Search for remains of Oklahoma girls circling back to early tip

Ashley Freeman (left) and Lauria Bible have been missing and presumed dead for much of the past 19 years. An anonymous tip the week after their abduction led to the search of a shaft at the old Admiralty III Mine north of the Douthat Baptist Church, an effort that came up empty but that now is in question.

PICHER, Okla. — A Tulsa Police Department dive team will lower a camera into a mine shaft on Tuesday in Picher to try to determine if it is accessible as part of an ongoing search for the remains of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman.

The camera drop is another initiative in the effort to locate the remains of the two 16-year-old girls who disappeared 20 years ago and are presumed to have been abducted and slain.

"This is not a search," said Gary Stansill, an investigator with the district attorney Matt Bullard's office serving Craig, Mayes and Rogers counties. "We're just looking at the mine shaft with a camera. We're not really searching for the remains (per se). We're just looking to see if it can be searched."

He said there's always the possibility the dive team's camera might spot some remains, although that is not expected by the search team. At this point, they just want to assess the shaft's stability to determine the feasibility of some future search of the shaft in a more extensive manner, he said.

Their interest in this particular shaft was spurred by a tip received in recent weeks. A man who formerly lived in Picher contacted the Bible family when he saw photos of three suspects in recent media reports and recognized two of them as being in a group of three men he recalls seeing inside a vehicle leaving the vicinity of the mine shaft back at the time of the girls' disappearance in late 1999.

Investigators believe the girls were abducted the night Ashley's parents were shot and killed and their home near Welch, Oklahoma, set on fire. The current theory of the crime is that the three men involved held the girls for a few days inside the residence of suspect Warren "Phil" Welch, sexually assaulting them before finally killing them and disposing of their bodies.

Two of the three suspects, Welch and David A. Pennington, died without ever being charged. The third suspect, Ronald D. Busick, 68, was arrested in 2018 and remains jailed on four counts of murder, two counts of kidnapping and an arson charge. A court in Oklahoma is still attempting to determine if he is mentally competent to stand trial on the charges.

Stansill said the tip investigators obtained from the man is of a type of information they have been receiving from a variety of sources. He said investigators do not have any reason at this point to doubt what the man says he saw, and the information he provided does have some credibility.

"But we've had other (tips) about other locations that are just as credible," he said.

He said the camera drop is the latest in a series of efforts the search team has been making the past two years to try to recover the girls' remains. The team has identified several mine shafts where the girls' remains may be. They also have reached out to engineering experts and companies specializing in mine searches and the recovery of remains.

But investigators say that they cannot be certain yet that the girls' remains are even in a mine shaft.

Competency

A court in Oklahoma is still attempting to determine whether Ronald D. Busick is mentally competent to stand trial on charges related to the case.

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