Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman
By Max McCoy
Globe Investigative Writer
Jay and Lorene Bible:
Parents of 16-year-old Lauria Bible, who disappeared along with Ashley Freeman on Dec. 30, 1999. The Bibles say the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has bungled the case of the missing girls.
Missing since Dec. 30, 1999, when she spent the night with her best friend, Ashley Freeman, at the Freeman home west of Welch. Lauria was a 16-year-old student at Bluejacket High School.
Mother of Kathy Tracy Freeman, and grandmother of Shane and Ashley Freeman.
Craig County sheriff’s investigator in 1999. He resigned in August 2000 after failing to obtain state police certification because he lacked a General Educational Development certificate.
A nurse at Craig General Hospital in Vinita, she was shot to death at work Oct. 6, 2001, by former mental patient Ricky Martin. A friend of the Freeman family, Dorsey had just returned from the Los Angeles taping of a talk-show pilot on the Welch murders.
Missing since Dec. 30, 1999, the day after her 16th birthday, when her parents were murdered and the family home was set on fire. A student at Welch High School, she worked at a local convenience store and was saving money to buy a car.
Father of Shane and Ashley Freeman. Until his body was found Dec. 31, 1999, in his burned trailer home, he had been the initial suspect in the slaying of his wife and the disappearance of his daughter and her friend.
Mother of Shane and Ashley Freeman. She was found dead in the ashes of the family home on Dec. 30, 1999.
• Shane Freeman: The 17-year-old son of Danny and Kathy Freeman who had developed a taste for burglary and stolen cars. He was killed Jan. 8, 1999, after he reportedly pointed a pistol at Craig County sheriff’s Deputy David Hayes.
• David Hayes: The Craig County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed Shane Freeman on Jan. 8, 1999, apparently in self-defense. Hayes left the department in October 2000.
• Mark Hayes: Craig County undersheriff in 1999, and David Hayes’ brother.
• Gene Haynes: District attorney for the 11th Judicial District, which takes in Craig, Mayes and Rogers counties in Oklahoma. His office ruled the shooting of Shane Freeman justifiable.
• Jim Herman: Craig County sheriff’s deputy in 1999 and currently. During the taping of a talk-show pilot in October 2001, Herman said he believed Ashley Freeman was involved in the murder of her parents.
• Jeremy Hurst: Ashley Freeman’s boyfriend. He was the last to see the Freeman family alive, between 9:30 and 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 29, 1999.
• Kym Koch: Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation public information officer. She says the OSBI was at fault in not immediately finding Danny Freeman’s body in the trailer, but that the agency did not bungle the investigation by releasing the scene before his body was found in the ashes.
• Ricky Martin: A former high school football star with a long history of mental illness. He walked into Craig General Hospital on Oct. 6, 2001, and killed Freeman family friend DeAnna Dorsey.
• Steve Nutter: The lead Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent in the Welch case. He has been with the OSBI since 1997, and says he has 25 years of investigative experience.
• Tommy Lynn Sells: Serial murderer currently on Death Row in Texas. He says he is responsible for the Freeman murders, but he won’t give details. He may or may not be lying, according to investigators who know him.
• Jimmie L. Sooter: Current Craig County sheriff. He took office in January 2001.
• Steven Ray Thacker: An early suspect in the Welch case because he was on the run at the time. Now on Death Row in Tennessee for the murder of a tow truck driver, Thacker was in the Springfield, Mo., area the day of the Freeman killings. He also is charged with murders in Oklahoma and Missouri.
• Dwayne Vancil: Danny Freeman’s half brother. He says the truth has never been told about the killing of his nephew, Shane Freeman.
• George Vaughn: Craig County sheriff at the time of the shooting death of Shane Freeman and the murder of his parents, Danny and Kathy.
A wreath frames a photograph of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible, part of a memorial erected at the gate to the property where Danny and Kathy Freeman were killed in December 1999. The girls were missing from the murder scene and have not been seen since. The families are offering a $50,000 reward for information that might lead them to the girls.
Part Two: The feud
By Max McCoy
Globe Investigative Writer
Because an officer was involved in the shooting, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation was called in. In such cases, according to OSBI spokeswoman Kym Koch, the bureau gathers evidence but does not make a determination as to whether the shooting is justifiable homicide. Instead, a report is given to the local district attorney’s office for a ruling.
“After receiving the final report from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, our office has ruled that the shooting of Shane Freeman by Deputy David Hayes was justifiable,” said Clint Ward, assistant Craig County district attorney, as reported in a local newspaper.
“Mr. Freeman had committed numerous felonies, he was armed, and he ignored numerous verbal warnings to drop his weapon,” Ward said. “After pulling his weapon on Mr. Hayes, (the deputy) had no option but to shoot.”
Ward said officers are trained to shoot to kill in such situations, and not simply to wound. Wounding a suspect, he said, would not stop the threat of someone intending lethal harm.
Vaughn, the sheriff, never spoke to the family again about the shooting, Vancil said.
The shooting became something of a political lightning rod in Craig County. Soon, there were signs along Highway 2, from Vinita to Welch, that read, “Justice for Shane.”
Vaughn lost the August 2000 Democratic primary to Jimmie L. Sooter, a former high school athletics coach. Sooter was elected that November by a margin of more than 3-to-1 over his Republican opponent.
Sooter ignored an Open Records Act request, filed Feb. 5 by the Globe, for the incident report and other documents related to the shooting of Shane Freeman. Sooter said it was his policy to deny all open-records inquiries. Also, he said, the records might be missing from the sheriff’s office.
On April 11, Haynes, the district attorney, released 29 pages of investigative reports on the shooting. Haynes said he believed the reports may have been lost in the changeover of administrations, but that a secretary had located them in files at Haynes’ Craig County office.
“After reviewing all the evidence available to us,” Haynes said in a letter that accompanied the reports, “my office determined that the shooting of Shane Freeman was justified. Deputy David Hayes is the only eyewitness to the shooting, and therefore his version of the incident is the only one we have. However, in my opinion, all the evidence from the crime scene and the autopsy is consistent with his version of the facts.”
Vaughn, contacted last month at his farm, said he believed Hayes had acted in self-defense in shooting Freeman. He also said there were no audio or video tapes of the incident, and that all of the files relating to the incident were present when he left office.
Koch, the OSBI public information officer, said all of the bureau’s investigative reports are closed, by state law. Reports sometimes are released by prosecuting attorneys, she said, but her office could release no information on the investigation of the Freeman shooting.
‘He wasn’t a bad kid’
School was adjourned in Welch the day that Shane Freeman’s memorial service was held at the Civic Auditorium in Welch. About 700 people attended, and the service was conducted by Bill Powell, an elder at the Kingdom Hall in Vinita.
Though neither Shane nor his parents were “religiously inclined,” as Powell puts it, Shane’s grandmother Celesta Chandler was a dedicated Jehovah’s Witness.
“She knew I had studied the Bible,” Powell said, “and knew the resurrection. She thought it would be encouraging. Now, Shane had done some things that even the kids in the high school didn’t approve of. They knew he had broken into some homes and had run off down to McAlester, and they were kind of troubled about him going to heaven.”
“But in my talk, I didn’t mention that, because it’s not our hope to go to heaven,” he said. “I tried to give them the hope that the Bible gives. There’s some people who just never had a chance in life, and that’s what the resurrection is for, to bring some of these people back. It says there in Acts 24:15 that there’s going to be a resurrection of the righteous and unrighteous.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that only 144,000 will enter heaven, but that an unlimited number will be resurrected and live forever in an earthly paradise. The human soul ceases to exist at death, they say, and the only hope for the dead is resurrection.
“We felt, OK, Shane was doing some things wrong, he doesn’t deserve to go to heaven, and yet he’s not so bad that he goes to hell,” Powell said. “He was doing some bad things, maybe, but he wasn’t a bad kid.”
At the service, Danny and Kathy Freeman were obviously distraught, Powell remembers.
“It seemed to be a real tender spot with them, whether the shooting was justified or unjustified,” he said. “Even if it were justified, of course, it would be hard to accept.”
About a month after the shooting, Celesta Chandler recalls, Danny Freeman went to a lawyer in Tahlequah to discuss a wrongful-death suit. The lawyer initially believed there might be a case, Chandler said, but later decided that he could not win because the case would depend solely on David Hayes’ testimony.
On Feb. 9, 1999, just over a month after his son’s death, Danny Freeman drove through Big Cabin, in southern Craig County, near the Mayes County line.
He was asking where David Hayes lived.
Word got back to Vinita that Freeman had been in Big Cabin inquiring about Hayes. The Craig County Sheriff’s Department stopped Freeman as he passed through Vinita on his way home to Welch, according to Celesta Chandler.
Chandler said Freeman was searched, handcuffed and taken to the Sheriff’s Department. She said he was released three hours later.
Neither David Hayes nor his brother, former Undersheriff Mark Hayes, could be reached for comment. Both left the Craig County Sheriff’s Department in October 2000, according to the county clerk’s office.
Shortly after the Vinita incident, according to both Celesta Chandler and Dwayne Vancil, sheriff’s officers began sitting in their patrol cars on the county road in front of the Freeman home. This, they believe, was meant to be a form of intimidation.
The patrol cars also were seen by Jeremy Hurst, Ashley Freeman’s boyfriend. It was a regular part of the life of the Freeman household, Hurst remembers.
The tension became so bad, according to Vancil, that Danny Freeman sent his wife and daughter to relatives in Louisiana and stayed alone at the homestead. But, instead of sleeping in the trailer, Vancil said, Freeman sometimes slept in the nearby barn, waiting.
In Louisiana, Vancil said, Kathy Freeman was supposed to be looking for a new home for the family. But she returned after three weeks, he said, because she decided it would be too expensive. She also had decided not to give in to the harassment, Vancil said.
Danny Freeman was tried March 17, 1999, on a charge of felony child abuse alleging he had used unreasonable force in disciplining his son, Shane, with the phone cord seven months earlier.
To find him guilty, the jurors were told, they would have to agree on four elements: that the whipping was done with malice, that it caused injury, that the force used was unreasonable, and that the victim was under 18.
After hearing the evidence, the jury sent Judge H.M. Wyatt III the following note:
“Judge, we are deadlocked 11-to-1 for acquittal. We need more clarification on the willful/malicious element. We all agree on the other three elements of the charge. And we need a break.”
Another note asked:
“1. Does it take a unanimous vote? 2. Can we recommend mandatory counseling?”
Yes, Wyatt sent word, a unanimous decision was required. And no, the jury couldn’t recommend mandatory counseling. That was the prerogative of the court, not the jury.
Danny Freeman was acquitted.
40 miles away
While the Freemans grappled with the loss of their son in what they believed was an unjustified shooting, 29-year-old Steven Ray Thacker was attempting to build a new life in Chouteau, about 40 miles south of Welch.
Thacker had been released eight months earlier from the Jackson Correctional Institution in Florida, a medium-security prison where he had served two years on a 4½-year sentence for motor vehicle theft and 10 counts of check fraud. He had been in prison twice before in Florida, both times for car theft.
According to Thacker, he came to Oklahoma after his release to work a construction job in Tulsa. At a bar, he met a woman named Trena. After they were married, Thacker moved to Chouteau with his wife and her two children, and began working at a fire protection service.
But a week before Christmas 1999, Thacker was laid off. Money was tight, and Thacker had trouble adjusting to married life. He now says the whirlwind romance was more a case of lust than love.
On Dec. 23, Thacker is believed to have answered an advertisement for a used pool table that had been placed by 25-year-old Laci Dawn Hill of Bixby.
Hill was never seen alive again.
Thacker became a suspect in the disappearance when a surveillance camera at a Wal-Mart in Pryor captured him using Hill’s credit cards to buy Christmas presents. He told his family his mother had wired him money, but when the surveillance tape was shown on local television, Trena Thacker recognized her husband of four months. She went to the police.
For Christmas, Ashley Freeman received money from her parents to supplement her used-car fund. Perhaps because it was the first Christmas since Shane’s death, no under-the-tree presents were exchanged.
Ashley would turn 16 on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 1999.
She had been working at Roscoe’s, a convenience store in Welch, and had managed to save enough money to buy a used car. She had been a member of the basketball team at Welch High School, but she wasn’t playing because she had injured her ankle earlier in the year. She also was a member of the National Honor Society.
Ashley frequently was at the rural Vinita home of her best friend, Lauria Bible.
Lauria, however, had stayed over at Ashley’s home only once before, according to Lauria’s parents. It may have been the tension in the Freeman family over Shane’s death that discouraged Ashley from having her friends sleep over.
Lauria Bible, 16 and already driving, had gotten makeup and fingernail polish for Christmas. She was planning to go to the local vo-tech school to become a cosmetologist.
Lauria was a cheerleader at Bluejacket High School, was a member of the Future Farmers of America, and showed stock, her favorite being pigs. She liked the metaphysical CBS drama “Touched by an Angel,” starring Roma Downey and Della Reese, and she listened to Reba McEntire and Celine Dion on CD. She also was a straight-A student, according to her mother.
For Christmas, Lauria accumulated $200 in cash from her aunts and uncles, and she put it in a new purse her parents had given her. Before then, she didn’t have a purse, and helping her keep track of her Social Security card and her driver’s license was driving the family batty. So, Lauria chose a purse that slung over her shoulder and was big enough to be noticed if she laid it down.
Lauria and Ashley had known each other for years, having first met in 4-H. They had become inseparable. And although they shared the usual up and downs of adolescents, when you ask anybody in Welch about them, the answer likely will be: “They were good girls.”
On the day that Ashley Freeman turned 16, the partially clothed body of Laci Dawn Hill was discovered under some old furniture and debris in a shack near U.S. 412, between Chouteau and Locust Grove.
She had been stabbed twice in the chest, according to the autopsy report, and both wounds had perforated a lung. She also had been strangled, and a black cloth remained knotted around her neck. She apparently had been bound to a chair. There were defensive marks on her chin, indicating she had tried to fight her attacker, and she had been raped.
Her body was discovered after a search dog found her purse in the shack.
Authorities already were looking for Steven Ray Thacker for questioning, but he had left town earlier in the week, after his father-in-law had questioned him about whether he had anything to do with Hill’s disappearance.
The manhunt was on for Thacker, who was last seen leaving Chouteau in his wife’s car, a white, four-door Pontiac Grand Am with a broken rear taillight.
“On Monday, Ashley came to our house to spend the night,” said Lorene Bible. The girls stayed at the Bible house all day Tuesday, Dec. 28, then spent the night at the Freeman home that night.
“The plan was to take Ashley out to eat, to take her shopping, and then Lauria would be home before dark,” she said. “Apparently, for whatever reason, they didn’t leave Welch (on Wednesday) until 3:30 in the afternoon.”
Ashley, Lauria and Kathy Freeman stopped at a feed store in Welch to pick up feed for Ashley’s herd of goats, according to Lorene Bible, and they said they were on their way to the Pizza Hut in Vinita.
Here is where Lorene Bible’s account differs from that of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. According to special agent Steve Nutter, the girls had Lauria’s birthday meal at Big Bill’s Barbeque, 359 N. Wilson St. in Vinita.
After pizza, Lorene Bible said, the girls — still in the company of Kathy Freeman, in her blue Toyota — went to Wal-Mart in Vinita, and then to the home of Celesta Chandler, Kathy Freeman’s mother, for water to haul to the Freeman trailer.
“The next day, on the 30th, Kathy was going to get up early in the morning and take Ashley to Grove to take her driver’s test,” Celesta Chandler said.
“They had found an examiner’s officer there that would be open. She also had found a car, but she hadn’t bought it yet.”
Chandler said she didn’t know what kind of car it was, or how much money Ashley had, but that the car was probably on an area car lot. Lorene Bible, however, recalled that the car was somewhat of a source of friction between Ashley and her father.
Ashley, Lorene Bible said, had her eye on a Chevrolet. Danny Freeman wanted her to buy a Toyota like her mother’s, because he knew how to work on those.
“But Ashley didn’t want a Toyota,” according to Lorene Bible. “Because it was the first Christmas without their son, Shane, Ashley said it was pretty rough. Instead of going and buying stuff for Ashley, they gave her money, so she could put it toward a car. Ashley told me that her money was in a savings account. She had $900, I believe, and I think her father gave her another $200 for Christmas.”
But her boyfriend, Jeremy Hurst, said Ashley had never put her car fund in a bank account. Instead, he said, it was wrapped up in the deep freeze, sealed up in Tupperware, nestled among the frozen meat. And, Hurst recalled, Ashley told him she had much more than $1,200. All told, he said, she may have had $3,000 or $4,000.
In addition to taking Ashley to get her driver’s license, Chandler said, Kathy Freeman also had plans to visit the Craig County Courthouse on Dec. 30.
“There is a limited amount of time to file a civil suit,” Chandler said, “and she was going to check on that. She had already gotten Shane’s jeans and shoes and a few other things that the county had.”
Lorene Bible recalls: “On the way from (Chandler’s house), they said, ‘It’s late. Why don’t we just stop at Lauria’s house and ask if we could stay the night?’ I hadn’t made it home from work yet, but Jay was home. She (Lauria) asked if she could stay another night (with the Freemans).”
Jay Bible gave his permission, as long as Lauria didn’t miss an appointment with the dentist the next day.
“As they were coming out, I was coming home, and I stopped,” Lorene Bible said. “Lauria said, ‘Daddy said I could stay another night.’ I said, ‘Well, make sure not to forget, we have dentist appointments in the morning.’ Then she said, ‘Mom, I love you. Bye.’ And that was it.”
It was the last thing Lauria Bible ever told her mother.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 29, Steven Ray Thacker is believed by authorities to have answered an ad for a used car. He allegedly asked the woman selling the car to meet him in the parking lot of a Springfield, Mo., pharmacy for a test drive.
Thacker had spent the night, he said, in a motel in Springfield.
When the woman brought her red Pontiac Grand Am to the drugstore lot, Thacker allegedly stole it at gunpoint, leaving the woman behind but taking off with her 2-year-old daughter and a 79-year-old friend still inside.
Thacker’s wife’s Grand Am was found in the lot.
Thacker released the passengers on a dirt road north of Springfield and continued his flight. By this time, the Missouri State Highway Patrol was pursuing the stolen vehicle.
West of Stockton, at the intersection of Missouri 32 and Cedar County Route A, the red Grand Am ran off the road and crashed.
The driver fled into the woods.
For days, highway patrolmen and other lawmen would search, without success, the area around Stockton Lake for Thacker.
Last birthday gift
Jeremy Hurst, Ashley’s boyfriend, is the last person known to have seen the Freemans and Lauria Bible. He arrived about 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 29, to bring Ashley her birthday present: a heart-shaped pendant with her birthstone, on a silver chain, that he had purchased at Wal-Mart. She already was wearing his class ring, Bluejacket High School, class of 2000.
Nothing much was happening at the trailer, according to Hurst. The family was watching hunting shows on television. Ashley was wearing blue jeans and a sweater, and he doesn’t remember what Lauria was wearing.
Hurst said he left about 9:30 p.m.
Dwayne Vancil, however, believes that Hurst arrived after 9 p.m. and left about 10:30 p.m. Vancil said that Danny Freeman had received a call from their father, chatted about hunting and fishing, and then hung up when he saw car headlights he believed to be his wife and the girls approaching the trailer about 9 p.m.
There is no record of the Freemans placing any calls from the trailer that night, according to the OSBI.
Vancil also said that Hurst accompanied Kathy Freeman and the girls to a convenience store in Welch at about 10 p.m.
Now 21 and working for Twin Rivers Cattle and Grain in Miami, Hurst is a soft-spoken young man who has had to deal with survivor’s guilt. He’s dealt with weight loss and depression. Frequently, he ponders what would have happened had he stayed later.
Could he have saved them?
“I’d probably be dead too,” he concludes.
Part Three: Missing
By Max McCoy
Globe Investigative Writer
At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 30, 1999, a neighbor driving to work spotted the Freeman trailer on fire. It was still an hour before sunrise, and it was cold; the National Weather Service reports that the low was 39 degrees, with a 7-mph wind.
The Welch Volunteer Fire Department responded, but by the time the crews reached the scene, the trailer was ablaze.
Lorene Bible was at the McDonald’s in downtown Vinita, one of three she managed.
“I meant to call to remind Lauria about the dentist, but I didn’t,” she said. “About 10 till 8, my son called, and he said (someone) had just called him and said Danny and Kathy’s house was on fire. I did call then, but the phone just rang.”
Five minutes later, Deputy Troy Messick walked into the restaurant.
“I said ‘Hi,’ and he said that we needed to talk,” Bible said. “I said, “Oh, God, I thought you had come to take me away from here.’”
The joke referred to the number of hours she spent at work.
They went into her office.
“His face was just totally blank,” she said. “He said, ‘Lorene, the house is totally gone. We found one body.’ He told me it was in the front bedroom.”
Bible shared what she remembered of the layout of the house with Messick, and he left, promising to call if he learned anything new.
Bible called her husband, Jay, at the NAPA store in Langley. Jay Bible came to Vinita, and together they went to the home of Celesta Chandler.
“I told her that Danny and Kathy’s trailer was on fire, and it just freaked her out,” Lorene Bible said. “She’s trying to find Bill (her husband), because he’s gone to a church meeting.”
When the Bibles arrived at the trailer, the fire was out and the scene was marked off with yellow evidence tape. Donna Warren, the medical examiner from Vinita, told the Bibles that one body had been found: a woman with a ring on her left hand, believed to be Kathy Freeman.
“Warren said they had searched it all,” Lorene Bible said, “and not found anyone else.”
Local authorities waited for OSBI agent Steve Nutter to arrive. He did, at 2 p.m., according to Lorene Bible. By the time Kathy Freeman’s body was removed from the rubble, it was 4 p.m.
“While this was going on, a tip was called in to the Sheriff’s Department that Danny and the girls had been seen in a white Ford truck at 7 a.m., but they didn’t say anything to us yet,” Lorene Bible said. “Jay (Bible) and Dwayne Vancil checked the creek behind the trailer, and walked the entire 40 acres. After 4 p.m., some friends brought over some horses and helped search.”
By 6 p.m., Lorene Bible remembers, authorities again said there were no other bodies in the trailer.
According to an autopsy conducted that afternoon by Distefano, 37-year-old Kathy Freeman, who was positively identified by dental records, had been killed by a single shotgun blast to the head. The body also was severely charred.
She had been found nude, lying face-down on what remained of a water bed in her bedroom, with her intestines spilled beside her. The close-range shotgun blast had shattered her skull and carried away most of her face, and left a few pellets of birdshot in the remaining brain tissue.
Her stomach was empty, and her bladder contained no urine. Her blood tested negative for ethyl alcohol and for carbon monoxide, indicating that she was dead before the fire started.
The time of death was estimated at 5 a.m.
Although most of the trailer was destroyed, the floor of the bedroom where Danny and Kathy Freeman slept remained relatively intact, perhaps because of the dousing effect from the hundred or so gallons of water released when their water bed burst from the heat.
Otherwise, Lorene Bible recalls, it seemed that an accelerant had been used, especially in the area around the kitchen table. There, she said, the burn pattern was denser and darker, making a perfect oval.
“Whoever did it started in the front room, and they doused in front of that stove, and they wanted to make it look like the wood stove started that fire,” she said.
The state fire marshal’s office declined to discuss the case.
The theory that first day, according to Lorene Bible, was that Danny Freeman had killed his wife, and abducted his daughter and her best friend. But, the problem with that theory was that all of the vehicles — Danny Freeman’s 1990 flatbed GMC truck, Kathy Freeman’s 1988 Toyota Corolla, and Lauria Bible’s car, a dark blue Chevrolet Cavalier — were in the driveway.
Lauria’s car even had the keys in it.
“When they couldn’t find the girls, they asked me what I thought,” Lorene Bible said. “The first thing, I said, it was drug-related. The second thing, it was done from within the house. Well, the girls aren’t accounted for, so maybe the girls did it. The third thing, maybe somebody came in and it was randomly done. But they decided it wasn’t random, because of how remote the location is.”
Robbery was ruled out, partly because Lorene Bible had found her daughter’s purse inside the trailer, against a wall. Inside were her Social Security card and her driver’s license. Lorene Bible said most of the $200 Lauria had taken from home was accounted for, but the OSBI says only $40 was found.
If Ashley Freeman had been keeping her used-car money at home, none of it was found.
The Bibles were taken to the Sheriff’s Department that night and interviewed separately. Later, they drove back to the crime scene. They were shocked to find that authorities had posted no security around it.
“It was pitch black, no moon, nothing,” Lorene Bible said. “All I know is that my daughter is supposed to be in that house.”
Vancil said that Nutter, the OSBI agent, gave him a copy of the search warrant and released the scene to him about 5:30 p.m. that day. Nutter said investigators were done with the scene, and that Vancil could do whatever he wished with the property.
Vancil also said Nutter told him there had been a report that Danny Freeman and the girls had been seen in a white truck at a cabin about two miles to the northwest, where Danny had grown up.
Vancil said he wanted to check it out right away, because if it was indeed Danny, he knew he was one of the few people his half brother would talk to.
Nutter said it would be better to wait until morning, Vancil said, and suggested that Vancil call him when he was ready.
Vancil said he spent the night at the murder scene, thinking that his half brother or one of the girls might return. He saw nothing, he said, not even a sheriff’s patrol car.
The second body
At 6 a.m. the next day, the Bibles were back at the scene, determined to search the remains of the trailer for any clues that might help them locate their daughter. After just five minutes of looking, they found the body of Danny Freeman. The outline of the body was quite clear in the rubble.
Ashley Freeman’s dog, Sissy, had stayed beside the body all night. When the dog got up, recalled Jay Bible, it revealed what was left of Danny’s head.
The body was in the bedroom, as Kathy Freeman’s had been, but it was partially beneath a piece of carpet. Danny Freeman, 40, had died of a shotgun blast to the head, and no shotgun was found within arm’s reach.
His body was severely charred. His lower right leg, his hands and forearms were missing, and his intestines were exposed. Remnants of clothing were found with the body: men’s briefs, a portion of the waistband of sweat pants, a shirt and sneakers.
The face above the upper teeth was missing, Lorene Bible said, but one could immediately tell it was the body of a man.
“All the water had leaked out of the water bed, and the mattress had covered up his feet,” Lorene Bible said. “People had stepped on him, and he had footprints on his torso and on his legs. Steve Nutter was probably standing on him at one point. When they took Kathy off the bed, they did some more walking on him.”
Much of Danny Freeman’s head was absent, according to the autopsy performed later by Distefano, and there was an antemortem fracture of the left jaw, perhaps a result of the shotgun blast. Most of the shotgun pellets recovered were from this area. Also, he noted, the right collarbone had been fractured before death.
Jay and Lorene Bible were stunned that the crime scene had been released by authorities while there was still a body to be found.
“After we found it, I went to the car and had to drive half a mile up the hill to get reception on my cell phone to call 911,” Lorene Bible said.
While waiting on sheriff’s deputies, they met up with Vancil and told him they had found the body of Danny Freeman. Vancil said the witness who supposedly saw Freeman and the girls in a white truck was mistaken; it was just some hunters nearby with a white travel trailer.
“Troy Messick, the deputy they sent out to the scene, gets on the radio and tells the office, ‘What I was sent here to do is affirmative,’” Lorene Bible said. “So in comes the rest of the Sheriff’s Department and the OSBI, and they bring in other people. And they tell us we have to get out of the scene.”
Lorene Bible paused.
“I said, ‘Excuse me. I stood down that road yesterday and let you guys do your job. There were nine of you people who told me that you were 100 percent sure there wasn’t another body in here. So, we ain’t leaving today until we take this sucker to the ground.’”
High-intensity lights were brought over from the Vinita fire station, and somebody brought in some saws and cut through the trailer’s axles. Investigators began to sift the rubble.
They found bones — not human — believed to have come from the mounted deer heads on the trailer walls. A handful of arrowheads and shards were found, and investigators said most of the pieces in Danny Freeman’s collection shattered during the fire.
Family members don’t believe such a large collection of flint points could simply have been destroyed. They believe the arrowheads were stolen.
“Tons of guns” also were found in the house, recalls Lorene Bible, perhaps as many as 12 or 14 shotguns and rifles
“They never told us if they found the shotgun that was used,” she said. “I know they took a lot of guns out that first day. They were out in the yard the second day, and four months later the guns were still there, laying in the yard.”
Even Ashley had guns in her bedroom, according to Lorene Bible, and about a week before she had dropped a buck at 150 yards. Her boyfriend, Hurst, helped her carry it up to the house.
With two murder victims having been found in the trailer, suspicion now shifted to the girls. Still, even the new theory didn’t make a lot of sense. Neither Ashley nor Lauria seemed capable of murder, and if they had run away, why had they left Lauria’s money, her identification and her car?
The Bibles spent New Year’s Eve 1999, along with law enforcement personnel, sifting through the burned rubble of the Freeman trailer, looking for further clues. It was cold, Jay Bible recalls, and neither he nor his wife had the proper gloves for the work. Afterward, they became sick from the cold and the stress.
Volunteers began to show up. They came on foot, on horseback and on all-terrain vehicles to help with the search. Lauria’s and Ashley’s classmates showed up, as did Hurst. By Saturday, New Year’s Day, there were 500 people helping.
“We had a grid map, and we sent them off in every direction,” Lorene Bible said. “We were still waiting for the OSBI to release a statement on the missing girls, to get the word out, and for them to put them on the missing persons list on the National Crime Information Center computer. It was all very frustrating.”
The New Year came, but with it little hope.
Meanwhile, Steven Ray Thacker had found another set of wheels.
On Dec. 30, Thacker allegedly broke into the home of 24-year-old Forrest Boyd of Aldrich, a tiny community on an arm of Stockton Lake in Polk County, Mo. Boyd was found stabbed to death, and his car — which had a broken gas gauge — was missing.
A credit card belonging to Boyd was used twice the following morning on the other side of the state in Sikeston, Mo.
On Sunday, Jan. 2, 2000, Boyd’s car broke down (or, possibly, ran out of gas) in Dyersburg, Tenn. Thacker called tow truck driver Ray Patterson for help.
Patterson, 52, towed the car back to his garage. When Patterson attempted to verify the credit card that Thacker presented for payment, he discovered the card was stolen.
Thacker stabbed Patterson to death with a 5½-inch Buck hunting knife. Then he stole $1,600 in cash, 10 credit cards and an unloaded .25-caliber pistol that Patterson was carrying.
“I knew I was wanted in other states, so I just stabbed him and took off,” Thacker said in a confession. “When I stabbed him, he hunched down and kind of turned around and ran toward the garage area. He pointed the gun at me, and I hid behind some trucks. He then ran out to the gas pumps and fell.”
Thacker was arrested in Union City, Tenn., after Boyd’s car was spotted outside a Super 8 Motel. Thacker had registered under another name and had dyed his hair. He was walking out of the motel room with bags of trash when he was taken into custody.
A jury took less than two hours in February 2002 to sentence Thacker to death. He had been found guilty of first-degree murder after a five-day trial the month before in Tiptonville, Tenn.
Thacker, now on Death Row in Tennessee, also is charged with first-degree murder in Oklahoma and Missouri, and is expected to be released by Tennessee authorities to stand trial in those states.
On Friday, Jan. 7, 2000, Elder Bill Powell found himself officiating at another memorial service at the Welch Civic Auditorium. This time, it was for Danny and Kathy Freeman.
“There were about 400 there,” Powell said. “The people around Welch were really concerned. I did a very similar talk as I did with Shane, that as humans we cannot judge. But the Bible gives us hope.”
Danny and Kathy Freeman were buried in Timpson Cemetery, west of Vinita, where Shane had been buried nearly a year before.
As time passed, the theory that the girls were responsible for the deaths of Danny and Kathy Freeman lost credibility. As the weeks turned into months and the months into years, it seemed more and more unlikely that a pair of teen-age girls wouldn’t contact someone — a friend, a relative, a classmate.
Now, more than two years later, it seems likely that the girls were abducted. The chances for their survival seem slim.
But Nutter, the OSBI agent, professes hope.
“It must be assumed Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible are still alive,” he said in a prepared statement. “The investigation must always proceed with the speed of that assumption. They will be considered alive until evidence is developed to the contrary.”
During the first week of October last year, the families of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible were flown to Los Angeles by Cosgrove-Muerer Productions, producers of “Unsolved Mysteries,” for a new television pilot.
Rolanda Watts, a former television reporter who had her own show from 1995 to 1996, was host of the show, designed to probe current mysteries in a talk-show format. One of the cases the producers intended to profile was that of Chandra Levy, the Washington, D.C., intern who disappeared in 2001. But the Welch case was one of two chosen for the series pilot.
Dwayne Vancil also was on the set of “What Really Happened,” as were Katie Dorsey, a friend of the missing girls, and her mother, DeAnna Dorsey. Law enforcement was represented in the studio by Craig County sheriff’s Deputy Jim Herman, and, via a satellite link, Kym Koch of the OSBI.
It was DeAnna Dorsey, a nurse, who had comforted the Freemans the night Shane was killed.
The series never aired, explained a spokesman for the production company, because the pilot wasn’t picked up by a distributor. But, Cosgrove-Muerer released a copy of the pilot to the Globe.
The studio audience appears shocked when the sequence of events is recounted, particularly when Lorene Bible tells how her husband found the body of Danny Freeman.
Koch, on the satellite feed, admits that the OSBI made a mistake by not finding the body. She also says the strongest theory so far is that the Freemans were killed in connection with some type of drug activity. Other theories, she says, have included rumors that the girls murdered the Freemans because Ashley had been sexually abused, that the girls had been sold into white slavery, and that some Mexican nationals were responsible.
Herman, the sheriff’s deputy, says he believes Ashley Freeman will turn out to be involved, once the mystery is solved.
But Katie Dorsey disagrees.
“I feel very, very strongly that the Craig County Sheriff’s Department had everything to do with it,” she says.
Katie Dorsey says she was scheduled to spend the fateful night at the Freeman trailer, but she didn’t because she was grounded. While Katie speaks, her mother watches from the front row of the audience. If DeAnna Dorsey commented, it did not make the pilot’s final cut.
At 9:50 on the Saturday morning after returning home from the taping of the pilot, DeAnna Dorsey, 45, was shot to death at Craig General Hospital in Vinita.
A former mental patient by the name of Ricky Martin, dressed in a camouflage jacket and pants, walked into the emergency room where she worked and shot her four times in the head and once in the neck with a 9 mm handgun.
Dorsey was the only person visible at the nurses’ station at the time of the shooting, hospital administrator Joe Gunn said. She had come to the station to telephone her daughter, Katie. Martin shot her twice, then walked around the desk and fired three more times.
When police arrived, Martin had left the hospital and was standing on the roof of a car in the parking lot, reloading his pistol. When he refused to drop his gun, Vinita police officers Mike Langley and Jesse Shook both fired.
Martin was killed instantly. An autopsy revealed he had been hit with five shotgun pellets, including one that penetrated his right lung and his heart. He had not been drinking, and no drugs were found in his blood.
Martin, 47, was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had been a patient at Eastern State Hospital in Vinita, before the hospital downsized and began providing mainly outpatient treatment.
Martin’s address at the time was unknown, but authorities believed he had been living at a YMCA in downtown Tulsa and receiving outpatient treatment at Parkside Hospital there. About the time Martin left Tulsa, the state’s contract with Parkside was canceled over a money dispute.
Martin’s father was a former administrator of Craig General Hospital, and Ricky Martin had been a star running back in high school who received a football scholarship to East Central University at Ada. His college dreams were shattered, however, when a head-on accident in Vinita severed the tendons in his arm.
His motive for shooting DeAnna Dorsey was unknown, according to the autopsy report, and it noted there apparently was no relationship between the two.
Sooter, the Craig County sheriff, said he’d had Ricky Martin in class when Sooter was a high school coach. He described the Dorsey murder as the worst crime scene he’d witnessed. There wasn’t a clue to a motive, he said, other than perhaps Martin’s anger at the downsizing of the mental hospital in Vinita, and there were no known links to the Welch murder case.
The streets of Vinita, he said, are home to many of the mentally ill who had been treated at Eastern State Hospital.
Two weeks after the shooting of DeAnna Dorsey, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating asked state health officials to conduct a “full-scale review.” A governor’s task force concluded in December 2001 that the shooting was an isolated incident and unrelated to the downsizing of Eastern State Hospital.
“DeAnna Dorsey was our No. 1 witness,” Dwayne Vancil said. “She was there when the Sheriff’s Department came to tell Kathy and Danny that Shane was dead, and she knew a lot. Her death was definitely suspicious. I’m not convinced it was random.”
Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible are featured on the FBI’s “Kidnapping and Missing Persons Investigations” Web site, along with Chandra Levy and 23 other individuals. Those having information about the girls are asked to contact the nearest FBI office, and the site includes a link to the location of field offices.
“We’re providing assistance to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and I’d say they are the lead agency,” said Gary Johnson, an FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City.
“We’re still working with them on this case, side by side,” he said. “As far as I know, the well is unfortunately still dry on that one. We’re still trying hard and hoping for new leads, and we’re glad for any publicity that you guys put on that case to keep it fresh in the public’s mind, so hopefully anybody with information will come forward on this.”
The girls aren’t even listed among the 17 unsolved cases on the OSBI site, and the murders of Danny and Kathy Freeman aren’t mentioned.
Koch, the OSBI spokeswoman, said the omission was an oversight.
“Because of everything we’ve heard and all of the stuff we know now,” Lorene Bible said, “our daughter would never have been in that house that night. But hindsight is 20/20.”
Lorene Bible is sitting in the back room of her husband’s NAPA shop in Langley, amid boxes of auto parts. Chairs are in short supply, and Jay Bible crouches on the floor as he participates in the conversation, but he leaves frequently to tend the front counter.
Lorene Bible is now 41, her husband 45.
Lauria and her best friend, Ashley, would be 18 and graduating from high school this spring.
Lorene Bible has brought a stack of photo albums with photos of the girls, and some of the photos have burned edges.
They had been salvaged from the trailer fire.
The morning after the Freeman trailer was discovered burning, Tommy Lynn Sells was breaking into a mobile home in the Texas border town of Del Rio. It was New Year’s Eve, and what most of us (mathematicians excluded) would consider the last day of the 20th century.
Sells had spent the night of Dec. 30 at Larry’s Lakeside Tavern, according to testimony that would later be introduced in court, and he reportedly had been obsessed with having sex with the bartender, a woman named Noell Houchin. She rebuffed him, and Sells was thrown out when the bar closed at 2 a.m.
Sells left the bar and broke into the mobile home of Crystal and Terry Harris, a couple who had befriended him at Grace Community Church. They lived in Guajia Bay, just outside of town. In 1995, the Harrises had moved to Del Rio from Cherryvale, Kan.
Earlier, Terry Harris had run into Sells at a convenience store, and Sells had asked him about the luggage in his car. Terry Harris told him he was taking an overnight trip to Kansas.
Sells knew there would be no man in the house.
Krystal Surles, a 10-year-old family friend from Thayer, Kan., awoke in a top bunk to find a wild-looking, bearded man below with her friend, Kaylene Harris. He was behind her, with a hand over her mouth and a knife to her throat.
“She was struggling, and she told me with her eyes to stay there and not to move, so I did,” Krystal later testified.
The man cut 13-year-old Kaylene’s throat.
“She started making really bad noises, like she was gagging for air but couldn’t get any breath because of all the blood,” Krystal said.
Then the man turned to Krystal.
“I told him, ‘I’ll be quiet, I promise. I’m not making any noise. I won’t say nothing. It’s Katy making the noise.’ He reached over and cut my throat,” she said. “I just laid there and pretended I was dead.”
Although Krystal’s vocal cords were cut, she wasn’t dead. After she heard the man start his car and leave, she went to a neighbor’s house for help. Unable to speak, she scribbled a plea of help for the Harrises and then asked a question with a pencil and a piece of paper:
“Will I live?”
From the hospital, Krystal was able to draw a sketch of the family friend who had attacked her and killed her friend.
Sells was arrested Sunday, Jan. 2, at the mobile home at American Campground that he shared with his wife, Jessica Levrie, and her four children.
Kaylene Harris was buried in Fairview Cemetery in the family hometown of Cherryvale.
At the time of the killing, Sells was working as a mechanic for Amigo Auto Sales, but he had a checkered history as a carnival mechanic and drifter. He had ridden the rails, especially in his younger days or when he needed to get out of town fast. He had returned from a trip to Mexico on Dec. 27, according to authorities, but his whereabouts between then and the evening of Dec. 30 are unaccounted for.
According to authorities, Sells was waiting on the Sunday he was arrested for the banks to open the next day, so he could cash a check from the sale of his disabled red Dodge Express pickup. Once he got the money, he planned to leave town.
As Val Verde County sheriff’s Investigator Larry Pope was taking Sells to jail after his arrest, Sells began to talk. Some have suggested that Sells may have had a religious conversion in the days between the killing of Kaylene Harris and his arrest that morning, but whatever the reason, Sells began to unburden himself.
Of murder after murder.
Men, women and children.
With guns, knifes and baseball bats.
It took months for Pope and Texas Ranger John Allen to track down every crime to which Sells confessed.
Some were horrific, such as the November 1987 slaughter of the Dardeen family in Ina, Ill.
Russell Keith Dardeen, 29, apparently picked Sells up a truck stop and took him home to his family’s trailer. At some point, he and Sells went back out. Sells killed him, then returned to the home.
Sells beat to death Ruby Dardeen and her 3-year-old son, Peter, with a baseball bat. Ruby Dardeen was pregnant, and when she delivered during the beating, Sells beat the newborn boy to death as well.
Russell Dardeen was found by hunters in a nearby wheat field. Three bullets had been pumped into his head, and his penis had been sliced off.
The only time that Sells wasn’t committing murder was during the stretches he spent in prison, mostly for assault and car theft. Sells says he has committed more than 50 murders, which would make him one of the most prolific murderers in American history.
But Texas authorities are taking the conservative approach with Sells, perhaps because of the legacy of another self-confessed multiple murderer, Henry Lee Lucas. In the 1980s, Lucas claimed to have committed more than 600 murders across the country. Although 200 murders would be “cleared” by hopeful investigators who believed his stories, authorities now believe Lucas made up most of the confessions.
Unfortunately, in many cases the Lucas confessions were red herrings that kept investigators from pursuing the real killers.
All told, Lucas probably killed only three people: his mother, his girlfriend and an 82-year-old woman. Lucas probably didn’t even commit the crime that landed him on Texas Death Row: the 1979 rape and murder of a female drifter known only as “Orange Socks.”
In 1998, the attorney general of Texas determined that Lucas could not have killed “Orange Socks.” Then-Gov. George W. Bush commuted his death sentence to life.
Lucas died in prison in March 2001.
There is little doubt, however, that Tommy Lynn Sells has committed far more real murders than Lucas ever did. Authorities feel confident that Sells is responsible for 17 murders, including some in Missouri and Oklahoma.
In 1985, Sells is believed to have beaten to death Ena Cordt, 28, and her 4-year-old son, Rory. Their bodies were found on the floor of their trailer home in Forsyth, Mo.
Sells claims he was paid in drugs for the killings.
In 1997, Sells waited outside the Springfield, Mo., apartment of 13-year-old Stephanie Mahaney, then abducted her after the adults left. Her body was found floating in a farm pond a month later. Authorities believes Sells’ confession is credible because he knew the design that was on her nightshirt.
Sells says he found Mahaney by chance. He says his car was overheating because of a bad water pump, and that he pulled off Interstate 44 into her Springfield neighborhood.
In July 1999, Sells met 14-year-old Bobbi Lynn Wofford at a convenience store near Kingfisher, Okla. He gave her a lift in his red Dodge Express truck.
Her skeletal remains were found months later in a ravine beside an open field. She had been shot once in the head, with the entrance wound near the left temple.
She was identified by DNA analysis, and Sells was positively linked to the crime by a pair of earrings he had taken from her body.
Sells’ other killings range from Nevada to West Virginia and cover a 20-year span. He says he was always high on drugs or alcohol during the crimes, and that the reason he didn’t get caught until so late in the game is because he never left witnesses.
Sells, currently on Death Row in Texas, has been convicted of only two killings: the Dec. 31, 1999, slaying of Kaylene “Katy” Harris, and the April 1999 murder of 9-year-old Mary Bea Perez, who was abducted from the Fiesta celebration in San Antonio and choked to death.
Sells was convicted of the Perez murder on his word alone. No forensic evidence was found to corroborate his confession.
Because he seems like one of a handful of killers known to law enforcement who would be capable of entering a trailer home and wiping out an entire family while leaving few clues to motive, did the OSBI consider Sells as a suspect in the Welch murders?
“No one has been ruled out as a suspect, (including) Tommy Lynn Sells,” responded agent Nutter, through the OSBI spokeswoman. “However, he is not high on the list of possible suspects simply because it is highly unlikely anyone would have been able to accidentally arrive at the Freeman residence.
“It was located in a remote area of Craig County, albeit only a couple of miles from a little-used highway. The residence was not close to any rail lines. No connection has been discovered between Sells and the Freeman family, and (this) was looked for early in the investigation.”
But during an interview on Death Row in March, Sells said he was responsible for killing the Freeman family.
On Death Row
It could be a jailhouse game, of course.
Or, there is a slim chance Sells could be telling the truth.
When Sells first began confessing after being picked up for the murder of Kaylene Harris, according to authorities, he was polite and coherent, and he claimed he was seeking “closure.” Sells was praised for his veracity. But after clearing the first dozen or so cases, it became harder for Sells to remember details of his crimes, which were committed in a drug and alcohol haze. Sells and his investigators were surprised when one shooting victim he thought he had killed answered the door to a home in Little Rock.
Last year, Sells stopped talking, according to Texas Ranger John Allen. Sells said he was tired of having to prove everything he said.
Sells initially denied a request to be interviewed.
When asked why, he replied in a letter that he was looking out for himself, that he was tired of the lies being told about him, that family and friends had forgotten him, and that he “would die with what I (know).”
Did Sells commit the Welch murders?
He would neither admit nor deny it.
In a March 10 letter to the Globe, he says:
“About the Welch murder, if I tried to say that was me, I would get eaten alive. We know I killed the Harris girl (during) the early morning hours of 12-31-99. They don’t believe I could drive from Oklahoma to Del Rio and still be up to par. There’s a fine line in there people don’t see. And you know, I’m tired, (it’s) to the point that I have to prove anything I say. (But) you add some hard liquor with some good drugs and a few days without sleep and try to remember something.”
His letters alternate between coherence and rage. When Sells is rational, his letters are cordial and have an easy tone, like a letter written by an old friend. When the rage takes over, the letters become disjointed. He flashes from one crime to another; he lapses into profanity; and he not only shows contempt for society, but for his victims and their families as well.
He is no longer interested in closure. Closure, he says, is a joke. And capital punishment isn’t justice, he says; it’s revenge.
In March, he agreed to talk in person.
Death Row interviews are conducted on Wednesday afternoons at the Polunsky Unit, near Livingston in southeastern Texas. Death Row was moved there in 1999 from the Ellis Unit at Huntsville, which was nicknamed “The Walls.”
The Polunsky Unit has no nickname, at least none that is offered to the press by the public information officer who leads journalists from the reception area, past the sign that warns “No Hostages Beyond This Point,” and into the unit’s interview area. On the public road outside, members of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are concluding a three-week demonstration against conditions inside Death Row.
The inmates are behind a thick pane of glass, locked in a cage, and they communicate with visitors by a telephone handset on their side of the glass.
Sells doesn’t look like the hungry, bearded transient in the mug shots taken during his arrest. He has put on weight in prison, and his hair is neatly combed.
Tattoos cover his arms: a double-barreled shotgun, an eagle, assorted skulls, a dragon and a grinning devil. On his neck, there’s a rose.
When Sells is asked about his widely reported religious conversion, that he has been saved in prison, he responds:
“Saved from what?”
Sells says he liked breaking into trailer homes.
“They’re simple,” he says. “You take a screwdriver and you’re there.” He also says the reason he went so long without getting caught is that he was careful never to leave fingerprints — or witnesses.
If his knife had cut just a little deeper into Krystal Surles’ neck, he already has said in a letter, he wouldn’t be sitting on Death Row.
Sells says he is surprised that the Rangers believe he crossed back into Mexico on Dec. 27, but he says he’ll take their word for it. He was making a lot of drug runs at the time, he says, and a couple of the trips he made were to Missouri.
After delivering a shipment of cocaine to St. Louis, Sells claims, he came back through northeastern Oklahoma and stopped in Welch. He says he met Ashley Freeman at a convenience store. He was high on alcohol and drugs, and he claims the details are hazy.
“Do you remember every time you’ve been drunk?” he asks.
He says he is responsible for the Welch murders, but he will not elaborate. He gives no telling detail — such as a description of the interior of the house, or the kind of jewelry the girls were wearing, or the location where Ashley Freeman kept her money — that would prove convincing.
Sells refuses to tell what happened inside the trailer, he says, “out of respect for some other things.” He won’t say what other things.
Sells says he was asked about the Welch murders by the OSBI during some of the 15 hours he was questioned about the murder of the Kingfisher girl. He hints that he attempted to confess at the time, but he says investigators didn’t believe he had time to make it back to Del Rio.
He indicates that he knows where the bodies of Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible are, but he refuses to reveal the location. He agrees, however, to consider relaying the information to the families through the prison’s victim services mediator.
An appeal for closure makes him angry.
“You know, that’s the No. 1 thing that they’ve pushed down my throat,” he says. “And they (law enforcement) ain’t gave closure to jack s—-.”
In a letter dated April 3:
“I don’t trust no one with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. When and if I decide to tell you or anyone about Welch, Okla., it won’t be (the victim services mediator) or the TDCJ. If a day comes to where I can deal with some more murder, I’ll tell you of this one.”
He adds that he had received a letter from the Texas Rangers.
“I wonder what they need?”
He signs the letter in his customary manner: “Peace, Tommy Lynn.”
Texas Ranger John Allen, before the interview, said it was possible that Sells may be responsible for the Welch murders. At least, there was nothing in the time line investigators had to rule him out.
Lt. Larry Pope, the Val Verde County Sheriff’s Department investigator who probably has worked longer and closer with Sells than anyone else, describes it as a “remote possibility.”
“Tommy’s real street-smart, and he grabs pieces of things,” Pope said. “In West Virginia, he picked up pieces of a murder from a cellmate. He told us he just dreamed about it.”
But Sells has given investigators reliable information about more than a dozen murders. The trouble, Pope said, is that Sells has difficulty remembering details because of the drug and alcohol use. That’s why investigators attempt to corroborate his confessions with some type of physical evidence.
Mistakes have been made with Sells, Pope said, by investigators who were too eager to clear unsolved cases. Once, he said, an investigator from Illinois let Sells have a photo album of a crime scene. When Sells was finished with it, he could even describe what kind of food was on the stove in the kitchen.
There is even an inside joke with Sells about this sort of thing, Pope said: “What color was the cat?” In one case, he said, Sells claimed to have seen a cat in the house, because he had heard an investigator mention one, but he couldn’t describe the color.
“It’s hard for him,” Pope said. “Tommy was actually able to suppress a lot of this, and I think that’s how he lived with himself. And he is likable in a way. That’s why these serial killers get away with it. You’d never be scared of Tommy.”
Pope doesn’t believe anybody would have trusted Sells with large drug shipments — “With Tommy, you would either have lost your drugs or your money” — but he says Sells has consistently claimed to have been part of a drug ring that stretched from Texas, through Oklahoma, and into Kansas.
Sells even claimed that Terry Harris, the father of the girl he killed in Del Rio, owed him $5,000 for a drug transaction. Authorities have found no evidence of this, however.
Pope does believe that Sells knows more than he has told investigators thus far.
“I’ve told him, ‘You can tell me what you know, or you can take it all to hell with you,’” Pope said. “‘If you wait until a day or two before the execution, that will be too late. They won’t let anybody in for you to tell it to.’”
Texas leads the nation in the number of executions since the death penalty ban was lifted by the Supreme Court in 1976. Of the 3,527 offenders now under the sentence of death in the United States, more than one in eight — 454 — are on Death Row in Texas.
The average time on Death Row is 10½ years, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but Sells may expect to have a somewhat shorter period before his death by lethal injection. The time between sentencing and execution is diminishing, and the shortest time on Texas Death Row is now 252 days.
It is likely, however, that Sells will have a few years before all of his appeals are exhausted. But when his time comes, as it did on April 10 for Jose Santellan Sr. (convicted in 1993 of shooting his girlfriend and then keeping her body in a rented room for two days), Sells will be given a lethal cocktail that will kill him in a matter of seven minutes.
A lethal dose of sodium thiopental will sedate him; a muscle relaxant called pancuronium bromide will collapse his lungs and diaphragm; and potassium chloride will stop the beating of his heart. The cost per execution for the drugs used, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is $86.08, which is only a few dollars more than the cost of maintaining a prisoner for one day.
© 2002 The Joplin Globe Publishing Company.
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Reward rises in Welch girls' decade-old disappearances
FROM STAFF REPORTS The Oklahoman
Published: December 31, 2009
WELCH — The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is offering a new $10,000 reward in addition to the existing $50,000 for information that would help solve a 10-year-old mystery involving two shooting deaths and two missing women.
Ashley Freeman, electronically aged to 19 years old
On Dec. 30, 1999, Danny and Kathy Freeman were found dead inside their charred home near Welch. They had been shot before their home was set on fire, OSBI spokeswoman Jessica Brown said in a news release.
The Freemans’ daughter, Ashley, and her best friend, Lauria Bible, who was spending the night to celebrate Ashley’s 16th birthday, remain missing. The women would be 26 today.
Because the crime scene was set on fire, Brown said, investigators were able to obtain little forensic evidence. The remote location of the home meant there were no witnesses.
While detectives have investigated hundreds of leads, Brown said, fewer leads come in as time passes and OSBI is hoping the $10,000 reward may entice someone with information to finally come forward.
The initial $50,000 reward is $25,000 deposited at Welch State Bank and another $25,000 in pledges from the community, Welch State Bank President James Stoner said.
In early 2005, investigators interviewed Jeremy Jones, 36, who is on death row for the rape and slaying of an Alabama woman.
Jones confessed to killing the Freeman couple and setting their mobile home on fire over a drug debt. He said he took the teenagers to Kansas where he said he shot them and threw their bodies into an abandoned mine.
A search of the area turned up nothing. Jones was never charged and has since recanted.
A 10-year memorial service for Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman was held Wednesday at First Church of God in Vinita.
HOW TO HELP
To report information, call OSBI at (800) 522-8017.
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