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Welch girls: After another fruitless search, investigator marks Picher site off list

Welch girls: After another fruitless search, investigator marks Picher site off list

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PICHER — Just as was the case with earlier searches, the search for Lauria Bible’s and Ashley Freeman’s remains on Friday failed to turn up any significant evidence.

“It’s now up to God to show us where to look,” said investigator Gary Stansill.

The Picher property searched Friday once belonged to David Pennington, a suspect along with Phil Welch and Ronnie Busick in the Dec. 30, 1999, arson and shooting deaths of Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy Freeman, and the disappearance and presumed deaths of the two 16-year-old girls.

The Bible family had prayed for divine intervention during the search Friday.

Before search dogs were released onto the property, Lorene Bible and her family offered up a familiar prayer of “hopefully finding the girls today.”

Pennington’s former mobile home site is three blocks from the site of Welch’s mobile home, where investigators believe the girls were tortured, raped, drugged and kept captive for about two weeks in January 2000 before being killed.

Welch and Pennington have since died; Busick has been sentenced to a 10-year prison term in the case on a reduced charge of accessory to murder.

Pennington’s former wife and her family told investigators he would not allow them near the cellar on his property and was seen in the weeks following the girls’ disappearance with what appeared to be bags of concrete mix and limestone in the back of his pickup.

Picher is now a ghost town, with houses and businesses having been bought out by the government in the 2000s as part of the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund site.

“After the first search (of Pennington’s former property) in April, two other witnesses came forward,” said Tammy Ferrari, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation cold case agent. “That’s why we put so much emphasis on this site.”

Stansill said additional evidence is what kept him returning to Pennington’s former homestead. After Friday’s unsuccessful search, though, he said he was ready to mark the site off his list.

The search began before 10 a.m. with a team of three dogs, in addition to earth-moving equipment. The dogs spent about two hours with the team going over ground that had been excavated in April.

The dogs, who took turns searching the area, were drawn to several spots. The dog handlers with the Quapaw K9 search team and Crossroads K9 Search and Rescue from Shreveport, Louisiana, were quick to point out that those spots of interest weren’t necessarily “hits.”

For several hours, earth-moving equipment dug an area measuring about 70 feet in length, 25 feet across and 5 feet deep. The Bible family had been to the search site repeatedly in the past three weeks to help clear the property with yard equipment and chainsaws.

The heavy equipment turned up glass bottles and shards and pieces of linoleum tile in the mounds of freshly dug dirt.

The only items found in the first search in April: the bottom of a septic tank, a broken toy and an identification card.

Featured video: Investigators search Picher property for Lauria Bible’s and Ashley Freeman’s remains

Investigators search a property in Picher, Okla., for Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman, known as the Welch girls, on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. The girls have been missing since Dec. 30, 1999.


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