In the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1999, a mobile home in rural Oklahoma went up in flames. When firefighters arrived around 5:30 a.m., they found a grisly sight: Danny and Kathy Freeman’s charred bodies were found in the home. They had both been shot in the head.
Also troubling was that the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, was missing. Her best friend, Lauria Bible, also 16, had spent the night at the house for a sleepover. She, too, had vanished.
Authorities began a nationwide manhunt for the two teens. According to Tulsa World, investigators searched lakes, abandoned mine shafts and wooded areas, hoping to find the girls. Their story was profiled on national TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries, to no avail. The search extended from Canada to Mexico.
But now authorities believe that they’ve identified the men responsible for the girls’ disappearance — and at least a dozen witnesses say that the men bragged about the girls’ violent deaths and even took Polaroid pictures of the teens, reports the Washington Post.
Police have arrested Ronnie Dean Busick, 66, and charged him with four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of arson, PEOPLE confirms. The other two men who police believe are responsible for the murders — Warren Phillip “Phil” Welch II and David Pennington — are dead.
In a probable cause affidavit released this week, authorities say that an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent interviewed at least a dozen people who say they had knowledge of the missing girls. Their findings had been filed away, and just recently resurfaced when new investigators took over the case.
According to the affidavit, which was first reported by KFOR-TV, many of the witnesses had dated or lived with the three men. All of the witnesses allege that Welch, Pennington and Busick bragged about the murders, and threatened to kill anyone who turned them in to police. Many of the witnesses allege that the three men killed the Freemans over money and drugs, the affidavit states.
A female witness, identified in the affidavit by the initials TW, told police that she lived with Phil Welch after the murders. She alleged that she heard conversations between the three men where they disclosed that the murder victims had owed them money.
TW told police that they kidnapped the girls and killed them later. She also claimed that she discovered Welch had briefcase containing Polaroids of the girls bound and gagged with duct tape and lying on a bed. “In some of the Polaroids she observed Welch lying next to the girls,” the affidavit states.
Another witness alleged in the affidavit that the girls were held for “a matter of days” in Welch’s trailer. The witness claimed that the girls were “raped and violently strangled to die [sic].”
When the interviews resurfaced, the new investigators tracked down a detective who had an insurance card that had been found at the murder scene. The card belonged to a woman who was living with Welch and often drove her car. Police believe that the insurance card puts Welch at the crime scene.
Family Searching for Bodies of Missing Girls
While Welch and Pennington cannot stand trial for the murders, the District Attorney’s office tells PEOPLE that they “are weighing all options” as they determine whether to seek the death penalty against Busick. He is being held without bond. He has not yet entered a plea and hasn’t retained an attorney.
In a statement on Facebook, Bible’s family said that they had been aware of Busick and the other men for quite some time. They also had heard about the Polaroids several years ago.
“For more than 18 years we have searched for Lauria and Ashley,” the statement reads. “We have never stopped. We collected notebook after notebook of tips and drove thousands and thousands of miles searching and talking to everyone who wanted to give us information.”
The family says that new investigators, Tammy Ferrari and Gary Stansill, took over the case three years ago, and worked tirelessly to solve the case. “Why did it take so long?” the family writes. “This is a very in depth case and it simply took that long for all of the pieces to connect.”
“At this time all focus is on finding Lauria and Ashley,” the statement concludes. “We welcome all information leading to their recovery. Until they are home with us, this will never be over.”