Ludwig Found Guilty

For years, many of Wiebo Ludwig's neighbours in the remote Peace River district of northwestern Alberta have watched with dismay and mounting frustration as the former Christian Reformed minister became a national figure - and, in some quarters, even a folk hero.

Ludwig Found Guilty

For years, many of Wiebo Ludwig's neighbours in the remote Peace River district of northwestern Alberta have watched with dismay and mounting frustration as the former Christian Reformed minister became a national figure - and, in some quarters, even a folk hero. Patriarch of a 35-member avowedly Christian commune, Ludwig won lavish media coverage as a self-styled environmentalist who loudly decried an oil and gas industry he claimed was poisoning the atmosphere - and his land. Through it all, people like Rob Everton, who lives within two kilometres of Ludwig's Trickle Creek farm near the village of Hythe, painted a different picture of Ludwig - as a dangerous man engaged in a vandalism and bombing campaign that terrorized a rural community. Often, Everton felt no one was listening. "From the start," he told Maclean's, "it's been an uphill battle to get out the truth of what this fellow is really about."

Last week, Everton was among three dozen Hythe-area residents who travelled six hours by chartered bus to Edmonton, where Ludwig, 58, and fellow commune member Richard Boonstra, 55, have been at the centre of a sensational eight-week trial. Along with nearly 200 other spectators - including more than a dozen reporters - they listened intently as Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman pronounced Ludwig guilty of five criminal offences, including bombing one gas well, vandalizing another, and counselling and conspiring to obtain explosives. Sanderman also found Boonstra guilty of one count of oil patch vandalism. Although Sanderman dismissed or stayed many more charges than he upheld - at the trial's outset Ludwig and Boonstra faced a total of 37 counts, many of them mischief and conspiracy charges - the Hythe-area visitors expressed relief and gratitude at his verdict. "He clearly understood how Ludwig operates," said forestry contractor Brian Peterson. "This is a man who will use bombs to further his cause. It's a terrible thing and when you live with it in your backyard, it's hell."

The verdict follows a roller-coaster trial in which the Crown's case frequently threatened to go off the rails. The prosecution's star witness was Robert Wraight, a former Ludwig friend who became a paid police informant. Wraight's monetary motives - he also sought, unsuccessfully, to sell his property to the Alberta Energy Company, one of the targets for oil patch vandalism - led Justice Sanderman to describe his testimony as "tainted." Worse yet, Wraight suffered brain injuries in a car crash in the mid-1980s that left him with both short- and long-term memory losses - a fact unknown to the RCMP when they recruited him to infiltrate the Trickle Creek commune.

Because of the flawed nature of Wraight's testimony, Sanderman asserted that the Crown needed strong corroborating evidence to make its case. This should have come in the form of 29 hours of audiotapes secretly recorded by the RCMP while Wraight dealt with Ludwig and Boonstra at Trickle Creek and other locations around Hythe in October and November of 1998. Wraight wore a down-filled vest with a microphone and transmitter hidden inside; a receiver wired to a reel-to-reel recorder in his truck picked up the signal. But the resulting tapes were of such abysmal quality that even after the RCMP paid a Calgary sound engineer $70,000 to try to filter out static and background noises, Sanderman was often left straining to hear the content and context of what was being said.

In dismissing several of the conspiracy and mischief charges, Sanderman said that "the evidence from the tapes does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt" the accused committed the offences. But in some instances, the recordings did prove revealing. In one exchange, said Sanderman, Ludwig could clearly be heard counselling Wraight to obtain explosives; other evidence, he added, showed Ludwig later followed Wraight's instructions to retrieve what Ludwig believed to be dynamite from a highway culvert. Sanderman was equally certain of Ludwig and Boonstra's role in damaging a Norcen Energy Resources Ltd. well site a few kilometres north of Trickle Creek on Nov. 30, 1997. A note later found at the site demanded $2 million from the company to compensate the Ludwig family. Sanderman said that, the next day at a television station in Dawson Creek, just over the British Columbia border, Ludwig dropped off a videotape depicting the vandalism. "He was intent on publicizing what had been done at the Norcen site," observed Sanderman, "even before it had been discovered by the oil company."

The most serious charge upheld against Ludwig was that he set off an explosion at a Suncor Energy Inc. well site near Hinton, Alta., in the early hours of Aug. 24, 1998. In this instance, said Sanderman, "the circumstantial evidence against Mr. Ludwig is overwhelming." On the evening of Aug. 23, an RCMP surveillance team tracked a van containing Ludwig, his wife, Mamie, and two or more unidentified occupants as they drove more than 300 km through remote bush country. The police lost sight of the van for about 13 minutes at a point near the well site. The following evening - 13 hours after the explosion - Ludwig was picked up along the roadside within 30 km of the Suncor site. His clothing was covered in moss and twigs and a hand swab later taken by police revealed residues consistent with explosives.

Sanderman said Ludwig had a clear motive for the Suncor bombing. Three days before the blast, Ludwig's daughter-in-law, Renée Boonstra, gave birth to a lifeless, deformed infant, Abel Ryan. The family blamed the stillbirth on sour gas emissions. In a videotape of the child's funeral, later played in court, Renée said of Ryan: "Your blood now cries out from the ground for justice from the evil that now all around us abounds." Directly addressing a grim-faced Ludwig in court, Sanderman said the ex-preacher had carried out "an act of revenge against the oil industry for what you believed they did to your immediate family."

Ludwig, who is facing up to 14 years in jail, remained in custody pending sentencing this week, while Boonstra was released on bail. But for Ludwig's neighbours, the saga is far from over. There is still the unresolved shooting death of 16-year-old Karman Willis last June when she and seven friends went for an early morning joyride on Ludwig's property. Police are stymied by the fact that commune members refuse to talk. With Trickle Creek's patriarch out of the picture, Peterson, among others, is hoping for a breakthrough. "I think the guilt someone is feeling will build," he says, "and eventually they will come forward." Until that happens, he adds, Alberta's Peace district will not live up to its name.

Maclean's May 1, 2000