DEER LODGE, Mont. — A man serving life sentences for homicides committed in Arkansas, Montana and California in 2000 died unexpectedly at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, prison officials said.
Ronald James Ward Jr. was found unresponsive in a high-security housing unit Wednesday evening, prison spokeswoman Linda Moodry said. He was pronounced dead at a hospital. An autopsy was planned, but no foul play is suspected, Moodry said.
Ward, 48, was sentenced in June 2001 to 32 years to life in prison in Montana after pleading guilty to the October 2000 death of an acquaintance, Craig Sheldon Petrich, 43, of Hamilton. Petrich was last seen with Ward before his body was found in the Sapphire Mountains of western Montana. Petrich had been hit in the head with a rock and shot three times with a single-shot rifle that Ward had borrowed. Ward later pawned the gun in Billings, court records said.
Afterward, Ward fled Montana with his girlfriend. He was arrested in California on a Montana warrant, but not before he killed two women — Jackie Travis, 49, of Merced and Shela Polly, 33, of Modesto.
DNA collected in the Montana case also tied Ward to the August 2000 murder of Kristin Laurite, 25, of Scotch Plains, N.J., at a rest stop near Morrilton, and later to the California killings.
Ward pleaded no contest in 2007 to Laurite's stabbing death, and the next year, he pleaded guilty to killing the California women. He was given a life sentence in each case.