WALLA WALLA, Wash. — An 86-year-old man who killed two children and a woman in the 1990s and buried them near Plymouth has died in prison.

Ernest Lee Taber died last Sunday in the Washington State Penitentiary’s hospital infirmary, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Taber, of Pendleton, was serving a 31-year sentence and knew he likely would draw his last breath behind prison walls. The department couldn’t release any details, but corrections staff reportedly witnessed his death.

Kevin Holt, who represented Taber in trial and stayed in touch over the years, said the elderly man wasn’t always in the best health and was diagnosed with stomach cancer several years ago. The attorney used to send Christmas and birthday cards to Taber and occasionally visited him in the Walla Walla prison, but lost touch a year or two ago.

“I liked him. He was a good guy,” Holt told the Herald.

Through all the court proceedings, Holt maintained that his client was childlike and had a limited mental capacity, even though Taber was evaluated before his 1997 trial and found competent. Holt had told jurors that Taber was guilty, but said the more appropriate charge was manslaughter because his actions weren’t intentional.

“He really was a kind man,” he added. “(Taber) loved the outdoors, and I feel sorry for the fact that he never once again got to go out and go fishing before he passed away.”

Taber was fishing along the Columbia River near Plymouth in 1996 when he beat a 6-year-old boy to death with a shovel. He had been baby-sitting Galen Michael at the time, and buried the Hermiston boy in a remote location.

During that investigation, Taber led Benton County sheriff’s deputies to the grave of Cindy Lou Eaves, 35, and Bernard “B.J.” Eaves, 3, and even told authorities in what positions they would find the bodies. The mother and son, who had been missing since 1991, were buried together.

Taber was living with Cindy Eaves in her Plymouth trailer home when the two reportedly got into an argument. He beat the woman to death, then took her body — as well as a living B.J. Eaves — to a remote site east of town, according to prosecutors and trial testimony. He put the woman in a shallow grave, then clubbed the young boy and buried him too.

A Benton County Superior Court jury convicted Taber on one count of first-degree murder for B.J. Eaves and two counts of second-degree murder for Cindy Eaves and Galen Michael.

But in 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled that people who commit an assault that results in the victim’s death, even if unintentional, are not guilty of felony murder. Because the decision was retroactive to all cases filed since 1976, Taber’s two second-degree murder convictions were tossed out and the case was sent back to Superior Court.

In March 2005, Judge Vic VanderSchoor decided he would resentence Taber for the first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree assault, instead of granting him a new trial on first-degree manslaughter charges. He knocked almost 23 years off Taber’s earlier 54-year term.

VanderSchoor at the time said he felt some sympathy for Taber, given the defense’s concerns about diminished mental capacity, but said he had to hand down a new sentence that was appropriate while taking into consideration the people of Washington, the victims and their families.

In 2005, Prosecutor Andy Miller said he wanted to guarantee that Taber never went free. Miller, who couldn’t be reached this week for comment on Taber’s death, also said he wanted to spare the victims’ families from having to suffer through another trial because of the Supreme Court ruling.

“My goal on this case is that Ernest Taber dies in prison,” Miller then said.