"Some could argue that here, you were in the middle of nowhere. But if you were more of an optimist, you’d realize that you were in the middle of everywhere: where the Deep South meets the Midwest meets the Southwest meets the Great Plains.
We were in America’s cross-hairs."
Welch, Oklahoma: Lauria Bible, an all-American teenage girl, was spending the second night in a row with her best friend Ashley Freeman to celebrate the latter’s sweet sixteen. But in the early morning hours of December 30th 1999, the Freeman trailer, a home hiding in the grasslands of rural America, became engulfed in flames... and the girls would never be seen again.
In the trailer were parents Danny and Kathy, and daughter Ashley, still adjusting to being a family of three after their 17-year-old son, Shane Freeman, was killed by police less than a year before. The ensuing chaos caused conflicts between Welch authorities, so, when police arrived at the fire, they treaded carefully, immediately handing the scene over to state agents of the OSBI (Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation).
But they only found one body...and it'd been dead before the fire.
Courtesy of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Artist depiction of how the missing girls may look now.
A breeze could easily miss this town. In the early morning hours of December 30th, 1999, a southerly, heat-seeking one lingered through Welch, Oklahoma. It was the cliché darkness before the dawn at 5:15 a.m., the sun just under the horizon’s shallow grave, and the stars with their backs turned to the small, sleeping town. The prairie, playful by day, plays tricks at night, giving off the sensation that there’s someone there, lurking, watching. And for some in the area, fear goes hand in hand with hospitality.
A married couple named Jack and Diane (like the All-American John Mellencamp song) was damning the heating vents to their car, hands wrapped around thermoses of Folgers. They were on their way to work at the Eastern State Hospital for the Insane, like any other dark morning. The asylum’s large campus, having its own cemetery with 1,200+ unmarked graves, is abandoned today, serving as a haunted attraction for local teenagers. The husband and wife rode in silence, tires on dirt scraping away the sound of a dead grass whistle. Their minds were still back in bed, not planning to wake until reaching the actual pavement of a highway. The roads were desolate, without a house nor car in sight. The burlap landscape of northeastern Oklahoma was frostbitten, and nothing but blackness as far as their sleep-crusted eyes could see, but for the pockets of illuminated grit caught in their headlights.
Diane, whose roots absorbed the watchfulness of her Cherokee lineage, sipped her coffee when the black scrim of the night seemed to spark a lighter’s wheel in the distance. From far away, a flame. She nudged Jack’s arm as he drove, pointing his attention to this little light that seemed to dance on the world’s edge. Jack tilted his head and let a silent profanity fall into his beard, a long yellowed bib of hair.
He turned the car North toward the light. A small enough town, he knew it to be the farm of the Freeman family, a family of four. Then, he remembered, now a family of three, since the son was killed. The couple suddenly woke up, cruising closer to where flames engulfed the trailer. And on the darkest night that most people could ever know, death came to re-visit the Freeman family for the second time that year.
Jax Miller was born in New York in 1985. She started writing Freedom's Child while travelling around America on the back of a motorcycle and finished it in the peace and quiet of the Irish countryside. Within 24 hours of writing 'The End' she had been signed up by a literary agent, and a few days later she had a publishing deal. She lives in Ireland with her husband. She can listen to her interview on NPR here.