JON GAMBRELL Associates Press Writer LITTLE ROCK (AP)
A Montana prisoner pleaded no contest Tuesday to killing a New Jersey woman nearly seven years ago as she was stopped at an Interstate 40 rest stop in central Arkansas on a cross-country trip. Ronald James Ward, who is serving life in prison for another killing, was linked to the slaying of 25-year-old Kristin Laurite through DNA five years after the woman was stabbed repeatedly, sexually assaulted and left to die at the rest stop near Morrilton. Ward, 40, was arrested last year while in prison and returned to Arkansas over the weekend for his Conway County court appearance Tuesday. He initially told the court while representing himself that he would plead guilty. But after talking to a public defender named to represent him, Ward changed his plea. He acknowledged he was responsible for Laurite's death, although he claimed he couldn't remember it because he had been high on "heroin, moonshine and cocaine," Prosecutor Tom Tatum said. Tatum described Ward as a drifter who moved between West Virginia and Montana. Sentencing is tentatively scheduled for Thursday. The prosecutor said Ward had agreed to a life sentence. Laurite's mother Lynn DiBenedetto expressed love for her daughter, and relief. "Finally, justice will be served for the brutal murder of my daughter," DiBenedetto said in an e-mail to reporters. "Although the pain never goes away, I will finally get some peace of mind knowing that this alleged predator will never again be a part of society." Laurite left her New Jersey home on a trip to Eureka, Calif., planning to take a job at a daycare center along California's north coast. By Aug. 25, 2000, she made it to Arkansas, stopping her yellow 1972 Volkswagen van at the Morrilton rest stop to splash water on her face and let her two dogs play at a nearby pond. The next day, truckers noticed one of Laurite's dogs running loose at the rest stop. A trucker called the number on the dog's tag and reached Laurite's mother. Laurite's dogs led officers to her body, dragged down toward the pond. The rest stop, where another murder occurred three years earlier, was closed by the state, and Laurite's family put up a billboard along the well-traveled highway with a picture of the slain young woman. The image remained up for years, with the plea: "Do you know who murdered me?" Investigators described evidence at the scene as minimal, though they conducted hundreds of interviews. By 2005, investigators matched DNA found on Laurite's body to a sample discovered at the scene of the 2000 murder of Jackie Travis in Merced, Calif. Travis, who previously lived in Newport, Ark., was found beaten and strangled inside her home, with symbols carved in her skin, said Merced police Sgt. Curt Gorman. Gorman said that DNA later linked Travis' death to the murder to Shela La Rae Polly of Modesto, Calif. But it wasn't until Montana prison officials added a sample from Ward that the crimes linked back to the drifter, Gorman said. Ward already was serving a life sentence plus 10 years for the 2000 shooting death of Craig Petrich in the Sapphire Mountains of western Montana. Court officials said Ward has not been charged for the two deaths in California. "I would say that he's killed others and just hasn't been linked," Gorman said. "Why would you just kill three?" Tatum said Ward's forthcoming Arkansas sentence would act only as a protection if Montana authorities released Ward early. The prosecutor said he was surprised by the no contest plea, as Ward previously denied being involved in Laurite's death. "I figured we would be in for a long trial because the investigation took place over so many years," Tatum said. "I think it helped the family quite a bit and it certainly helped the state too." Morrilton lawyer John Irwin said Ward didn't understand the judge's explanation about the consequences of representing himself so the judge appointed Irwin to represent the Montana convict. "His education level is about fourth grade. He is not dumb. He is unlearned," Irwin said. "The easiest thing to do would be to have a lawyer." Citing lawyer-client confidentiality, Irwin declined to talk about other aspects of the case. Montana prison officials list Ward as married with six children and his birthplace as Hood, Ore. As officers led Ward away from his court appearance Tuesday, a television reporter asked him if he felt any remorse for Laurite's death. Ward nodded his head and his shoulders hitched as he began to cry.