MIKE MASTERSON: Justice for Janie

Posted: August 5, 2018 at 2:23 a.m.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia " Janie" Ward died on Sept.9, 1989, during a teen party at rural cabin near her hometown of Marshall.

Readers familiar with the circumstances of her death from a broken neck suffered after supposedly falling off a 9-inch-tall rock porch into the yard learned plenty of details about this shameful case during the four years I wrote about it beginning in 2004.

By the time Janie's body had undergone two exhumations and three autopsies, several things were beyond apparent to her father Ron Ward and mother Mona. First, they believed Janie had been killed at the hands of another student.

Also the State Crime Laboratory back then had altered the side-view X-ray a former lab director had shown them in Little Rock, which clearly revealed a separation in Janie's upper neck. The crude version of that tell-tale film Ron received weeks later had Janie's neck blanked out and was missing the lab's official evidence seal.

Ron was certain a wide-ranging cover-up to protect the person who claimed Janie's life had occurred involving law enforcement, politicos and various legal systems. This hardworking rural family quickly recognized they were fighting influential wealthy interests beyond their ability to overcome. The system dealing with Janie's death was corrupted from top to bottom.

I came to befriend the Wards in 2004 as I began writing what would become more than 200 columns revealing just how blatantly this case had been manipulated.

A former U.S. Marine, Ron was obsessed with gaining justice in his daughter's death. He stayed on his computer and phone, researching records and documents daily until late at night.

He'd vowed to Janie as he'd stood over her body in the funeral home that he would get justice for her.

The Wards over the years heard from locals who quietly passed along information. These same people were justifiably afraid to come forward because of repercussions from powers in the local, county and state criminal justice system.

As months melted into years, pieces of evidence emerged to paint an undeniable picture that Janie had been murdered during the party at the hands of a classmate.

A California forensic pathologist, secured by the national group Parents of Murdered Children, flew to Little Rock to perform a pro bono exhumation and autopsy. He concluded Janie's death had been a homicide from the neck injury. That bolstered Ron and Mona's hopes his pledge to Janie would be fulfilled.

A special prosecutor was appointed. Attorney Tim Williamson of Mena came to Marshall, prayed with the couple in a local church, and vowed to get to the bottom of Janie's death. That pledge resulted in four wasted years of accumulating stacks of paperwork without meaningful results.

Ron and Mona were devastated. They felt deceived. The state medical examiner's office, which had exhumed Janie's remains for a second time (I believed specifically to discredit the California pathologist's findings), left the cause of Janie's cause of death as inconclusive. In other words, a long circle back to nothingness.

Announcement: "Hey Arkansas, we spent four years 'investigating' Janie's case, and that's it. Thanks for watching!"

They did something else equally inexcusable. Ron had been assured by the powers that be at the time that he and Mona would be allowed to place a personal letter he'd written her inside Janie's coffin before she was reburied. But following the autopsy the medical examiner didn't tell the Wards the hearse carrying Janie's remains was leaving Little Rock.

The hearse arrived at the cemetery, well ahead of the unaware Wards, where her remains were immediately re-interred. The pathologist and his driver had headed back to Little Rock before the family could arrive.

That single act still serves as a fundamental reminder of just how shabbily and shamefully mistreated this family had been by our state's criminal justice systems all those years.

Yet through it all, Ron never stopped working to make good on his promise to his beloved late daughter. I received an excited message from him not long ago (29 years after her death) saying a private investigator was completing a report of indisputable facts showing that Janie had indeed been murdered.

But nothing ever is certain in this troubled world.

And a week ago today, the intense devotion that had driven Ron since that terrible night at the funeral home ended quietly. He passed away unexpectedly in his sleep, perhaps dreaming of what could, and should, have been when it came to gaining justice for his sweet-spirited Janie.

I have a strong sense Janie was watching her father throughout the family's lengthy, stressful struggle. At least now they are together again in a realm of pure truth where the person responsible for Janie's violent death one day surely will face ultimate justice.

I already miss this enormous man, affectionately nicknamed "Big Ron," with whom I shared such an intense common bond in disclosing our state to the truth. Godspeed, Ronald Jerome Ward.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 08/05/2018