Book: “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller
Publishing Info: Berkley, July 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley
Book Description: The stranger-than-fiction cold case from rural Oklahoma that has stumped authorities for two decades, concerning the disappearance of two teenage girls and the much larger mystery of murder, police cover-up, and an unimaginable truth…
On December 30, 1999, in rural Oklahoma, sixteen-year-old Ashley Freeman and her best friend, Lauria Bible, were having a sleepover. The next morning, the Freeman family trailer was in flames and both girls were missing.
While rumors of drug debts, revenge, and police collusion abounded in the years that followed, the case remained unsolved and the girls were never found.
In 2015, crime writer Jax Miller–who had been haunted by the case–decided to travel to Oklahoma to find out what really happened on that winter night in 1999, and why the story was still simmering more than fifteen years later. What she found was more than she could have ever bargained for: jaw-dropping levels of police negligence and corruption, entire communities ravaged by methamphetamine addiction, and a series of interconnected murders with an ominously familiar pattern.
These forgotten towns were wild, lawless, and home to some very dark secrets.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this book!
For someone who enjoys a good true crime podcast and likes to spend time on the Reddit sub “Unresolved Mysteries”, I am always taken in by the story of a cold case, murder, or strange mystery that I have never heard of before. So when I was browsing NetGalley’s list of upcoming true crime books, “Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Cse of Two Missing Girls” by Jax Miller caught my attention. The case has all the components of an “Unsolved Mysteries” episode. You have two missing teenagers in rural Oklahoma, Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible. Lauria was sleeping over at Ashley’s trailer home, but early the next morning it was found burning. First responders and police found the body of Ashley’s mother, and later her father’s body was also found. But there was no sign of Ashley or Lauria, and they haven’t been seen ever since. I thought that it would be a tantalizing and strange story, and it certainly is. But Miller takes it even further, and decides to paint a broader picture than just a tale about two missing teens. We also get a study of police negligence, small town criminality, and the way that a community like this has fallen on hard times, and how that has broad repercussions.
“Hell in the Heartland” is for the most part a true crime mystery, and the case is a head scratcher to be sure. There are two prevailing theories about what may have happened to Ashley and Lauria, and it seems to be split along family lines as to whom those theories appeal to. Miller gives due diligence to both theories, and while I think that probability falls far more on the side of one, I liked that in this book we got pretty strong arguments for both. The first, subscribed to by Ashley’s surviving family members, is that the local enforcement officials were trying to cover up some wrong doing. After all, Ashley’s brother Shane had been shot and killed by an officer not too long before Ashley disappeared and her parents were murdered. The officer claimed that he had drawn a gun, but the Freemans never believed it. The circumstances were suspicious, and the way that the police bungled a few things about the investigation into the Freeman murders and missing girls was absolutely reckless at best, and damning at worst. I have no problem believing that a department feeling sore about unwanted attention because of a grieving family wanting justice would mishandle a case regarding said family, so it’s not really a stretch to think that maybe the police could be capable of something so terrible. The other theory is that local meth kingpins were the ones that committed this crime, as their proximity and potential involvement with the Freeman family would give motive, means, and opportunity. As the book goes on this seems to be a more likely scenario, especially given recent arrests and evidence that ties them to the girls. But all that said, Miller still wants to present all of the evidence and to give a very clear picture of both possibilities, as at the end of the day we still don’t know where Ashley and Lauria are, even if we think we know what happened to them. While there may be an official ‘end’ in terms of how our legal system is seeing it, Miller makes it very clear to the reader that there is no closure and there is no real justice, because Ashley and Lauria never came home in one way or another. And for Lauria’s parents especially, that isn’t justice.
But beyond the case itself, “Hell in the Heartland” paints a very grim and sad picture about the rural community that Ashley and Lauria were living in when they disappeared. From Ashley’s brother Shane dying at the hands of a police officer with no repercussions, to Ashely’s grandparents very clear mental health issues that aren’t being addressed, to poverty in general and how the meth trade takes root within it, we see that Ashley and Lauria’s kidnapping, and the murder of the Freemans, wasn’t within a vacuum. Hell, the fact that one of the big drug lords was a known violent lunatic, with assault, domestic violence, and other horrible things being is M.O., and no one could do anything but stay out of his way, says volumes. Violence and secrets are more common than we may think in small towns like this, and to me that was one of the harder things to swallow about this story.
“Hell in the Heartland” is a story that you may not know about even if you’re a true crime aficionado, but after reading this book you’ll want to know more. Jax Miller has really shined a light on a case that hasn’t really left Oklahoma, and hopefully it will have a wide enough reach that one day Ashley and Lauria will be brought home.
Rating 7: A sad and strange cold case that has no official end, “Hell in the Heartland” takes a look at the story of two missing girls, and some very sad facts and dangers about the community they lived in.