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Disappearance of two Okla. girls stumped police for 18 years. Then they learned about the Polaroids.

Oklahoma investigators announced April 23 the names of three men allegedly responsible for abducting and killing Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible in 1999. (Video: Oklahoma News 4)

The accused killers kept the Polaroid photos as trophies, witnesses would later tell investigators. The frozen moments were reminders of what they had done — and useful threats to anyone who was thinking about talking.

There were rumored to be about a dozen pictures, secreted away in a soft leather briefcase. In some images, the two missing 16-year-old girls were bound and gagged, thrown together on a bed, facing one another. Others showed the teens duct-taped to chairs. Although law enforcement in Oklahoma never discovered the photos, the lost images were burned into the memory of enough witnesses to serve as vital clues to unlocking a horrific cold case that had stumped investigators for 18 years.

On Dec. 30, 1999, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible vanished from the scene of a double murder and arson in rural Oklahoma, sparking a hunt stretching to Mexico and Canada.

After years of false starts and small gains, on Monday investigators announced they had finally identified three men in connection with the abduction and death of Freeman and Bible: Warren “Phil” Welch, David Pennington and Ronnie Busick.

Both Welch and Pennington are dead. Busick was arrested on Sunday in Wichita. On Wednesday, the cane-using 66-year-old was returned to Craig County to face four murder counts. He has not filed a plea, and no lawyer was listed for him. In interviews with police before his arrest, Busick denied any part in the crimes.

The 33-page arrest affidavit released by the Craig County prosecutors lays out how whispers about the Polaroids, a missing insurance card and a newly discovered box of evidence reignited a stalled case. The document provides the first detailed account of how the teens allegedly fell down a black hole of backcountry meth dealers and violent misogynists who leveraged fear to keep their crime hidden for nearly two decades.

But a key question remains unanswered: The girls’ final resting place is still unknown.

“At this time all focus is on finding Lauria and Ashley,” Bible’s family wrote on Facebook this week. “We welcome all information leading to their recovery. Until they are home with us, this will never be over.”

It started when a birthday party went horribly wrong, authorities say.

Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible were best friends living in Craig County, a rural area in Oklahoma’s northeast corner. Freeman was a basketball player; Bible a cheerleader. They had been close since kindergarten.

“Lauria and Ashley would call each other at least once a week,” Bible’s mother Lorene would later tell “Unsolved Mysteries.” “What one was thinking, the other was thinking. It’s kind of like when two people — one can finish the sentence when the other one starts one.”

Ashley turned 16 on Dec. 29, 1999, and to mark the occasion, Lauria asked her parents if she could spend the night at the Freeman mobile home.

“Lauria, she said to me, ‘Daddy, is it all right if I spend the night with Ashley in the Freemans’ home?’ ” her father recalled to “Unsolved Mysteries.” “I said, ‘Well, just make sure you’re home by noon tomorrow.’ And, noon tomorrow didn’t happen the way it should’ve.”

By the next morning — Dec. 30, 1999 — firefighters were rushing to the home. When they pulled up around 5:30 a.m., the couple’s trailer was swallowed whole by flames. Investigators would later determine the blaze was arson. Ashley’s mother, Kathy Freeman, was found inside the smoking ruin near the couple’s water bed. The back of her head had been blasted away with a shotgun.

Still missing, however, were her husband, her daughter Ashley and Lauria Bible.

According to the Tulsa World, it was originally thought that perhaps Danny Freeman had killed his wife and fled with the teenagers. But on the day after the fire, Bible’s parents walked through the crime scene looking for clues to their daughter’s disappearance. The couple noticed Danny Freeman’s Rottweiler loyally sitting near a charred piece of debris. A closer look showed it was the badly torched body of Ashley’s father. He also had been gunned down.

But the two 16-year-old girls were still missing.

The frantic days after the disappearance produced no sign of the girls.

Searches of a nearby lake, mine shaft and water-filled quarry were fruitless, Tulsa World reported. As the years piled up, promising leads burned out into hoaxes. At least two convicted killers — Tommy Lee Sells and Jeremy Jones — confessed to the crime but later recanted.

The missing girls were featured on national television programs such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Vanished: With Beth Holloway.” The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released age-progressed photos of the girls.

The Bibles refused to take apart their Christmas tree after Lauria went missing, hoping one day she would return home and the family could pull down the holiday decorations together. In 2006, the tree fell apart.

But according to the recently released court documents, in the world of prairie meth cookers and users, among lives bouncing between homes and violent relationships and jail stints, there was little question about what had happened to the girls. That was because so many people had seen the Polaroids.

Phil Welch was allegedly a Bible hymn-singing “meth cooker,” according to witnesses who have recently spoken to police, a man also described by others as “evil” but given to breaking into unhinged “preaching rants.” Pennington was a “king pin,” another witness told investigators. Both had previous criminal records before the December 1999 incident.

In the scenario alleged by prosecutors, Welch, Pennington and Busick came to the Freeman trailer to settle a “bad drug deal.” Witnesses told police that after killing the couple, the three suspects decided to “take the girls and have fun with them,” according to the affidavit.

Another individual told police the girls were held for a “matter of days” at Welch’s trailer and were “raped and violently strangled to die.” The men allegedly said “if they wouldn’t have taken off running . . . they would still be alive.” The bodies, police allege, were “thrown in a pit.”

A former girlfriend of Welch’s told investigators that when she lived with him in the months after the murders and disappearance, the alleged meth cooker actually decorated the walls of his trailer with the missing posters promising $50,000 for information about the girls.

Then there were the Polaroids.

The girlfriend told police she discovered them after Welch was jailed for beating her a few months after the Freeman murders. Welch kept the photos in a leather briefcase, she told police. She “was certain the girls in the Polaroids were the same two girls identified in the reward poster,” according to the affidavit. The photos showed the girls bound and gagged and lying on a bed. According to the police affidavit, Welch’s girlfriend “reported she recognized the bed as being the one that was in her and Welch’s bedroom.”

The girlfriend threw the photos in the trunk of an abandoned car at the trailer, then fled to a friend’s house. When Welch got out of jail, he phoned the girlfriend, demanding to know where the Polaroids were. He told her he knew she had seen them. “Don’t you ever tell anybody or you will end up in a pit . . . like those two girls,” he allegedly threatened.

Another witness told police Welch and Pennington had tried to show him the pictures years after the crime, shoving them in his face: “Here, look,” he said. They acted as if they were “proud” of the images. A different individual described walking in on the three men looking at the photos together, which they quickly covered up when the witness entered the room.

One of the keys to pushing the case toward arrests arrived in February 2017. Craig County Sheriff Office discovered a box of documents related to the investigation, which was handed over to the current team pulling at leads. The box pointed investigators to new witnesses, many of whom told investigators about a pair of private detectives who had worked the case in the early days.

The investigators eventually tracked down one of these detectives, Tom Pryor, who unfortunately no longer had his files on the case. He did, however, have one item: an insurance card found at the scene on the day after the Freemans were killed. The card belonged to a woman who happened to be living then with Welch. He often drove her car. The insurance card put Welch at the crime scene.

“The man charged with murder and the other two men mentioned but now deceased were all names we have had for years from tips received,” the Bible family wrote this week on Facebook. “The Polaroids mentioned, we’ve known about for years. None of this information was new to us, although seeing it on paper made it real for us. ”

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