There's a saying, new wine belongs in new wineskins.
That adage may be true for officials from the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations, as they find a way to breath new life into a collection of cold cases including several from Delaware, Ottawa and Craig Counties.
The 52 cases - which include Barbara Ann Johnson-Willard, a woman missing from Jay - are part of a new initiative placing cold cases on the face of playing cards sold to prisoners through Oklahoma prison commissaries.
How it came about
In 2016, Francia Thompson, special agent for OSBI, learned of the case playing cards idea during an annual meeting for the Cold Case Association.
She approached Division Director Bob Harshaw about the project, and with minimum funding - $5,000 - established, the first set of OSBI Cold Case playing cards became a reality.
For the first 52 cases, Thompson pulled from cases from within the OSBI system. For the second set, which is currently in production, she's opened the application process to officials at all Oklahoma law enforcement agencies.
The cards feature a wide-range of cases. Some involve unsolved homicides, while others involve either missing individuals or unidentified bodies.
"We talked to the DOC, and the number one recreational thing inmates like to do is playing cards," Thompson said. "They use playing cards to pass the time."
By selling the cards within the state-owned facilities within the Department of Corrections, Thompson said OSBI officials hope to generate new leads.
"The suspects may have been in, or are currently incarcerated for other crimes," Thompson said. "They may have been talking with cellmates."
She said the leads may come from an inmate having a conscious, or because of the "enhancement of a reward."
"It may be more than we've gotten on some of these cases in a long time," Thompson said.
How it works
A potential of 27,000 inmates may see one of the 5,000 sets of cards created for the program.
The cards, which cost $1.09 to make, are sold to prisoners for $1.40. The funds generated will be used to purchase the next set of cards, as well as any administrative costs.
"When they sell out, we hope to replenish them with no cost," Thompson said, adding her goal is to eventually have every victim of an unsolved case within the state featured on a playing card.
Thompson said she is excited for the program - not only because it may provide leads, but it could provide closure to those impacted by the cases.
"Yes we work all of these cases, but we never forget the victims or their family," Thompson said, adding case agents worked with family members to find photos for the cards whenever possible.
Spanning the decades
The oldest case in the deck comes from 1978, and involve the death of a Canadian citizen, Gene Vincent, whose remains were found in Seminole County. His remains were identified thanks to new DNA testing in 2016.
The newest case, from 2013, involves Molly Miller and Colt Haynes. The pair went missing under suspicious circumstances in Carter County, after becoming involved in a car chase with members of the Wilson Police Department.
Thompson said the vehicle was being driven by a third individual, when authorities lost contact with it in Love County. The pair disappeared after the pursuit, and the car was later discovered abandoned.
One card, a case from 1983 and McCurtain County, uses a silhouette, because in that instance the unknown white male was found, partially decomposed with his hands, head and genitals missing. The card was found 10 miles north of the intersection of Highways 3 and 98.
Ultimately, Thompson hopes, the cards generate leads - anything that can be logged in, and then investigated by the various agents.
She said the program works. Of agencies utilizing the cards within the 19 states, at least 40 cases have been solved through the generated tips.
"Some of the cases were solved within months of the program going live," Thompson said. "There's hope, because it's working in other states."
OSBI Special Agent Tammy Ferrari has been working the case involving Danny, Kathy and Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible since 2012.
"I think both myself and the retired agents, and most of the public would like to see this case solved," Ferrari said. "It's on my mind pretty regularly."
Ferrari said she hopes the cards not only generate conversations in the DOC, but also in the community as people learn of their existence.
"The case is still open, we're still working on it, and we're still hopeful we'll draw in leads," Ferrari said. "People may have been afraid to talk before. This opens the door to get them talking."
For now, as the 18th anniversary of the case approaches, Ferrari said she still follows up on information, sorting out the facts from rumors.
"Someone who knows something hasn't come forward," Ferrari said. "Maybe this will prompt them to come forward either by phone or email. They can do it anonymously.
"[But] there's definitely someone, who knows something or who is going to say something."
Jeremy Yerton, another OSBI agent working within northeast Oklahoma agreed.
Yerton has several cases within the deck including the one involving Johnson-Willard. He inherited that case five years ago, when he became an agent.
"[People] while they are in prison like to talk and brag," Yerton said. "That's the basis of the playing cards. Because generally, somebody talks at some point.
"Any took or method we can use to get people talking about cases is a good thing."
He said at this point, there have been no new leads involving Johnson-Willard, since
March 2014, when then district attorney Eddie Wyant dropped the murder charge against John Lee Weeks in connection with the case.
Weeks, formerly of Gentry, Arkansas, was charged in Delaware County District Court in May 2011 with first-degree murder in the death of Johnson-Willard, 29.
At the time of the dismissal, Wyant said he was convinced that a "reasonable doubt" existed for the current prosecution of Weeks.
"Obviously, we've never found her body, so that may be a key piece of information we get," Yerton said. "Maybe not who did it, but [the card] may lead to where we can find her remains - which could lead us to a whole new set of directions.
"Any new lead is a good lead. It might be the piece we are looking for. It doesn't matter how little or insignificant, if it's information we don't have."
Local cases featured
Local cases in the first set of OSBI playing cards include:
• Delaware: Barbara Ann Johnson-Willard, who was last seen on June 14, 1996 leaving work at the Simmons plant in Jay.
She was reported missing three days later on June 17. On June 26, her 1986 Mercury Couger wa found abandoned on a rural Delaware County roadway, with evidence pointing to foul play. She has not been seen since.
• Ottawa: Samuel Sanders - On March 24, 2009, at about 4:15 a.m., two unidentified men broke into Samuel Sanders’ Fairland home. Sanders was shot and killed during the home invasion. His killers remain unknown.
• Craig: Danny, Kathy and Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible - One of the most publicized cases in the deck, the four cards highlight the pictures of Danny, Kathy and Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible.
On Dec. 30, 1999, the Freemans were shot and burned inside their home in Welch. Their daughter Ashley and her friend Lauria Bible, who were also present at the home at the time of the fire, have not been seen since.
William and Leota Huls - on Nov. 10, 2008, when William and Leota Huls did not show up for church, an employee of their farm found the couple deceased inside their Welch home from gunshot wounds.
Did You Know?
Anyone with information concerning Barbara Ann Johnson-Willard, Samuel Sanders, Lauria Bible, Ashley, Danny and Kathy Freeman, or William or Leota Huls, are asked to call the OSBI hotline at 1-800-522-8017 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone who provides information to help progress any of the cases featured in the cold case playing cards could receive a monetary reward.