News: Kristin's Murderer Formally Charged|
Posted Oct 17, 2006
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Murderer is charged in '00 death at rest stop
BY AMY UPSHAW
Posted on Saturday, May 13, 2006
MORRILTON — Prosecutors charged convicted killer Ronald James Ward with first-degree murder, saying he raped and stabbed 25-year-old Kristin Laurite to death as she exercised her dogs at a rest stop here on an August afternoon six years ago.
Because he was not charged with the more serious crime of capital murder, Ward would not face the death penalty.
Prosecuting Attorney Tom Tatum Jr. said at a news conference Friday morning that he did not think he had 'sufficient evidence" to prove all the elements of capital murder but he feels confident about the case.
"It's been a long investigation, and I feel like we've got a good case to move forward with," said Tatum, prosecutor for the 15 th Judicial District, which includes Conway County.
Tatum declined Friday to discuss any evidence he has against Ward.
The 39-year-old former truck driver and father of six has been in a Montana prison since June 2001 serving a life sentence for murdering an acquaintance two months after Laurite's death.
Investigators have known since July that Ward's DNA matched genetic evidence left at the Laurite crime scene — as well as evidence at two murder scenes in California — but did not decide immediately to charge him with the crime. Tatum said he finally did so to ensure that Ward, a son of a prostitute and longtime drug and alcohol abuser, would never be free.
"There is the possibility for pardon or parole," he explained. "I discussed this with [Laurite's ] family. We feel it's probably a wise thing to proceed with one other homicide prosecution."
Laurite's relatives said the charge that was announced Friday means "justice for Kristin," who was from the New York City suburb of Scotch Plains, N. J.
"It has been a long time coming and we just want to make sure this predator never gets out of prison, and can [never ] destroy so many lives again," her aunt, Renee Freitag, said in an e-mail after Friday's announcement.
Laurite's mom, Lynn DiBenedetto, said that the charge offers "some sense of resolution and peace of mind" but she will never have closure because she lost her only daughter.
On Aug. 25, 2000, the 25-year-old had stopped halfway through a cross-country trip at an Interstate 40 rest stop near Morrilton to exercise her dogs.
Investigators believe that Ward, a drifter, attacked the 5-foot-2-inch, 100 pound Laurite there, stabbed her in the throat 10 times and raped her.
Her nude body was found the next day near a dirty brown pond about 300 yards behind the rest stop.
Ward has denied killing Laurite. He also denies any involvement in the beating death of 49-year-old Jackie Travis, of Merced, Calif., on Dec. 7., 2000, and the death of 32-year-old Shela Polly, who was found dead Dec. 30, 2000, in nearby Modesto, Calif.
Investigators announced that Ward's DNA matched genetic evidence found at all three crime scenes last July.
Soon after, Ward called an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter who had written about the genetic evidence.
During the telephone call, which he placed from prison in Montana, he was asked how his DNA could show up if he wasn't involved.
"I don't understand that myself. I really don't. I understand [the match ] is like one in 100, 000 or one in a million or some darn thing," he responded. "And I happen to be one."
A few minutes later, the reporter asked Ward if he knew the three women.
"Now there's three ? Wow," he said and laughed. "OK, no. This, I don't know. This is the first I've heard of three."
At the time, he had been questioned by California authorities, he said, but not by ones from Arkansas.
Investigators with the Arkansas State Police, the FBI and the Conway County sheriff 's office interviewed Ward in December, Sheriff Mark Flowers said Friday.
Again, Ward denied killing Laurite and claimed that he had not been in Arkansas since police arrested him for driving a stolen car in Little Rock in 1998, according to the affidavit for his arrest.
He will be served with the arrest warrant next week in prison, and then Arkansas officials will take the necessary steps to have Ward extradited here for trial, Flowers said.
He has not been charged in the deaths of the two women, Polly and Travis, in California.
The earliest Ward could go before a Conway County jury would be late winter or early spring, Tatum said, adding that he would not characterize Ward's discussions with investigators so far as cooperative.
When investigators showed Ward a photograph of Laurite during one interview, he denied ever seeing her.
During the telephone conversation with the newspaper last summer, Ward said the only one of the victims he knew was Polly, whom he met at a day-labor office.
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.
Investigators in Arkansas spent months retracing his steps in 2000. 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.
Between 1999 and 2001, he lived with a woman named Hattie Baker, whom Arkansas investigators also interviewed last year. Their relationship ended after his 2001 arrest in the death of 43-year-old Craig Petrich.
Ward met Petrich at the Hamilton, Mont., mobile-home park where he and Baker were living, according to court records.
Witnesses told investigators that Petrich was last seen alive 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 court records show.
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.
Baker described Ward's role in Petrich's death to Arkansas investigators and complained that he was violent toward her, according to the affidavit for his arrest.
She claimed that he threatened her several times and once choked her so severely that she almost lost consciousness.
Ward often carried a knife, Baker told investigators.
Though Ward had many run-ins with police over the years, he had no violent felony record until his conviction for Petrich's death in 2001.
Even so, Laurite's family believes Ward is the answer to the question they placed on a billboard along Interstate 40, near the rest stop where the perpetually friendly Grateful Dead fan died.
Next to her smiling photo, the billboard read, "Do you know who murdered me ?"
Now the sign is gone. Advertisements for fast food chains, hotels and complaints about immigration are the only things beckoning motorists' attention.
The family fought to have the rest stop shut down.
The entrance where Laurite pulled up in her bright yellow Volkswagen bus is now blocked by concrete barriers and bright orange barrels.
Weeds have taken over the picnic area.
But even the charge against Ward hasn't eased the mind of Tatum, the prosecutor.
"I'm glad the individual is in prison," he said Friday. "I personally don't feel any relief until he's [prosecuted ]."