Sometime the night of December 29, 1999, or early the next morning, 16-year-old best friends Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible vanished from the Freeman family motor home in Welch, Oklahoma. Authorities responded to reports of a fire at the site just before dawn. Within a day, the remains of Kathy and Danny Freeman, Ashley’s parents, were identified. Each had been shot in the back of the head.
Today—despite a conviction in the case, and a killer who was offered an immunity deal to reveal the location of the teens—the bodies of Lauria and Ashley have not been found. Ashley was declared legally dead in 2010.
In 2020, Ronnie Dean Busick pleaded guilty to being an accessory to first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of the two adults and presumed slayings of the girls. Busick also told investigators about the participation of two others in the crime, Warren “Phil” Welch and David Pennington (both, by then, deceased). Investigators believe the trio killed the Freemans over a drug debt.
Two milestone discoveries led authorities to Busick: One was an insurance verification card found at the scene by a private investigator and reported to the FBI, but then lost for years. The second was corroboration from multiple sources about the existence of Polaroids showing the girls bound and gagged.
A Cold Case Files episode about the case, “Cold Ashes,” aired on March 25, 2022 on A&E. [Watch the episode.]
Gary Stansill, an investigator for the District Attorney’s office with jurisdiction over Craig County, where the Freemans lived, joined the case in 2011. He spoke to A&E True Crime about Busick’s hazy recollections and the community’s persistent hunt for answers.
When you joined the case, you learned that authorities early on had the names of the men eventually held responsible for the murders. But those leads weren’t pursued. What went wrong?
Phil Welch’s name popped up on the FBI side. We [saw] a sheet in the FBI’s reports about the insurance card. They had sent an agent out to talk to [one of] Welch’s girlfriends, and she said: ‘I don’t know why my insurance card was there, but Phil Welch is my boyfriend and he knows the Freemans.’ And that’s where it stopped.
It’s pretty incredible that something like that wasn’t followed up on. The card…should have been put into evidence, but it wasn’t. The Craig County Sheriff’s office didn’t have it. The FBI didn’t have it. When we actually found it, when we got it from [P.I.] Tom Pryor, I [thought] ‘Wow! That’s physical evidence we can bring to trial.’
Multiple witnesses testified they had seen photos of the girls taken after the fire, but you didn’t actually have them.
It would have been nice to have them, of course. Because then—bingo—we made the case. But we had witnesses that saw them, and I think that was just one piece of everything.
Our affidavit seeking Ronnie’s arrest was about 26 pages long. My affidavits are usually two paragraphs. We did that deliberately. We wanted the story out there, so that people would understand how we got to these guys. We did it to generate more leads.
What kind of a man is Busick?
We knew a little bit about him before we interviewed him. One of my witnesses who had overheard Busick talk about the crime said: ‘He won’t give you anything to implicate himself.’ And when we first interviewed him—he was arrested on some other charges up in Wichita—we didn’t get anything from him. He stonewalled us. And that’s when we had to offer immunity to him.
We interviewed him about three times. But then, the last time, he finally said: ‘Well, if I was there, I would’ve stayed in the car.’ And: ‘If I was there, it was to collect a drug debt.’
You gave Busick an incentive: Help us find the teens, and we’ll reduce your sentence from 10 years to five. Would you characterize that as unusual?
Yes. It would be. You just don’t go to someone that’s involved in a quadruple homicide and give them a blank check and say: ‘Look, you can walk away from this horrific crime if you give us where we can find the girls’ remains.’
How many potential locations did he give your office?
When [Busick] agreed to the plea deal, he gave us a possible location of a root cellar, a well and a couple of mineshafts. There are mineshafts all over that area. And he knew exactly where [one] was and his description was very accurate.
I went right to it and found it. And I asked him, ‘Are the girls in this well?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. The only thing I know is David Pennington knew about this well, and we used to smoke dope by this well back then.’
Those weren’t the only things we’ve heard about. We’ve heard [that] the girls [were] put in 55-gallon drums, sealed off and dumped in the river. We’ve heard they were put in the trunk of a car and taken to a crusher.
So it’s not just Busick giving you tips? It’s other people, too?
Many other sources.
How long can your office continue to do these searches?
As long as we have somewhat credible information. These searches aren’t just willy-nilly. For instance, there was one on Ottawa Street [in 2021]. David Pennington moved in there right after the murders, and his [fiancé] and daughter-in-law both said he told them not to go around this cellar. That’s good information, so we acted on that.
[Editor’s Note: According to Stansill, his office has received financial support to continue the search from volunteers and other sources.]
Do you believe the girls’ remains ever will be found?
If I didn’t believe there was any hope, I wouldn’t keep going after it. I believe that [the girls] can be found. I put it that way. Will they be found? I don’t know. But I believe in the possibility.
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