VINITA — The area surrounding a former mobile home site where authorities believe Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman were kept the last week of their lives will be the subject of a search by investigators and the Tulsa police dive team starting Tuesday.
The search will be centered on the former residence of Warren Phillip Welch II in the abandoned town of Picher.
Welch is implicated by prosecutors, along with David Pennington and Ronnie Busick, in the fatal shootings of Danny and Kathy Freeman and the burning of their mobile home on Dec. 30, 1999.
Authorities believe the Freemans’ daughter and her friend were kidnapped, tied up, raped and held at Welch’s mobile home for a “matter of days” before being strangled, according to an arrest affidavit filed in Busick’s case.
According to court documents, multiple witnesses have told authorities that the men threw the bodies of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible into a pit or mineshaft or dumped them in a cellar that was later covered in concrete.
For decades, mine workings and shafts have collapsed and filled with water, creating ponds that can measure up to 100 feet wide and 25 feet deep.
This week’s search will be conducted by several agencies, including the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the Quapaw Nation and District Attorney Matt Ballard’s office.
“There is no greater, or lesser, expectation that this week’s searches will result in recovery of the remains, compared to all past searches,” Ballard’s spokeswoman Michelle Lowry said in a news release Monday.
She said it is not known how long this week’s search will last.
In an earlier interview, investigator Gary Stansill said investigators continue to search for possible locations of the girls’ remains in the Picher mining field, but they have not concluded the girls are in a mine shaft.
Welch has since died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and Pennington died in a drug-related death. Busick remains in the Craig County jail on a $1 million bail charged with several counts of murder, kidnapping and arson.
Lauria and Ashley were 16 years old when they disappeared.
Busick has denied any involvement or knowledge of the whereabouts of the girls’ remains.