Nearly every true-crime writer can point to a single case that turned them — a murder that touched them so deeply, for whatever reason, that they became obsessed with it, and with true crime in general.
For me, that case was the murder of Kristin Laurite.
I was driving home from Little Rock, Arkansas, around 2001 and saw her face looking down from a billboard. With her dreadlocks and beaded necklace, I instantly recognized Laurite as a kindred spirit. Her beautiful, sweet face seemed to be looking right at me, as though she were calling to me.
Next to her image was the question, “Do you know who murdered me?”
It struck me hard, that billboard. From that day on, I obsessively read everything I could about the case and about the Scotch Plains, New Jersey, woman who, though we had never met, seemed so familiar to me.
At 25, she was only a couple years younger than me. Friends and family described her as “free spirited,” “kind hearted,” and a “young hippie.” She’d traveled across the country numerous times and had visited all 48 of the contiguous United States. Some of that traveling was done following her favorite bands, the Grateful Dead and Phish.
In late August of 2000, this seasoned traveler took off in her 1971 VW van with her two dogs, Winter and Sativa, headed to California to take a job at an alternative preschool.
On Aug. 25, she pulled into a rest stop off Interstate 40 near Morrilton, in central Arkansas, to let her old van cool down. She let her dogs out to run off some energy, and took the opportunity to do what any traveler on a long trip would do — maybe go to the bathroom, splash some water on herself, stretch her legs.
She probably wasn’t aware that there had been a murder in that exact spot three years earlier, when a trucker had been shot in the restroom. Following that murder, Arkansas had committed to improving the safety of all its interstate highway rest stops, installing better lighting and video surveillance cameras.
But on Aug. 25, the cameras were down for maintenance.
The next day, a husband-and-wife team of truckers noticed two big dogs wandering the rest area off-leash. One remained near a yellow VW van, its doors open, but no owner anywhere in sight. After looking around for the dogs’ owner, the truckers called the number on Winter’s tag. On the other end, Laurite’s mother, Lynn DiBenedetto, picked up. She immediately knew something was wrong — Laurite would never just abandon her beloved dogs.
The truckers called the police. When they arrived, Laurite’s dogs led them to a cattle pond some 300 meters from where her van was parked.
There they found Laurite’s nude body face-down, her sandals next to the shoreline, her dress hanging from a branch sticking out of the water.
The autopsy would reveal that she had been sexually assaulted, then stabbed repeatedly in the throat.
Strangely, there was very little blood at the scene where her body was found, leading investigators to suspect she’d been killed elsewhere, perhaps after being lured into someone’s van or semi. The police couldn’t find the murder weapon, either, even after draining the pond.
What they did find, however, were some cigarette butts and an empty beer can near the crime scene. Thankfully, they contained DNA — though there was no immediate match to a suspect.
So Kermit Channell, Arkansas’ DNA expert, submitted that DNA profile to the FBI Laboratory’s National DNA Index System (NDIS). Because of the tremendous backlog of cases, it would take years before it could be analyzed. So he also sent the information directly to hundreds of local law enforcement offices around the country, asking them to test the DNA against any they hadn’t yet submitted to the database.
Meanwhile, Laurite’s family and friends were desperate to find her killer, so they raised money to purchase the billboards strategically placed along I-40. Reporters from all over Arkansas, and some from New Jersey, interviewed her family and law enforcement, hoping that someone would come forward with a clue that could break the case open.
One particular detail reported in a local magazine sent chills down my spine. After her murder, Laurite’s dogs had been taken back to her family and eventually adopted by her aunt. Months later, her aunt had taken the dogs with her to the hair salon. At one point, a stylist leaned her client’s head back into the sink to wash her hair. The normally quiet and well-behaved dogs began barking frantically. They were clearly agitated at the sight of a woman’s head being pulled back, exposing her throat.
Two long years passed before the DNA found at her crime scene finally produced a hit. It was found to be a match to DNA found at the scene of another woman’s murder.
Jackie Travis was found murdered in her apartment in Merced, California, in early December of 2000. The 49-year-old disabled woman had been brutally beaten, raped, and strangled, and symbols had been carved into her skin.
This chilling match raised fears that a serial killer was making his way across the country, and that more victims would soon be discovered. But there was still no suspect that matched the DNA profile.
Only a few weeks later, authorities in Modesto, California, arrested a man named Ronald Ward, Jr., in connection with yet another murder — that of Shela Polly. Her nude body had been found in late December 2000 in Modesto’s Dry Creek, covered with leaves in a kind of hasty shallow burial. She, too, had been beaten, raped, and stabbed to death.
Witnesses told police that they had seen Ward with Polly the day she was killed, putting him at the top of their suspect list. Through their investigation, they discovered Ward was wanted on an outstanding warrant in Montana — also for murder.
Police arrested Ward and extradited him to Montana, where he pled guilty to killing Craig Petrich in October of 2000. He claimed Petrich had assaulted Ward’s longtime girlfriend, Hattie Baker. Ward said Baker had told him, “You’d better kill him or I’m going to.”
So he took Petrich out to the remote Sapphire Mountains, where the two fought before Ward shot him.
Hikers found Petrich’s body hidden in a rock crevice a week later. He had been repeatedly hit over the head with a rock and shot three times in the chest.
Ward and Baker had fled Montana immediately after the killing, leaving behind most of their possessions and selling their car. They ended up in California — where Ward would meet Travis, and later, Polly.
Back in custody in Montana, Ward was sentenced to life in prison for killing Petrich.
He was serving his time in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge when his DNA was finally found to match to that found at the scenes in the Laurite, Travis, and Polly cases.
In 2007, Ward pled no contest to the murder charge in Arkansas. He testified that on Aug. 25, 2000, he was in a rage because he’d come home to find Baker with another man. He said he took off with five jugs of moonshine, cocaine, and heroin, and was so intoxicated he had no memory of attacking Laurite.
He was given another life sentence by the State of Arkansas, but remained in the Montana prison. No charges had been filed by the State of California.
On April 11, 2014, Ward was found unresponsive in his cell. He was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Authorities refuse to say what his cause of death was, but say it did not involve foul play.
The rest area where Laurite met her sad fate has since been closed. Laurite, if she were alive, would now be in her 40s. Would she have settled down, maybe built a cabin in the woods and planted an organic garden? Would she have married a long-haired man and had kids with names like Summer or Karma?
Maybe she would have remained as she always was, and always will be: a free spirit.
Rest in power, sister.