil" and said by witnesses to be the "mastermind" in the killings of Ashley, Lauria and Ashley's parents, died in 2007. Pennington died in 2015. All three men had criminal histories, and both Welch and Pennington had documented histories of violence against women.
Am auto insurance verification card which a search party found near the crime scene a few days after the murders, arson and kidnappings. The card belonged Welch's then-girlfriend, who said she did not know the Freeman family, had never been to their home, and had no idea why the card was there, though she admitted Welch knew Danny. Up until a few months before Danny and Kathy were killed, Welch was their nearest neighbor, living in a house less than a mile to the south of the Freemans' trailer.
The insurance card was not given much significance by the police at the time; in fact, they refused to accept it into evidence, and a private investigator kept it instead. The same private investigator found the blue Mercury Topaz linked to the insurance card; it had been sent to a salvage yard.
He told the police about it, but the police wouldn't take the car into evidence either. In fact, they called for revoking the private investigator's state license from the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training for “interfering in their investigation" into the case. The insurance card later turned out to be an important clue in the case.
Welch was a "cooker" of methamphetamine, and Pennington, his friend, was also involved with meth. After Ashley and Lauria disappeared, Welch broke up with his girlfriend whose insurance card began found near the Freemans' home, but he kept her Mercury Topaz later sold it for salvage.
He began dating another woman and she moved in with him in the spring of 2000. This girlfriend told police that Welch had Ashley and Lauria's missing persons poster nailed to the wall of his Pilcher, Oklahoma residence, and while they were living together, she overheard Welch talking with Pennington and Busick about the case.
The three men implied that they had murdered the Freeman parents over a drug debt, taken Ashley and Lauria with them, and eventually killed the girls as well. Welch had several Polaroid photos of the two girls and his girlfriend had seen them. The photos showed Ashley and Lauria lying on a bed which the witness recognized as the one in her and Welch's bedroom.
In February 2017, the Craig County Sheriff found some previously unknown notes and documents about the Freeman/Bible case, including notes from the private investigator who had the insurance card. The papers had been left over from a previous sheriff administration and had apparently been misplaced.
Acting on the information in the notes, investigators received additional leads linking Welch, Pennington and Busick to the case and started locating and questioning witnesses. One witness, a former girlfriend of Pennington's, and said Pennington had physically abused her and threatened her life. He had bragged to her about killing the Freemans during a "bad drug deal."
According to this witness, Pennington told her one of the Freeman parents was buying drugs, when Ashley and Lauria suddenly walked into the room. Pennington told her he and the other men decided to take the girls from the crime scene to "have some fun" with them. They were using Welch's girlfriend's Mercury Topaz that night, and Pennington was aware that her "ID" had been found lying on the ground.
Multiple other witnesses connected to the three men gave similar stories of the men boasting about their involvement in the case. Some of them had seen the Polaroids of Ashley and Lauria. In some photos they were bound and gagged and lying on a bed, and in others they were duct-taped to chairs.
By the time investigators learned about the photos, they had disappeared and may have been destroyed when they were put in the trunk of a car that was hauled off to a salvage yard. But witnesses could describe them.
There were approximately ten to fifteen photos of the girls. The witnesses were able to identify the bed the girls lay on, and a blanket on that bed, as belonging to Welch, and some of the photos showed Welch lying next to the girls.
Busick told one witness the girls had been kept alive for days, perhaps as long as two weeks, in a trailer in Picher, where they were raped, tortured, and eventually strangled to death. Busick said Welch had shot Kathy and Danny, and that he and Pennington had stayed behind to set fire to the trailer after Welch took the girls away. Pennington had referred to the girls as "two little bitches."
Pennington and Welch had both threatened witnesses, saying Ashley and Lauria were in a "pit" and the witnesses might wind up in the same pit. Because of the threats, none of the witnesses came forward, until they were located and interviewed following the discovery of the lost notes in 2017.
After Busick's arrest for the quadruple homicide, he claimed he suffered from memory loss and didn't remember what had happened on the night of the murders and arson, or where Lauria and Ashley were. He has a low-average IQ and sustained brain damage from extensive drug use and from an incident in 1978, when he was shot in the head. A neuropsychologist who examined him stated he had a hard time processing information. Nevertheless, he was found to be legally competent to stand trial.
In July 2020, Busick pleaded guilty to accessory to second-degree murder. He said Ashley and Lauria's bodies had been put in the root cellar of a residence near 6th and Ethel in Picher. However, searches turned up nothing. Busick was sentenced to ten years in prison and five years of probation. In 2023, after serving just two and a half years, he was released.
Authorities still hope to recover the girls' bodies. Foul play is suspected in their cases due to the circumstances involved.