Ludwig Farm Shooting

On a brilliant summer's evening last week, two children's teams played soccer outside the Beaverlodge Community Centre. Another group of youngsters splashed with glee in an adjacent outdoor swimming pool. Inside the town hall, though, the mood was ugly. More than 200 residents from Alberta's Peace River district had gathered to discuss the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Beaverlodge girl on the farm of Wiebo Ludwig, an outspoken ex-preacher who has been accused of participating in an eco-terrorism campaign against northern Alberta's oil and gas industry. The closed-door meeting was called by the RCMP to help people constructively channel their anger and grief over the shooting, which took place in the early hours of June 20 when a group of teenagers apparently went for a joyride on Ludwig's property. But many residents were having none of that. They wanted revenge.

As an RCMP officer stood stone-faced at the front of the meeting hall, one person after another shouted out in anger and dismay. "Why isn't Ludwig in jail?" one man demanded. "Why don't you go in and arrest him?" piped in another. "That yellow stripe down your pants also runs down your back." Many spoke menacingly about taking the law into their own hands. "We're decent folk," said one woman, "but I don't know that we're going to be decent anymore." Added another resident: "Ludwig may have bombs. Well, guess what, we got guns."

Violence - both real and threatened - has been a staple of life in the Peace district over the past three years. During that time, there have been more than 160 unsolved incidents of vandalism, shootings and bombings directed at oilpatch facilities. Many residents lay the blame for the violence squarely on Ludwig, the founding patriarch of a 35-member Christian fundamentalist community based on an isolated quarter section of land known as the Trickle Creek farm, near Hythe, Alta., 550 km northwest of Edmonton. Ludwig and Richard Boonstra, whose family is also part of the Trickle Creek commune, are currently free on bail after being charged in January with nine counts of criminal conspiracy and mischief related to oilpatch terrorism.

None of the charges have yet been proven in court. But Ludwig has repeatedly drawn attention to himself with inflammatory statements to the media about the oil and gas industry. Ludwig blames sour gas emissions from 10 well sites surrounding his farm for a wide range of family afflictions, including three miscarriages and a stillborn child. The former Christian Reformed minister defends the use of violence to combat the industry. "This is war," he has said, "and in war there are sometimes casualties." But likely not even Ludwig expected the first casualty to be a popular, athletic girl whom her family last week described as a fun-loving tomboy.

Karman Willis was one of eight teenagers in two pickup trucks who arrived at the Trickle Creek farm around 4 a.m. on June 20 after spending much of the night at a bush party. What happened in the ensuing moments remained, at week's end, still a matter of much contention and confusion. The RCMP - which had yet to lay any charges after conducting an exhaustive weeklong search of Ludwig's property and seizing several firearms - were saying very little. According to Ludwig, the teens were drunk, throwing bottles and driving recklessly close to a tent where four of his daughters, ages 9 to 20, were camping, when shots rang out. Some of the teens involved in the fateful ride told reporters they were sober at the time and had entered Ludwig's property out of simple curiosity. They said they were pulling away from the farm when they heard three shots. Karman was hit in the chest and died a short time later. A 19-year-old friend, Shaun Westwater, was treated for gunshot wounds and released from hospital after three days.

For nearly 36 hours after the fatal shooting the normally loquacious Ludwig declined to speak to reporters. When he did start talking again, he displayed the self-righteousness that so infuriates his neighbours. While he claimed to be "sad" for the parents of the dead girl, he said they needed to reflect on why their daughter was out at that time of the night in the company of "wild young teenagers." That may be hard for them to digest, he acknowledged. "But I think in time we're going to realize that we've pampered our kids, that we're raising a reckless generation." Ludwig also attempted to directly link the tragedy with the struggle that has consumed him in recent years. "If anyone pulled the trigger," he told Maclean's, "it was the oil industry that started this controversy and the government which refused to delve into it before it got out of hand."

In fact, Ludwig spent a good part of last week publicly speculating on who exactly fired the fatal shots. Initially, he suggested the trespassing teens may have been firing guns and caught themselves in the crossfire - a theory dismissed by the police and the teens who said they had nothing more lethal than some fishing rods in their possession. Soon, though, Ludwig was conceding that "most likely" the shots came from someone who lived at Trickle Creek, though he insisted he had no idea who that might be. But even if a community member was responsible, he said, he or she clearly acted in self-defence - and confessing was not an option since the culprit "would be a definite target for vigilante action."

Ludwig's closest neighbour, farmer Rob Everton, monitored news reports last week with a growing sense of exasperation. "This is a very clever man and he's trying to weasel out of this thing," said Everton. "Confuse the issue, that's part of his strategy." Unless the police uncovered strong forensic evidence, they could be in a real bind, added Everton. "It's a very tight-knit group there and if nobody will talk, how do you decide who actually pulled the trigger?"

Last fall, Everton helped spearhead a petition signed by all but one of the 21 families in the vicinity of the Trickle Creek farm. It stated that none of them had suffered the grievous health problems Ludwig attributed to the oil and gas industry. Like many in the area, Everton thinks the media have given Ludwig far too much favourable publicity. "We've been harping at the press that these people are unpredictable and very, very dangerous," he says. "But the media keep portraying him as some kind of folk hero, hiding behind this illusion that he's an environmentalist."

Even some of those who share Ludwig's concerns about the effects of sour gas emissions are distressed by the recent turn of events. Henry Pirker, a 70-year-old local rancher who has spoken out on behalf of Ludwig in the past, told Maclean's last week: "This whole thing has hurt the environmental cause in this province. We don't need this kind of violence. Nobody gains from it." But Pirker was equally disturbed by the threats against the Ludwig family. "It's like we're in a war zone right now," he said. "There's talk of lynchings and I don't know where this will end."

At a memorial service for Karman last Thursday, United Church minister Chris Donnelly addressed the threat of vigilantism. "Do not become what you yourself hate," he urged the 1,100 mourners who crowded into the Beaverlodge hockey arena where Karman had often dazzled spectators as a high-scoring centre. Following the service, Karman's brother-in-law, Roger Lowen, read a statement to the media, as Karman's parents and other family members stood tearfully behind him. "We have faith in God that justice will be served," Lowen said. "We are appealing to the government and the RCMP to bring charges in this matter. Until that happens, our family can't and won't bring closure to this tragic death." The grief etched on the faces of Karman's loved ones was a poignant reminder that while Wiebo Ludwig's war promises to drag on, a young and vital life had been snuffed out forever.

Maclean's July 5, 1999