Search in Picher

Investigators on Tuesday search a mineshaft in Picher to see if it's safe for divers to conduct a search for the remains of two missing Welch girls. 

PICHER, Okla. — The Tulsa Police Department dive team Tuesday lowered a camera down an old Acme Mine shaft in Picher in the latest of ongoing efforts to find the remains of two Oklahoma girls who vanished 20 years ago, and are believed to have been abducted and slain.

The primary objective of the dive team was to assess the feasibility of conducting a more extensive search of the shaft by some means in the near future, according to Gary Stansill, an investigator with the district attorney's office for the Oklahoma counties of Craig, Mayes and Rogers, who has been heading the search for the remains of the missing teens, Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman, over the past two years.

"We're actually not searching (for their remains)," Stansill said. "We're making an assessment of the walls of the shaft to see if it's searchable."

The search team was led to the shaft by a witness who came forward recently with information that he recently recognized media photos of deceased suspects Warren "Phil" Welch and David A. Pennington as two of the three men he saw inside a vehicle in the area of the mine shaft shortly after the December 1999 murders of Ashley Freeman's parents, and disappearance of Ashley and friend Lauria.

Stansill said the witness, who was fishing at the time, did not get a good look at the third man and did not at the time recognize any of them. But they seemed startled by his presence there, and he wondered what they had been doing on the lane that led to that mine shaft.

"He saw them later at a (convenience) store, and they stared at him," Stansill said. "Well, at least one of them looked at him really hard."

The witness made no connection at the time to the Freeman murders and the disappearance of the girls. It was not until recently when he was watching the documentary "Hell in the Heartland" — about the Freeman-Bible case — that he saw photos of Pennington and Welch and recognized them as two of the three men he saw that day almost 20 years ago. He recalls that Pennington was driving the truck they were in.

Stansill said investigators are not releasing a description of that vehicle. But the witness provided a description of the truck that was "close enough" to that of a truck to which the suspects had access to lend at least a degree of credibility to his account, according to Stansill.

After seeing the documentary and making the connection in his memory, the witness went on Facebook and made contact with the Bible family on Memorial Day weekend through the FindLauriaBible website.

"It didn't take us long, and I was at his house," Lorene Bible told the Globe as she watched the dive team search the shaft on Tuesday.

She said her gut feeling when she met the witness was that his story seemed credible. Three people who had no business on the private property where the mine shaft is located were back there in a truck sometime after the girls' disappearance, she said.

Stansill said the witness believes he spotted the men on the property after the first search of a mine shaft in the Picher Mining Field was conducted on Jan. 4, 2000, and perhaps as late as spring 2000. That initial mine shaft search had been based on a tip received by the Vinita police chief that the girls' bodies were dropped down the old Admiralty III Mine north of Douthat Baptist Church.

Stansill said the Tulsa police dive team that performed a camera drop down that shaft 20 years ago came away convinced that the girls' bodies had not been discarded there. He said that from what he has learned, visibility in that shaft was much better than in the one being searched Tuesday and that the searchers in 2000 could see to the bottom of the shaft.

Investigators used a fishing pole and line with lead weights a week ago to make an initial estimate of the depth of the mine where the dive team lowered its camera on Tuesday. They gauged the depth of the shaft at that time at about 159 feet. But dive team members said Tuesday they were able to lower their camera about 175 feet.

Dive team member Justin Farley said visibility in the shaft was limited to about 2 feet at best even with the lighting the camera provides. He said the team was exploring opening and ledges as the camera was lowered, trying to determine the feasibility of perhaps lowering other equipment — such as a remote-operated vehicle — to conduct an actual search for the remains. He said the video footage they were shooting with the camera would have to be analyzed before a determination could be made as to what sort of search might be possible.

Sending a diver down the shaft is extremely unlikely, though, because of the instability of the shaft's walls and the hazards posed there, Farley said.

Stansill said other search options with more sophisticated equipment remain possible.

"Of big interest to us is the question whether the shaft is open to the mine workings." he said.

He said the shaft leads down to a "drift," where the miners would bring ore to be hauled up the shaft. It's possible that over the years, the girls' remains could have been washed into the workings, he said.

Stansill said the searchers have conducted three or four similar camera drops in the Picher Mining Field over the last two years even though they have no certain information that the girls' bodies were discarded down a shaft. He said they have had three or possibly as many as four witnesses come forward with information placing one or more of the three suspects near three separate mine shafts. One of those shafts has been determined not to have been accessible. But there is a fourth shaft that has remained of interest to the searchers just because of its accessibility to the suspects, Stansill said.

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe. 

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