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. β€” Investigators searching for the remains of two Oklahoma girls are pleased with the preliminary findings of a camera drop they conducted Tuesday at an old water-filled mine shaft in Picher.

Ed Keheley, a leading authority on the history of the Picher Mining Field who has been acting as a consultant in the search for the remains of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman, considers Tuesday's work by a Tulsa Police Department dive team to have been "very successful" because the primary objective was to determine if the old Acme Mine shaft was still open to the former mine workings at its bottom.

"We felt fortunate that it is," Keheley told the Globe on Friday.

Keheley has yet to view video shot by the submersible camera the dive team lowered to the bottom of the shaft, but searchers were able to see on their monitor the openings into the "drift," or tunnel, leading to workings both north and south of the shaft, he said. The importance of the finding is that it leaves open the possibility of lowering a remote-operated vehicle into the shaft that could search the drift for any remains of the girls that may have been carried into the workings over time by movement of water in the shaft.

He considers that a "fortunate" finding because many of the old mine shafts in the field have deteriorated to the point where access to their workings has been shut off by collapses of their walls and resulting debris.

"Everything looked like it did in 1918, and that's highly unusual," Keheley said.

The shaft in question was sunk into the north bank of Lytle Creek in 1918 for the purpose of extracting ore mined in a drift that runs from north to south beneath the creek bed that runs east-west at that location. A concrete platform at the top of the 175-foot shaft broke and collapsed into the gully carved out by the creek years ago. But the shaft itself apparently has remained relatively free of collapses of its walls that might have shut off access to the drift at its bottom.

Cold-case investigators probing the December 1999 slayings of Danny and Kathy Freeman in their home near Welch, Oklahoma, and the disappearance and presumed murders of their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, and her friend, Lauria, developed an interest in this particular shaft when a potential witness contacted the Bible family on Memorial Day weekend about three men he recalls seeing in the vicinity of the old mine about the time of the girls' disappearance.

The witness, who was fishing in the area, saw the men in a pickup truck emerging from a remote lane that leads to the mine shaft. The witness, whose name has not been released, believes the sighting took place sometime after Jan. 4, 2000, and possibly as late as spring of that year. But he never linked the men's presence there to the girls' disappearance until three months ago, when he happened to watch a documentary about the crime, "Hell in the Heartland," and recognized photos of deceased suspects Warren "Phil" Welch and David Pennington as two of the men in the truck.

The witness told investigators that he never recognized any of the three men at the time and that he did not get a good enough look at the third man to be able to identify him. But he later saw the men in a convenience store, and one of them gave him "a hard look," according to Gary Stansill, an investigator with the district attorney's office serving Craig, Mayes and Rogers counties in Oklahoma.

The lone suspect to be charged in the case, Ronald D. Busick, 68, has a competency trial scheduled for Dec. 13. A jury β€” expected to hear from expert witnesses for both the state and the defense β€” will decide if Busick is mentally fit to stand trial. The defense has claimed in pretrial findings that a gunshot injury to his head sustained in 1978 may have affected Busick's brain functions to the point that he cannot adequately understand court proceedings and assist in his own defense.

The defense's application for determination of Busick's mental competency states that he was offered both immunity from prosecution and reward money in exchange for information that leads to recovery of the girls' remains but has failed to produce any coherent or credible account of either his alleged involvement in the crime or that of the two deceased suspects.

Keheley said the video obtained by the Tulsa police dive team needs to be studied and analyzed by experts to determine how to best proceed with any potential search of the old Acme Mine shaft. There are options other than use of an ROV, such as dredging, to search the shaft. Sending a diver down is currently deemed too dangerous to attempt because of the presumed instability of the shaft's walls, which descend through surface dirt and clay and a layer of shale to a strata of limestone and finally chert or flint rock at its bottom.

According to Keheley, there are a couple of ledges on the way down where a discarded body might land. Those would need to be searched in addition to the bottom and the drift, he said. The camera lowered into the shaft on Tuesday encountered limited visibility because of the murkiness of the water.

Investigators have sought additional technical assistance from the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, a federal agency with a regional office in Alton, Illinois, that has assisted on other projects in the Picher Mining Field not related to the Bible-Freeman case.

The Tulsa dive team does not possess an ROV, and the help of another search group may be needed if that is the search mode to be used at the shaft. The Cherokee Tribal Police provided an ROV for an earlier search conducted this year at a pond in Picher. But any agency providing an ROV or other possible search equipment will be incurring costs that may need to be met, Keheley said.

Searchers are currently looking into various options in terms of both technical assistance and funding.

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