Teen’s mysterious death haunts parents
Olivia Jane Ward died of an undetermined cause, state records say. Police investigators said that she fell backward off a porch during a 1989 party at a cabin in the Ozarks.To her parents, she was murdered. They point to conflicting autopsies conducted 15 years apart and to witnesses’ inconsistent statements. The parents, Mona and Ron Ward, didn’t know she was going to a party.
The key to what happened probably rests with the teenagers who were with Janie, 16, at the mountain cabin on Sept. 9, 1989. They loaded her into the back of a pickup truck and traveled three miles on rural roads to Marshall’s town square. The cabin had no telephone service, and the nearest hospital was 28 miles away.
“This is not a cold case,” Mona Ward said at the Canaan Cemetery, where Janie’s remains lie in the family plot. “The witnesses are alive and well and I think they, except for the guilty, want to talk.”
Special prosecutor Tim Williamson says the case will be “ultimately presented to a grand jury” -- but he doesn’t know when.
“I don’t know what happened up there and it is driving me insane,” Williamson said. “We have 15 theories that have been presented to us.”
About 40 people attended the party, but only a few say they saw Janie fall from the porch, which was just 9 inches high. Paramedics summoned to the town square found her clothes inexplicably wet, with sand and leaves clinging to her skin. But by the time Janie’s body arrived in Little Rock for an autopsy the next day, it was clean -- and wearing clothes that her father said she hadn’t been wearing the night before.
The 1989 autopsy noted that Janie’s neck snapped forward, consistent with falling on the back of her neck. But a 2004 autopsy said her head snapped back, as if from a car accident, a hanging or a violent blow.
“I have never been, nor will I ever be, arrogant enough to say I know what caused Janie Ward to die,” state police investigator William Beach said in a deposition last year. “But what I do know, based on the information, is that whatever happened, happened right there at that party, in front of a number of teenage witnesses.”
Call for help
Janie had just started 11th grade. Ron Ward described his daughter as a friendly, caring girl who probably would have entered a field like nursing to help others.
On that quiet small-town Saturday night, sheriff’s deputies received a call for help from the town square. They pulled up to a pickup in a bank parking lot. Janie’s body was in the back, surrounded by a group of teenagers.
Then-Sheriff Kent Griggs later said he didn’t think the death involved foul play. Griggs explained seemingly plausible events: Janie fell from a porch, the teens panicked when they couldn’t find a doctor and ended up in the town square.
Witnesses gave investigators varying accounts of how long Janie was on the ground, ranging from a few minutes to up to an hour. The teens also said alcohol and marijuana were served at the party.
Although paramedics noted the sand, twigs and leaves on Janie’s body at 8:30 p.m., all were gone by the next day when the body reached the state medical examiner’s office in Little Rock. It had spent the night at the Marshall funeral home.
Ron Ward said Janie’s clothes were different too. In Little Rock, her body was dressed in a black T-shirt, not the white pinstriped shirt he’d seen on the body at the funeral home.
“The clues they had were washed away,” he said.
An official from the funeral home, owned by a different company since 1993, said it had no records from that period.
Dr. Fahmy Malak performed the initial autopsy.
Two years later, in 1991, allegations arose that he had botched autopsies. Malak, who had been the state’s chief medical examiner for 12 years, quit after losing the support of then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Two state-hired independent medical examiners reviewed several of Malak’s cases, including Janie’s.
Although Janie’s fall could have come from fainting or a heart condition, the independent examiners wrote that “the autopsy findings, as presented, do not establish a neck injury as the cause of death of Janie Ward.”
But the Wards couldn’t persuade officials to exhume their daughter’s body for a second autopsy. The cause of death remained “undetermined.”
After the Wards contacted a national organization for parents of murdered children, an independent medical examiner based in San Diego reviewed Janie’s death in 2004. Dr. Harry Bonnell wrote that he found “no objective evidence” to prove she died from the fall described by witnesses.
With Bonnell’s opinion and a court order, Ron Ward stood by as workers opened the cement vault and pulled Janie’s casket from the ground. In his autopsy, Bonnell found Janie’s body preserved enough to see bruising along her nose and the left side of her face, neck and shoulder -- injuries Malak had not noted.
Bonnell’s report outlines how he found a tooth-like bone pushed into Janie’s spinal column, an injury known as “hangman’s neck.” Bonnell said it occurred when tremendous force snapped the head backward -- not forward, as Malak had reported.
“If you think about that, you have the impact in the back of the head and the head comes forward -- it’s totally opposite,” Bonnell said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “The injuries are not consistent with the story that anybody provided.”
Results from the Bonnell autopsy brought renewed attention to Janie’s death. Prosecutor H.G. Foster asked a county circuit court judge to name a special prosecutor. The judge picked Williamson. Then-Gov. Mike Huckabee gave $10,000 to help with the investigation.
More than two years later, Williamson remains tightlipped about any progress.
“When you jump the gun, you get in trouble. When you make out-of-court statements pre-charging, you get in trouble,” he said. “We’re being very painstaking with our efforts to make sure the truth is known. That’s all I know to say.”
In December 2004, the Wards filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court, asking the state to change Janie’s death certificate to show she died in a homicide. They want to move on, but first they want answers.
“If it had not been for the circumstances, by now we would have healed,” Mona Ward said. “But because of the circumstances ... we live it every day. We know what didn’t happen. And we have to know” what did happen.