Danny and Kathy Freeman were dead, and their 16-year-old daughter, Ashley, and her sleepover guest, Lauria Bible, had vanished.

Since a few days after law enforcement first left the scene of the Freeman’s burned-out trailer home, the best lead that private investigator Tom Pryor and his bounty hunter buddy Joe Dugan had was a car insurance verification card they’d found at the crime scene.

It belonged to a woman who said her live-in boyfriend had her car the night the Freemans’ trailer home was torched with their bodies inside.

His name?

Phil Welch. The same man cold-case investigators would zero in on as the mastermind of the crimes nearly two decades later.

But on that day in 2000, riding north from Oklahoma to Columbus, Kansas, where Welch had ties, Pryor and Dugan, who were working for the family, asked local law enforcement if they knew where they might find him. They were directed to a house he was known to frequent.

On their way to check it out, they saw someone walking down the road, and he turned south onto the shoulder of the highway. Pryor knew it was a long shot but took it.

“He was in good clothes, work clothes. So I just pulled over, stopped and said, ‘Need a ride?’” He said, ‘Yeah, appreciate it.’ I said, ‘Where ya going?’ He said, ‘Going down to Picher.’”

The man said he was headed to find work. He introduced himself as Phil Welch.

News that Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible had gone missing weeks earlier from the double-homicide scene was absolutely everywhere — in small-town and big-city newspapers alike, on missing persons fliers plastered all over the far corners of northeastern Oklahoma and southeastern Kansas, and even national TV news programs.

On the 15-minute drive down U.S. 69, Pryor and Dugan never revealed themselves to be investigators but casually raised the subject as they made small talk.

Pryor distinctly remembers Welch’s comment: “Oh yeah, I heard about them two little b-—.”

Their brief encounter ended at the Gorilla Bar in Picher, where the three grabbed hamburgers.

“The first time I made eye contact with him, the image I got was Charles Manson,” Pryor said. “There’s just something about him that reminded me of Charles Manson.”

By the time law enforcement authorities announced charges in the case in April, two of the three men named suspects were already dead. One is awaiting trial.

It took authorities nearly two decades to connect the same dots that the private investigator and his partner had in just a few days’ time:

From the car insurance card found at the crime scene, to the car’s owner and the car itself, to the name of the man who’s now believed to be the mastermind behind the killings of Danny and Kathy Freeman, and the kidnapping, rape and likely deaths of Ashley Freeman and her best friend Lauria Bible.

But why? And how?

Officials rebuffed help from private investigator

When the call came in that there was trouble at the Freemans’ home in the early morning hours of Dec. 30, 1999, the Craig County Sheriff’s Office immediately called in the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. They were quickly joined by multiple FBI agents, the state fire marshal’s office and later the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, not to mention other private investigators and even psychics.

But what others missed and dismissed, Tom Pryor kept under lock and key for 18 years.

Cold-case investigators have described it as the only physical evidence in a case they’ve spent the past five years building — the insurance card, plus some home rental receipts with Phil Welch’s name on them that he had found inside the car.

Pryor says the answer to the question of how it could take so long for law enforcement to make a single arrest in the case is simple:

Previous investigators with the lead agency, OSBI, refused to take into evidence that insurance card or the car it belonged to, which Pryor found disposed of at a salvage yard not long after Danny and Kathy were killed.

“Had the OSBI agent followed my leads, we could have saved those girls,” Pryor said. “As far as that goes, the FBI had some notes (about the existence of the insurance card). I wonder why they didn’t follow the leads? I never was contacted by the FBI or the sheriff’s office.”

As it turns out, a court affidavit filed earlier this year by a new OSBI agent and a District Attorney’s Office investigator who began actively re-investigating the case in 2013, revealed that FBI agents had documented the finding of the insurance card and even interviewed the car’s owner.

Those FBI agents reported Jan. 3, 2000, that the owner’s boyfriend “knows who Danny Freeman is but does not associate with him. The boyfriend’s name is Phil Welch.”

Pryor, a career law enforcement officer, was in between jobs and working as a licensed private investigator.

In the first day or two of the hunt for Ashley and Lauria, he and Dugan volunteered their investigative services to Danny’s brother, Dwayne Vancil, and accepted a $1 bill from Vancil to formalize the deal.

“Law enforcement had cleared the scene. The card was laying in the driveway about 50 feet off the road. I called the OSBI and told them we found this insurance verification. They act like you’re a prima donna and all of this stuff. I’m just a private investigator, but I told them I have 20 years of law enforcement in my background. The agent was just extremely arrogant. I said, ‘Do you want this card?’ He said, ‘I don’t think it will be any help.’ ”

When Pryor located the blue Mercury Topaz connected to the car insurance card at a salvage yard where it had just been sold, he said he called the OSBI one last time.

“I asked the guy that owned the salvage, has anybody else been looking for the car and he said no,” Pryor said. “I went out and looked at the car and there were clothes and drink cups. I called OSBI when I was standing right there. I said, ‘Would you like to take possession of the car?’ I think it was (then-OSBI Agent Steve) Nutter. And he said, ‘And what kind of process would that be?’ I said there’s bound to be DNA or fingerprints. He said, ‘No, I think it’s been through too many hands.’ I just hung up, I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Freemans’ feud with sheriff

Why do the victims’ families think key evidence was missed or rejected and earlier opportunities to solve the case were missed?

The answer is anything but simple.

In January 1999, Danny and Kathy Freeman’s 17-year-old son, Shane, who was wanted in a string of burglaries, was shot and killed by a local sheriff’s deputy. It was declared a justifiable homicide, but Danny Freeman spoke out against the department in media interviews.

To complicate matters, Danny Freeman was widely known to have been a longtime user and grower of marijuana.

The Freemans’ survivors continue to maintain their belief that members of the local sheriff’s office could have conspired to prevent Danny from filing a wrongful death suit in the death of his son.

The deaths of Danny and Kathy occurred as the deadline loomed to bring their case to court before the one-year statute of limitations ran out.

Although the Bibles say they don’t buy those same conspiracy theories, they firmly believe the situation colored the way initial investigators handled the case from the moment they arrived to find Kathy dead and no sign of Danny or the girls.

“The minute they found Kathy’s body in that fire, the Craig County Sheriff’s Office stopped and they called in the OSBI,” Lorene Bible said. “Because of the bad blood between them, (they said) ‘We don’t want the Freemans saying we had anything to do with this.’ So they stopped — right then and there.”

Bible said she thinks Steve Nutter, the OSBI agent assigned to the case for many years, had preconceived notions that cost them precious time in their search for Lauria and Ashley.

“Nutter also worked Shane’s case because he was the OSBI agent for this whole area. So here’s another person who should have been biased,” she said. “I think he walked in there knowing the history of the Freemans and thought, ‘Oh, Danny’s out here hiding somewhere.’ ”

But Danny wasn’t hiding out somewhere with the missing girls, as investigators initially theorized.

Bungled start and the quest for answers

Dwayne Vancil said the OSBI agent in charge turned over his brother Danny’s property to him about 6 the evening after Kathy was found dead.

Nutter’s reported theory — that Danny Freeman had run off with his daughter and her friend — already made little sense to Vancil. So he quickly did some checking of his own.

“Everything that belonged to him is here — all of the vehicles, the pistol he always carried with him,” Vancil said of his brother. “If he’d have left here on his own free will, he’d have had that pistol.”

Vancil and a buddy stood watch over the scene all night. The next morning, he made a quick trip to town to phone law enforcement. He wanted to ask if it would be all right if he looked in his brother’s trailer home.

As he drove up the property’s long, gravel drive, Lorene Bible and her husband, Jay, were waving him toward the charred remains of his brother’s trailer home.

What had the Bibles found? A previously undiscovered body.

“Danny had surgery a few years earlier. A muzzleloader blew up on him. I could see that stainless steel (in his skull). I said, ‘Hell, that’s Danny!’ ” Vancil said of the remains, which authorities had somehow missed.

That was the moment when both families began seriously questioning the abilities of the initial responders.

“We found Danny’s body in five minutes. My comment was: ‘They’re idiots!’ ” Lorene Bible said.

Vancil suggests a more sinister explanation.

“They saw him — there’s no doubt in my mind,” Vancil said. “I was 12 feet in front of him and I could tell immediately, there is a body. It was only the second burnt body I’d ever seen before in my life — Kathy was the first, the day before.”

He alluded to the Freeman family’s conspiracy theories of the possible involvement of certain individuals from the local sheriff’s office.

“I believe if I hadn’t stayed up there that night, I think Danny’s body would have been taken out of there,” Vancil said.

He and the Bibles say their grisly discovery forced them into the roles of investigating the case themselves — tracking down every lead, even if it meant meeting up with drug users, dealers and their henchmen.

Vancil, then a corporate executive, and Lorene Bible, a longtime employee of McDonald’s Corp., had to rely on common sense, basic problem-solving skills and sheer grit.

“A process is a process is a process, but I’m totally out of my element,” Vancil said. “You had to approach them with, ‘I’m the uncle of one of the missing girls,’ but there were times I had to meet someone at a certain place with my son laying on the back floorboard with a shotgun.”

Private investigators and other tipsters told the victims’ families the now-suspects’ names, all with close ties in nearby Chetopa, Kansas. But neither family’s quest for answers brought them directly to Phil Welch, David Pennington or Ronnie Dean Busick.

“Word was these guys were bad news — especially Welch. Philip was the main guy. We were told by people he was just crazy, unpredictable, would threaten people. Unapproachable,” Vancil said.

Lorene received a similar warning: “You don’t mess with these people.”

But that’s not what stopped her.

“I just couldn’t find him,” Bible said of Welch. “We’ve met with a lot of mean people. Even cartels. The way I see it? My job is I’ve got to find her.”

Pandora’s box discovered

By all public accounts, the Freeman and Bible case grew cold very quickly.

OSBI Agent Steve Nutter had the assignment for more than 12 years, pursuing leads on what turned out to be bogus suspects, including convicted killers Jeremy Jones and Tommy Sells. He retired in May 2011.

“All I have to say is any and all investigative work that I participated in the case in question was done in accordance with the policies and procedures of the OSBI,” Nutter recently told the Tulsa World, declining to answer questions.

Former Craig County Sheriff George Vaughn said he is now under the care of a doctor for Alzheimer’s but still vividly recalls details of the case.

“It was a very tragic thing,” he said. “Danny owed a lot of individuals money (for drug debts), and he had a lot of people angry. I knew it would be this type of individual — druggies, individuals out of state.”

OSBI Agent Tammy Ferrari and Gary Stansill, a retired Tulsa Police Department detective turned investigator for the District 12 District Attorney’s Office, picked up the cold-case assignment after Nutter’s retirement but didn’t begin coordinating their efforts until 2013.

They reviewed the old case files and reports from the OSBI and FBI and began the process of developing new leads, including those generated by tips from the public and the Freeman and Bible families.

Stansill and Ferrari found that Nutter had created a report with critical information from a January 2001 interview with a woman who became Phil Welch’s live-in girlfriend in spring 2000.

In those months immediately after the Freemans’ killings and the disappearance of the girls, this woman reportedly overheard conversations among Welch, Pennington and Busick “during which they implied the people who were killed in Welch, Oklahoma, had owed them money and had been murdered for that debt,” according to court records.

She reportedly told Nutter that Phil Welch kept the $50,000 reward poster with photos of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible on the wall of his home in Picher, and, in a leather briefcase, he kept Polaroid photos showing the girls bound and gagged on the same bed that was in her’s and Welch’s bedroom.

But they couldn’t go find Welch and ask him themselves because he had died in 2007. Pennington died in 2015 amid their investigation. So the cold-case investigators began tracking down their former associates.

Then, in February 2017, they got a huge break from an unlikely source.

Craig County had a new sheriff for the first time in 16 years. Inside the office of former sheriff Jimmie Sooter, who succeeded George Vaughn in 2001, the new guard discovered a crate of files related to the case — none of which had been documented in the OSBI case file.

“In particular was some information pertaining to Phil Welch, David Pennington and Ronnie Busick as being involved in the murders and the missing girls,” Stansill and Ferrari wrote in court documents.

Inside that box of files were the names of people previously unknown to the cold-case investigators.

Over the next few months, Stansill and Ferrari would gather them up as witnesses to the existence of the photographs of the girls, the private investigators’ earlier contacts with some of these individuals and even the suspects’ personal discussions of their involvement in the case.

One reportedly told them “when Phil Welch and David Pennington talked about the girls, they referred to them as ‘them two little b-—’ and that if they wouldn’t have taken off running from one of their vehicles, they would still be alive.”

Answers and accountability

On April 23, Busick was charged in Craig County District Court with four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping and one count of arson.

The idea that so much evidence existed that could have led earlier law enforcement officials to the girls — or even the other two suspects while they were still alive — haunts and angers the victims’ families.

“I still lay in bed some nights and think we had our opportunity and missed it — and what those girls went through,“ Dwayne Vancil’s voice trailed off. “And I don’t know how Nutter sleeps at night because he’s the main guy.”

When he learned Welch had long since died, Vancil felt a particular kind of disappointment.

“He’s the kind of guy you’d like to see on a bed of nails out in the hot sun with wet leather around his neck,” he said. “But God will deal with him.”

His father, Glen Freeman, said he’ll never get over such a grievous loss — his son’s entire family, Danny and Kathy and both their children, wiped out in a single year. In his home, images of them are everywhere. One family portrait hangs a few inches above where he rests his head at night.

As for his beloved granddaughter, Ashley, and her best friend, Lauria, whom she spoke of nonstop during her summer stays with Glen when he lived in New Orleans, Freeman readily admits he has lost hope they will ever be found.

But he’s never given up hope that the initial officers on the case will be put under a microscope themselves.

“Nutter should be investigated from one end to the other and (former Craig County Sheriff Jimmie) Sooter had everything in a box for 16 years,” Glen Freeman said. “I’m disgusted with the failure of our law system. It turned out they talked us out of the right people.”

Since cold-case investigators came calling for the evidence he had safeguarded for so long, Tom Pryor has been angry, too. He can’t understand why he was dismissed outright, especially since he was licensed and had worked a total of 28 years himself in law enforcement.

In a strange twist of fate, he believes he was the first person to put suspect Ronnie Busick in jail — on a marijuana possession charge when Pryor was chief of police in Chetopa for a couple of years in the late ‘70s.

He said the only reason he and Dugan, now deceased, backed off was they heard initial investigators had called for the revoking of Pryor’s state license from the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training for “interfering in their investigation.”

Now almost 75 and in poor health, Pryor said he is haunted by the recent public revelations that Ashley and Lauria were likely held and raped by their kidnappers for up to two weeks.

“It eats holes in you,” he said.

Lorene Bible said she heard virtually nothing from law enforcement for 15 years. She confesses that she even tried needling OSBI Agent Nutter every chance she got, to no avail.

These days, she’s in weekly contact with Stansill and Ferrari, who are determined to give the Bible and Freeman families what they want most.

“I have two jobs — I work for McDonald’s and I have to find my child,” Bible said. “There is somebody that knows where the girls are. There’s something simple that’s going to connect those dots. I’ll die trying — I’ll spend every last minute of my life doing it.”

World Correspondent Sheila Stogsdill contributed to this story

Staff Writer

Andrea is a projects reporter, examining key education topics and other local issues. Since joining the Tulsa World in 1999, she has been a three-time winner of Oklahoma’s top award for investigative reporting by an individual. Phone: 918-581-8470

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