Let me set the record straight.
I did not come to rural Oklahoma to find the remains of 16-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible.
I did not come to find out who shot Ashley’s parents before setting fire to their home back in 1999 (that arrest last year had nothing to do with me).
I came because I was haunted by a case; I came to write a book ― my first crack at true crime. Having seen some success in fiction back in Europe, the notion was easy: I’d go in, ask some questions, write the book, and return to my home in Ireland (good God, I was naive). But, as the old adage goes, (wo)man plans, God laughs. Four years later, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the murders in Welch, Oklahoma, I found more than I bargained for: I found forgiveness.
My first book was a semiautobiographical novel about the muted pains of life after giving up a child for adoption. It comes up here and there when I stumble trying to respond to being asked if I have any children of my own. It’s complicated, and it’s sore, and I wish this weren’t such a casual ice-breaker question we ask practical strangers. And while I don’t ever mention it in the forthcoming book in which I write about the murders in Welch, that bitterness and pain is always there in the background; a grief that I still struggle to articulate because I’ve yet to organically meet a person that could understand the pain of putting, giving away, giving up, placing their children for adoption. It has always set me aside, made me something of a heartless monster to others, and so over the past decade, I’ve learned to suffer in silence.
I am the mother that no one talks about.
But then I met Lorene Bible, whom I first reached out to via “Find Lauria Bible,” a Facebook page dedicated to sharing information about her missing daughter. Lorene has spent the past 20 years making it her life’s mission to find some closure in this painful case. Her tragedies made my maternal grief feel pale. And don’t get me wrong; our circumstances aren’t even in the same ballpark. But I had never come across another person on this planet who showed me that there was life (and maybe even some joy) beyond the guilt and sorrow of no longer having children.
Lorene is reminiscent of Frances McDormand’s character in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” only she wears cardigans and loves Jesus (leave the bitterness, bandanas and F-word with me). On the night of Dec. 28, 1999, Lorene’s 16-year-old daughter, Lauria Bible, was sleeping over at her best friend Ashley Freeman’s house for Ashley’s 16th birthday. The next morning, shortly before daybreak, the trailer home was found in flames, and inside, police discovered the body of Ashley’s mother, Kathy Freeman, who had been shot to death before the fire started.
It was initially assumed that Kathy’s husband, Danny Freeman, had killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter and Lauria. Police released the crime scene and left. Twenty-four hours after authorities removed Kathy’s charred body from the premises, it was Lorene Bible (you read that right) and her husband who made a grisly discovery: the burnt body of prime suspect Danny Freeman.
“There was nothing from the jaw up,” Lorene can say today without flinching. “Just hamburger meat.” Danny, too, had been shot to death. The girls have been missing ever since.
It wasn’t a case of me saying, “Well, I shouldn’t be so sad; at least my daughter is safe, at least she hasn’t been the victim of violence.” They aren’t comparable. But how did a woman like Lorene, who had faced unimaginable horror, still manage to stand firm, while I found myself lurching from crisis to crisis, repeatedly pressing the self-destruct button?
When I first arrived in Oklahoma, Lorene was, to me, merely the parent of a missing child and nothing else, but she refused to let that define or destroy her.
“Come on, don’t be a baby,” Lorene said to me one day. “You can do it.”
I remember wondering how we had ended up here. One day, I’m asking Lorene about suspects in her daughter’s disappearance, and now, she’s daring me to eat calf fries, the polite term for fried cow testicles. This isn’t so bad; I do like the ranch dressing. Wait, nope. Get this abomination out of my mouth. Lorene laughed at the look on my face.
Sometimes she’d look at me as though saying, “See? Is smiling so bad?” Even with the taste of cow testicles lingering, a sincere smile wasn’t that bad at all.
The truth was Lorene and I came from opposite sides of the universe. Put us side by side for a photograph, it was plain to see: my tattoos and mohawk next to her floral shirts and angel wing necklace. I say pee-can, she says puh-cahn. She was all Midwestern stoicism, a woman who hardly blinked her eyes and didn’t express her feelings. I was an emotional wreck gripped with anxiety.
“Well, what good is that gonna do you?” she asked.
One of the things that Lorene taught me was that everyone is worthy of happiness, regardless of who they were and what they’d done. But I knew Lorene was no stranger to cruelty and ridicule. After she and I filmed a TV series about the murders on CNN’s HLN network, I received letters asking me what kind of mother let her child sleep over at a home that had arguably attracted an unsavory cast of characters (why hadn’t she thought of this?!).
With admirable grace, Lorene managed to absorb and move past the sort of questions that would keep any mother of a victim up at night. “You can have a moment,” she said when I asked how she dealt with it all. “But then you gotta wash your face and get back out there.” The truth was if Lorene did let herself wallow in pity, the girls would have faded from headlines many years ago.
So was there a life after the loss of a child that didn’t consist of drowning in guilt and regret? Lorene was living proof that there was. She has been deemed cold, but I know it’s just grit. “John Walsh told me that I had a choice.” A choice; a life-defining one. She went on to recite what Walsh, a missing children’s advocate and the TV host of “America’s Most Wanted,” said to her after the murders. He was, after all, as the father of a murdered child himself, a man who had been in a similar position. “He said, ‘You can go and hide in a closet, or you can be your child’s voice.’” From then on, for Lorene, “falling apart was never an option.”
She wasn’t the first parent of a missing child I’d spoken to, but most of them had succumbed to poor health or poor choices (hear, hear!). Lorene had managed to turn pain into a tool to sharpen her resolve. I managed to pick up a pen and write.
When the world did see Lorene, it was usually with an appeal for someone to come forward with information about the location of her daughter’s remains. In 2018, photographs and witnesses emerged that indicated Lauria and Ashley had, as we feared, been violently murdered. “Just tell me what I have to do next,” Lorene said to me time and time again. “What’s the next step to find my child?”
Lorene taught me what it meant to keep my eyes forward. While others tied to the murders in Welch worried over the past, the inciting events, what had happened to lead to the execution of Danny and Kathy Freeman, Lorene refused to look backward. She kept her eyes fixed. “If I focus on [the past], then that’s going to become the focus. Then everyone will forget about what’s important.” For Lorene, that was always finding the girls.
I had spent years staying stuck in the past, in the darkness where I left my children. I didn’t consider myself worthy of moving on. More than once, having barely survived the voluntary adoption of my children, I had struggled to imagine how I’d have lived in Lorene’s shoes. “You don’t know how strong you are until you have to be, and you’d do anything for your child.” In my case, it meant letting them go, but it also meant wearing the scarlet letter.
A is for adoption.
A woman once said to me, “I love my kids way too much to have ever done that.” More than once, I was told that I must have lacked that unfailing maternal love, that I was somehow wired wrong and hated my children. That my first look into my children’s eyes meant nothing to me, that I must be stone. But I know better. It was the strength of my love that allowed me to make that choice: I sacrificed every ounce of my happiness to ensure they had a life I could not give them. And I barely came out the other side, but if that meant their happiness, then so be it.
Lorene, the strongest woman I’d ever met, let me believe that my grief could be free of guilt. That just because I made a choice as a mother that so many don’t understand, it doesn’t mean that I am obligated to a life full of misery. Could it be?
Yes. Yes, it could.
“You have a right to grieve like anyone else; your children aren’t with you,” Lorene reminded me. In this society, where choice negates the right to grieve, after so many years of anguish, that single line of compassion transformed my life. I talk to Lorene nearly every day. “You did what you did from a place of love,” she told me.
It took the mother of a murdered child to permit me to forgive myself.
Lorene isn’t one for compliments, and I think she dislikes it when I tell her that she helped change the way I look at the world. She’ll probably roll her eyes at this essay. She didn’t decide to take me under her wing, or go out of her way to help me find my way. She just did what she does every day; she just kept moving forward with fire in her belly and stillness in her mind, and I became inspired.
Recently, I wrote the final words in my book examining the shocking case that took Lorene’s daughter from her. Approaching the 20th anniversary of Lauria and Ashley’s disappearance, a mother’s love still shines from the darkness of that devastating past. This December, families will meet at Lauria’s last known location, where Lorene goes today to pay her respects. A mother perseveres, driven by love.
Coming to Oklahoma, I was lost. But Lorene had made it her mission to find. In one woman’s resilience, and her unceasing search for her daughter, I learned that forgiveness was the key to moving forward. Forward. Forward.
Jax Miller wrote her first novel, “Freedom’s Child,” in her 20s while hitchhiking across America. The book won the 2016 Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle and earned several CWA Dagger nominations. She has received acclaim from The New York Times, NPR, Entertainment Weekly and many more. She now works in the true crime genre, having penned her much-anticipated book “Hell in the Heartland,” due July 2020 from Penguin Random House and Berkley Publishers (U.S.) and Harper Collins (U.K.). In 2019, Jax was creator, executive producer and host of the true crime documentary series of the same name on CNN’s HLN network. She is an avid lover of film and rock ’n’ roll.
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