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* News: Related Article About Kristin's Murderer
Posted Jul 29, 2005
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Article By Amy Upshaw and Jim Brooks

The Democrat-Gazette

MORRILTON — Investigators say a father of six who was born to a prostitute has been linked by genetic evidence to the 2000 rest-stop killing of Kristin Laurite , as well as to the unsolved deaths of two women in California.

The man, 39-year-old Ronald James Ward, was sentenced in June 2001 to life in prison in Montana for murdering a male acquaintance there for money. Ward has not been charged in the deaths of Laurite or the other women, and as of Friday afternoon, Ward had not been told of the reported DNA match, Conway County Sheriff Mark Flowers said.

"This case is far from over," Flowers said at a news conference in Morrilton on Friday morning. "We've still got a lot of work to do."

For one thing, investigators must prove that Ward was in Arkansas when Laurite was murdered. He was not a suspect until this month, when a California crime laboratory linked his DNA to the genetic material left at the crime scenes in the cases of Laurite and a California woman.

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Court records show that Ward spent much of his life unemployed and roaming the country, stopping from time to time in Oregon, Montana, California, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Authorities believe Ward found these victims during his travels in late 2000:

Laurite, 25, of Scotch Plains, N.J., was found raped and beaten to death Aug. 26 at a rest stop on Interstate 40 near Morrilton. The rest stop has since been closed.

Craig Petrich, 43, was beaten and shot to death in Montana on Oct. 16. Ward is in prison for his murder.

Jackie Travis, 49, was beaten to death in her Merced, Calif., apartment on Dec. 7.

Shela Polly, 32, was found dead Dec. 30 in nearby Modesto, Calif. Details of her death were unavailable Friday.

"The bottom line is that because the [DNA database] system works, this suspect was developed in all of these cases," said Kermit Channell, a forensic biologist with the Arkansas Crime Laboratory. "It was kind of like the domino effect."

About a month after Laurite's death, biologists processed DNA that was found near the rest stop and eventually entered it into a national DNA database, Channell said. Two years later, the database linked that genetic material to DNA left at Travis' apartment. However, investigators did not know the identity of the person to whom the DNA belonged.

Meanwhile in late 2000 or early 2001, investigators took a DNA sample from Ward in connection with a death in Modesto, Channell said. He did not identify the name of the deceased. Information about whether the sample was given voluntarily or under court order was unavailable Friday.

According to The Associated Press and newspaper accounts, Ward had been seen with Polly the day before her body was discovered, and police long suspected that he was involved in her death. Modesto police did not return a telephone call Friday.

On July 7 this year, Channell said, the California lab entered DNA from the Modesto crime scene into a database and later learned that it matched DNA left in Merced and then the DNA left in Arkansas.

"This really shows how the system can work at its fullest by solving cases, applying closure to a family," he said. "In my opinion, if we never solve another case, the money we've spent both on the state level and federally [for DNA databases] is worth it just in this case."

But for families and friends, the news was bittersweet.

"We are grateful to know that this suspected predator can no longer take another life," said Lynn Dibenedetto, Laurite's mother. "Although this is the day we have long awaited, it opens the deep wounds with renewed intensity."

For more than a decade before Travis died, John Hukill of Washington state had been friends with Travis, who grew up in Arkansas and moved to California in the early 1980s.

"That's just great," Hukill said of the DNA match.

But when told about the possibility that Travis' killer likely killed others, including one person after her, he said, "That's what I was afraid of. I knew there would be more."

Hukill said he doesn't know if Travis knew Ward. He said Travis lived briefly at a homeless shelter and had a history of drug use.

Law enforcement officers met Ward many times over the years.

Police reports — including one filed by Little Rock police in 1998 — reveal numerous contacts with law enforcement but no violent felony charges until his January 2001 arrest in Modesto on a murder warrant out of Montana for Petrich's death.

From 1993 to 1996, police in Springfield, Ore., ticketed Ward numerous times on traffic violations. A police spokesman said Ward had no criminal record there, although he had been flagged in the department 's computer as an "aggressive resister."

Police in Edmond, Okla., cited Ward for drug possession in 1994, spokesman Glynda Chu said. But Oklahoma County jail records don't show that Ward ever spent time behind bars or if he was ever convicted.

Four years later in May 1998, Little Rock police arrested Ward on a theft-by-receiving charge after an officer pulled him over near 31 st and Wolfe streets in a stolen vehicle, according to the Police Department. The charges were later dismissed.

Information about his whereabouts for the next two years was unavailable Friday, but Flowers, the Conway County sheriff, believes that Ward was at the Interstate 40 rest stop in Morrilton on Aug. 25, 2000, when Laurite stopped on her way to California to exercise her two dogs while on a cross-country trek.

Her nude body was found the next day near a dirty brown pond about 300 yards behind the rest stop. She had been stabbed 10 times in the neck.

Flowers and 15 th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Tom Tatum refused Friday to release additional information that they say they have proving that Ward killed Laurite. Arkansas State Police officials referred questions to Tatum.

"There's other evidence but we're not going to go into that," Flowers said.

Flowers, who said he hopes to interview Ward, wouldn't say if Ward has any connection to Arkansas.

He and Tatum said they aren't sure when they will file an affidavit for Ward's arrest in the Laurite case, but it likely will charge him with first-degree or capital murder. Tatum said he had not decided whether to seek the death penalty in the case. Investigators in California did not return messages for comment.

"It ain't like he's walking the streets," Flowers said. "He ain't going nowhere."

Investigators also are researching the possibility that more than one person was involved in Laurite's murder, Flowers said. He declined to give additional details.

Two months after Laurite's murder, Ward and his girlfriend Hattie Baker were living in a mobile home park near Hamilton, Mont., according to court records. Witnesses told investigators that Petrich was last seen alive on Oct. 5, 2000, with Ward.

Ward, the records show, borrowed a gun the next day.

Petrich's body was discovered Oct. 16, in an off-road area in the Sapphire Mountains of western Montana, the document says. He had been beaten with a rock and shot three times by a single-shot rifle, Ravalli County Attorney George Corn wrote in support of the murder charges against Ward.

"[Ward] claims that he shot the man in self-defense, however the evidence in this case does not support that claim, and it is unlikely that the victim was able to shoot at the Defendant as claimed by him," District Judge Jeffrey Langton wrote when sentencing Ward.

According to court records, Ward had hoped to persuade Langton to give him a shorter sentence by sharing details of his troubled life.

Ward told a court psychologist that his mother earned a living as a prostitute and that he was physically abused from infancy and sexually abused from age 2 or 3, according to court records.

Ward complained that his mother abandoned him and his sister at a truck stop at a young age, causing him to be shuffled between foster homes and relatives.

"These claims have been confirmed," the judge wrote.

Ward also told the psychologist that he was unemployable because of a head injury he suffered in 1995. Court records also showed that he had failed to pay child support for his children. Information was unavailable Friday on where his children lived.

So, Ward sold drugs to make a living and to support his voracious drug habit, records show.

"The record indicates that drugs and alcohol were such an intricate part of the Defendant's life, it would be a rare occasion when he was not under the influence of some substance," the judge wrote.

The days leading up to and the day of Petrich's murder, Ward admitted to intravenous use of heroin and methamphetamine, smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, court records show.

Langton put no stock in Ward's claims of remorse when he appeared in court.

"[Ward] has shown little or no remorse for taking the life of another human being and in fact, justifies his actions and blames the victim," Langton wrote, adding that fellow prisoners claimed Ward bragged about Petrich's death and "another homicide."

"Therefore, the Court finds the Defendant's remorse today to be a thinly veiled attempt to influence this Court in his favor and nothing more."

The judge concluded that "due to the vicious nature of the crime and the Defendant's propensity for substance abuse, that the Defendant is a violent offender, a menace to society and will continue to be a threat to society if given access to drugs and freedom."

Related links
· More about The Investigation
· News by Amy Upshaw and Jim

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