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.
Watch the story on "Primetime: Crime" tonight at 10 p.m. ET
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."
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.
The First Autopsy; the Eyewitnesses
Within days, Janie's body would be autopsied for the first time. The cause of death: upper spinal cord and neck injury (hyperextension injury). In layperson's terms, hyperextension is a "hangman's fracture": when the neck is bent so far back that it separates from the spine. Normally it's an injury caused by extreme impact to the face, not by an accidental backwards fall.
The autopsy raised more questions than it answered, adding heat to the rumors that swirled through the town. Rumors that Janie had been beaten until her neck was broken, that she had been "clothes lined" by a group of kids, or that she'd been thrown in the river and covered with rocks so she would sink to the bottom and drown.
In fact, there were so many questions about Janie's death that state police actually videotaped a re-enactment, asking witnesses to re-create what they say they saw using a life-size doll to re-enact Janie's alleged fall.
Only three people at the party said they'd actually witnessed the fall: Gary Don Snow, an ex-convict who bought alcohol for the party; Billy Harris, the high school quarterback; and Sarah Patterson, a high school cheerleader and beauty queen whose father was the district judge.
Both Snow and Harris told police on tape that Janie Ward collapsed and fell backward from the step. But for a reason never explained, the third eyewitness, Sarah Patterson, was not interviewed on tape, even though she had earlier told police she saw Janie "kind of twist and fall."
Patterson was one of the girls Janie's parents say was at odds with their daughter, and there were rumors that she and Janie had gotten into a fight that very day. But nowhere in the police file does it indicate that Patterson was ever asked if she and Janie had been in a fight.
And there were other questions about the investigation as well. Much of the evidence in Janie's case was lost or mishandled: Forensic tests on her muddy jeans never came back from the lab; her clothes -- crucial evidence -- cannot be found; and the original X-rays were lost or thown away. The family contends that the duplicate copy of one X-rray was tampered with and official markings removed, so that it showed only a white splotch where the medical examiner had noted damage.
Accident or Homicide?
For years, Janie's parents pushed for a new investigation to look into the witnesses' stories, the condition of their daughter's body -- wet, sandy and bruised -- and the missing evidence. But no one listened until one of their letters reached forensic pathologist Harry Bonnell.
Bonnell, who has conducted more than 7,000 autopsies, volunteered to exhume Janie's body and conduct an independent autopsy free of charge. His conclusion was explosive.
"I thought she died of a hyperextension injury, where there was impact to the head and neck area driving her head and neck back," Bonnell told Avila.
Bonnell believes that something or someone appeared to have hit Janie in the face hard enough to snap her head back. In other words, according to Bonnell, Janie's death was a homicide.
For the Wards, it was the conclusion they had both hoped for and feared. For the first time, an authoritative voice was telling them their daughter did not die from a fall but was killed, possibly murdered.
However, the state medical examiner dismissed Bonnell's claims in a scathing nine page critique. Arkansas Medical Examiner Charles Kokes said Bonnell's autopsy report was "woefully inadequate" and that there was "no credible pathologic evidence to support" the allegations that Janie had been physically assaulted. Bonnell fired back, charging a "coverup."
'What if Janie Ward Were Your Daughter?'
That's when award-winning investigative journalist Mike Masterson started asking questions in his opinion column in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the biggest newspaper in the state.
"Some of the questions would be, 'What really happened to Janie Ward? What blow did drive her head back far enough to fracture her neck, break her nose, black her eye, cover her face in bruises, send blood sent down the inside of her neck and into her shoulder? What force caused that?' Certainly it wasn't a 9½-inch backward fall onto dry ground."
And the one question Masterson kept returning to in column after column -- more than 200 columns in all -- was directed to his readers: "What if Janie Ward were your daughter?"
The mounting political pressure from Masterson's columns led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, Tim Williamson. Williamson set up a "war room" with investigative background, diagrams, and statements of all the witnesses. "I'm not trying to disprove Dr. Bonnell, I'm not trying to prove Dr. Bonnell," Williamson said. "Either one is perfectly fine with me. Because if he's correct, she was murdered and somebody needs to be prosecuted."
But Bonnell's autopsy alone was not enough. What Williamson needed was an eyewitness, someone who could describe exactly what happened to Janie. And that's exactly what he got.
A Witness Emerges From the Shadows
Sylvia Watkins' name was in the case file, but no one had followed up with her for 17 years, until ABC News called her. What she said she saw the night of Sept. 9, 1989, changed the tone of the investigation.
Back then, Sylvia Watkins said she was a "runner": someone who drove dealers to their appointments to sell drugs. On the day Janie died, she says she was taking a brick of marijuana to a party in the woods in Marshall, which just happened to be at the same cabin where Janie was.
Watkins, who admits she had a joint or two herself on the way to Marshall, says she saw two girls fighting on the porch when she drove up. One of the girls, she says, was Janie Ward. The other, according to Watkins, was wielding a bat.
Watkins claimed the girl with the bat was the cheerleader, the third witness who saw Janie fall, the classmate who had been linked by rumors to Janie's death all along. She was also the same girl whose father was the district judge.
"I was going to keep my mouth shut and forget it ever happened," Watkins told ABC News producer Teri Whitcraft. "But somebody found me."
There were problems with Watkins' story. The biggest problem was that what Watkins told ABC News contradicts her statement that was part of the case file. In an unsigned witness statement after Janie died, she said that she heard third-hand that Janie Ward got in a fight with some girls at the creek, and was hit in the head with a beer bottle.
What Watkins' statement exactly matched the forensic conclusions of Bonnell's autopsy findings. Former FBI Special Agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett says there are always red flags when a new witness surfaces after the fact (CLICK HERE to ask Garrett a question about the case).
"Anytime someone comes up with a story, I want to look at it and go, does this even really fit, does it make sense? And why have you waited 15 or 20 years to come forward?"
When asked if she had fabricated a story based on Bonnell's findings as reported in newspaper or Internet accounts, Watkins insisted she was telling the truth. "I saw what I saw," she said. "You can't tell me I didn't."
The Judge's Daughter Speaks Out
ABC News wanted to speak to the girl at the center of all the rumors: the former cheerleader and beauty queen Sarah Patterson. Patterson, who says she left town to escape all the rumors and stares, had never spoken publicly before, but she decided to set the record straight.
"I just want to end it right now. I just want my name cleared of everything. I want out of it," Patterson told Avila.
Patterson says she was targeted unfairly because of her status in Marshall. "I was in a group of people that had a lot of visibility," Patterson said. "The spoiled little rich girl [who] gets anything she wants -- in a small town like this? I'm always the target."
Patterson described standing outside when she saw Janie fall.
"She fell down. We just thought she was drunk and fell down, because they'd been there awhile at this party."
Patterson characterized Sylvia Watkins' story as "an absolute, nasty, nasty lie." She denied fighting with Janie that night, hitting her with a bat, or having anything at all to do with Janie Ward's death.
"I can't control what people say, but it's so not true," Patterson said, sobbing. "I didn't do this. … I did not do this to her!"
The Final Autopsy
Nearly 18 years after Janie Ward was laid to rest, three years after he was assigned to the case, special prosecutor Tim Williamson exhumed Janie's body and conducted a rare third autopsy to try to solve the mystery of Janie's death once and for all.
The autopsy would be conducted by a team of nationally known experts using the most advanced forensic technology available -- including a comprehensive 3-D computerized axial tomograph, or CAT, performed at the University of Arkansas Medical Center.
Leading the team was Dr. John Pless, a nationally respected forensic pathologist from the Indiana University School of Medicine. Army pathologist Dr. David Hause observed on behalf of the Ward family.
The results were startling. Unlike the first two autopsies, Pless determined that the cause of Janie's death was not upper spinal chord and neck injury. He also concluded there was no neck injury or blunt force trauma to her face or skull. The most likely cause of death, according to Pless, was that Janie choked to death. He pointed to tiny red hemorrhages he found in Janie's throat as possible evidence.
This past April, in a private meeting, Pless told the Wards his findings.
"My opinion," he said, "is that at some point or another, just prior to her collapse, she got something caught in her throat, couldn't breathe, couldn't talk, and as the oxygen level was reduced, she finally collapsed."
"It couldn't, it can't be that simple, " Mona Ward said. "If it was that simple we wouldn't be here we would have put it to rest a long time ago. We haven't come this far to, to accept that she choked."
Justice for Janie?
Ron and Mona Ward were angry. Two previous autopsies had determined their daughter died of a broken neck. Now this latest autopsy concluded that not only was there no neck injury, there was no homicide. How could so many doctors be so wrong?
"We're not blind. We're not stupid," said Mona Ward. "The whole state has a conflict. Can't anyone see that?"
'We still want an investigation," said Ron Ward.
Special prosecutor Tim Williamson said he did an investigation, interviewing 32 witnesses and compiling a more than 4,000-page report to be released in July. He says while he may not be able to answer all the family's questions, he is certain that Janie was not a victim of homicide.
For Sarah Patterson, the former beauty queen who left her hometown to escape the rumors and speculation that she killed Janie Ward, the autopsy finding is a clear vindication that may finally bring her peace of mind.
But after 18 years of confusion, contradictions and false leads, peace for Janie's parents is as elusive as the answer to the question they will not stop asking: What did happen to our Janie?
"There is nothing they can tell us or tell the public," said Ron Ward, "that will change the feeling we have in our hearts and that we have known for all these years: that our daughter's life was taken from her by foul play, by the hands of other people."
Click Here to visit the Justice for Janie Ward discussion group for more.