The Mysterious Death of Janie Ward

Marshall, Ark., is small-town America at its most remote. Located deep in the hills of the Ozarks with a population of 1,300, it's the kind of place where churches outnumber traffic lights nine to one, and kids swim in the Buffalo River all summer long.

But for nearly two decades, the town has been haunted by the sudden, mysterious death of 16-year-old Janie Ward.

The story was that Janie fell backward off a porch at a high school party in the woods. But almost immediately after her death, the town was awash with rumors -- suspicions of foul play, allegations of murder, even talk of a conspiracy and coverup.

For 18 years, Janie's parents, Ron and Mona Ward, have searched desperately for answers. Was Janie's death a murder, an accident or something in between? Last fall, in an attempt to uncover what really happened, a special prosecutor ordered Janie's casket lifted from its vault in order to conduct a rare third autopsy. The prosecutor's final report on his investigation will be released next month, but for the past three years, ABC News has also examined the mysterious death of Janie Ward.

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Watch the story on "Primetime: Crime" tonight at 10 p.m. ET

Troubling Questions

Janie Ward died the night of Sept. 9, 1989, in a cabin off a dirt road, miles from town. She was attending a party to celebrate the opening of school held by some of the popular kids in the junior class at Marshall High.

Janie didn't normally run with the in-crowd — she worked as a waitress after school. Looking back, her parents say there were hints of trouble.

"The week before Janie was killed, she had some problems with the cheerleaders," Mona Ward told ABC News. "They were making fun of her … she was going to confront them if they didn't stop."

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At the party, witnesses say something dramatic happened. Suddenly, without warning, they say Janie fell from the front porch of the cabin, tumbling over backward from a step less than a foot high. An autopsy would later reveal she died from a broken neck. But how could she have broken her neck falling from a 9.5-inch step?

It's what happened after Janie fell to the ground that is most troubling to her parents.

"They loaded her in the back of a pickup truck like an animal," Ron Ward told ABC News senior law and justice correspondent Jim Avila. "Then they go hide the booze, the kegs and clean up for their little party they had where my daughter was murdered."

Witnesses told police that they drove Janie -- either dead or dying -- in the back of a pickup truck, toward town. Only instead of taking Janie directly to the ambulance service in the center of town, they parked several hundred feet away and ran across the parking lot to summon help.

Cathy Beason was the emergency medical technician on duty that night. By the time she got to Janie, there was no pulse or sign of life. But she says there was disturbing evidence that made her believe it was a suspicious death.

"I know it wasn't a natural death; it might have been accidental, or murder," Beason said. "There was some sand that was settled under her bra strap, under the middle of her bra … it was pooled there. And there was twigs and leaves and a little bit of sand and gravel between her jeans and her underpants."

Beason also noticed that Janie's clothes were wet even though it hadn't rained that night.

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