Crime author and investigator Jax Miller and former police investigator Sarah Cailean turn their attention to a 20-year-old cold case as intriguing and twisted as any crime series on TV. 16-Year-old best friends Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman disappeared in December 1999 after Ashley’s family trailer was burnt to the ground with Ashley’s mom, Kathy, and dad, Danny, murdered inside. The girls were never found.

Jax found the case so intriguing that she spent 5 years investigating before going on to write a book about it, titled The Dawn’s Early Light (released in August this year). In the meantime, Jax and Sarah’s 4-episode investigation series reveals how they uncovered the truth behind rumours of a cover-up, appalling police negligence, and political corruption in Oklahoma.

Never give up

While local police might have hit a wall after an extensive manhunt that included searches of local lakes, mine shafts and woodlands, Jax notes that the families involved, particularly Lauria’s mother, Lorene Bible, never gave up and kept advocating for the girls – or their bodies – to be found and brought home.

“I love the way the family handled this, and was struck how they handled it over the years,” says Jax. “It changed me, and helped me grow in the process. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to see the case evolve through the family’s eyes.”

During her research process and investigation after meeting the families, she found herself unable to turn away. “I figured I would come to Oklahoma, interview some people, write a book and move on. It was a cold case, and I figured that it would remain a cold case. Little did I know that this would go in directions I did not anticipate in the least,” she says. “I didn’t expect to get as close as I have with the families. I was so impressed by the way Lorene and the others just kept fighting, against what seemed impossible odds, to find out what happened to their daughters. And I was so struck by their good, cool-headed stoicism and the focus they have to see justice done. I felt greatly humbled just to be a small part of this crusade – there’s really no other word for it.”

Jax was sitting at the airport after her first research trip when she realised that she couldn’t leave. “The family didn’t have the luxury of leaving, so why should I? I thought, as long as they were going through it, I would see it through with them,” she reveals.

Piecing the puzzle

During Jax’s research, the truly unexpected happened: new evidence came to light, new suspects were named, and there was an arrest and a conviction thanks to the work of investigators hired by the families: Tammy Ferrari and Gary Stansill.

3 men were linked to the crime: Warren Philip Welch II (died in 2007), David A. Pennington (died in 2015) and the one man left alive to tell the tale, Ronnie Dean Busick, went on trial following his arrest in 2018. Witnesses had claimed years back that the men had bragged about murdering the girls and had even taken photos of themselves with the girls while they were bound and gagged. So why did it take so long to make an arrest?

In April 2018, the Bible family released a statement on their Find Lauria Bible-BBI Facebook page: “For more than 18 years, we have searched for Lauria and Ashley. We have never stopped. People have not felt comfortable reaching out to law enforcement for obvious reasons, so in the days following this tragic event, we began our own investigation. Lorene vowed to leave no stone unturned. She became the voice of Lauria and Ashley. 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. Three years ago, we began our Facebook page and the doors flew open. Shortly after that time, Tammy Ferrari and Gary Stansill were assigned to our case. They began a work that no one before them had done. We had so much information to turn over to them, and they took every piece of it seriously.

“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 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. For those of you questioning if ‘the crate’ found by Craig County Sheriff’s Office led to the arrest… the answer is NO! The Bibles along with Tammy and Gary had been working this angle of the case even before the new administration for Craig County took over in 2017. That crate did offer up a few more pieces of this very large puzzle. Why did it take so long? This is a very in-depth case and it simply took that long for all of the pieces to connect. The end result of our family working with Tammy, Gary and the DA’s Office has led to the arrest and now extradition of Ronnie Busick.”

To find out more about the crime, the clues, the botched investigation and corruption within the police force, the mysterious crate and how it all came together at the trial, tune in to Hell In The Heartland: What Happened To Ashley and Lauria?

Watch Hell In The Heartland: What Happened To Ashley and Lauria? S1 from Wednesday, 23 September on Lifetime (DStv 131) at 21:00

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