Search for Oklahoma girls focused on proximity to suspect's former home

A memorial to Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible looms significantly Tuesday as yet another search for the bodies of the girls, presumed dead since December 1999, was conducted, this time at property where a now deceased suspect in the case lived. GLOBE | ROGER NOMER

PICHER, Okla. — Oklahoma authorities on Wednesday wrapped up their latest search of ground and water in Picher, vowing to extend their efforts to find the remains of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman to other locations they determine may be fruitful.

"We still have other possible locations we're looking into," said Gary Stansill, an investigator with the district attorney's office serving the counties of Craig, Mayes and Rogers in Oklahoma.

Stansill and the other lead investigator in the two-day search, Special Agent Tammy Ferrari of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, acknowledged that nothing of note had come of scouring the property where deceased suspect Phil Welch once lived on College Street with ground-penetrating radar on Tuesday or using divers, sonar and a remote-operated vehicle equipped with a camera to examine the bottoms of two ponds near Welch's home on Tuesday and Wednesday.

They thanked the Tulsa Police Department Dive Team and the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service for their technical assistance in the search of the two ponds and the Quapaw Tribal Police for assistance throughout the search. They said they could be back in Picher looking at other locations within a matter of days if developments in their investigation in the 20-year-old kidnapping and murder case seem to warrant it.

"We're still soliciting information from the public," Stansill said.

He urged that anyone with information about Welch and his suspected accomplices, David Pennington and Ronald Busick, and what they may have done with the girls' bodies to come forward. He said no one should hold back because they fear what investigators might think of them for having known the suspects.

"We're not going to be judging them," Stansill said. "We're not going to be looking at them in a negative way. We just want the information from them."

He indicated that the scrutiny applied on Tuesday to Welch's former address was in response to tips received by investigators.

"We just had some information that the girls were buried there in an underground structure," he said.

No such structure was detected using the ground-penetrating radar and digging up a couple of areas of interest on the property.

Ferrari said no tips pointed to the two ponds that were searched. Investigators developed them as logical starting points for a search of the area based on their proximity to Welch's home, where they have reason to believe the girls were held captive before being killed in December 1999.

Stansill said investigators have received numerous tips of varying credibility as to the location of the girls' remains. The trick has been weighing the relative credibility of each tip by examining how it fits with the known facts of the case, he said.

The Cherokee Nation Marshal Service in Tahlequah provided the remote-operated vehicle, or "underwater drone," used Wednesday to search a pond north of the old high school in Picher. Investigators believed the pond might have been used by the suspects to get rid of the girls' bodies because it was known to be fairly deep on its north side, was within a few blocks of Welch's home and was accessible by vehicle 20 years ago.

The nameless pond — created by a mine collapse in the 1960s — presented some safety concerns with sending divers in that the pond searched on Tuesday did not.

The pond had what divers refer to as black water, or water through which there is no visibility, a hazard for divers. Also, its depth was uncertain and there was a risk of there being old mine shafts at the bottom that could pose problems with currents and suction. As a result, the dive team from the Tulsa Police Department limited its involvement in the search of the second pond to the use of sonar to try to detect "targets" that could then be searched with the underwater drone.

"We really didn't see any targets, and a lot of that was due to the weed beds," dive team leader Tommy Barber told the Globe.

Sgt. Justin Farley, another dive team member, said they were primarily looking for something someone might use to weight down a body in water — a cinder block or tire, for example — or to wrap a body in, such as a rug or tarpaulin.

They did not find anything like that but were able to identify a couple of areas of the pond that they thought should be examined by the drone. Capt. Danny Tanner of the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service said one of the areas was a large debris pile full of logs and trees, the other an old sunken boat.

"There was no specific target good enough for us to put a diver in," Tanner said.

Farley said the dive team's search of Black Pond — across Cherokee Street from Welch's home — on Tuesday was conducted entirely by hand using "a jack stake," or 100-foot length of rope with weights on each end. He walked along the rope from one end to the other, feeling the bottom for objects with his other hand.

They did not search the entire pond but instead limited that search to areas they determined were the most likely places to have been chosen by someone looking to get rid of a couple of bodies. At one point, Farley did find a bone. But it turned out to be a steak bone.

Lorene Bible, the mother of Lauria Bible, called the technology used by searchers this week "unreal." Despite the disappointment with the search having failed to find the girls, she said plenty of other places west of Highway 69 in Picher could be searched as well. She said that's where she believes her daughter's abductors most likely disposed of Lauria and Ashley because that's the side of the highway Welch lived on.

"If you're going to dump two bodies, you are not going to cross that highway," she reasoned. "You're going to stay in the area you're in."

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe.