“In a lot of ways, I do not blame him. I would certainly draw the line at killing and I’m sure so would he. But at a certain point, when you’ve been trodden on hard enough, you do have to fight back.”
-actor Alan Scarfe, speaking of Wiebo Ludwig, whom he portrays in the TV movie Burn: The Robert Wraight Story
I REMEMBER standing by the police barricade outside Wiebo Ludwig’s Trickle Creek farm, near Hythe, Alta., in June 1999. Along with other reporters, I was there to question Ludwig about the fatal shooting of 16year-old Karman Willis on the property two days earlier. Willis was one of eight local teenagers out on an apparent joyride at 4 a.m. The surviving teens said they were pulling away when three shots rang out, one of them hitting the girl in the chest. Ludwig, then free on bail and facing multiple charges related to vandalism and explosions at local oil fields, told us the teens were drunk and posed a threat to his four daughters who were camped outside. While claiming to be “sad” for the dead girl’s parents, Ludwig said they needed to reflect on why Karman was out with “wild young teenagers.” He then alluded to his long battle with the oil industry over claims that sour gas emissions from nearby wells had led to afflictions including the stillborn death of his grandson. “If anyone pulled the trigger,” he said, “it was the oil industry that started the controversy and the government which refused to delve into it before it got out of hand.”
LUDWIG was a petty tyrant, and Wraight was called ‘a tainted witness,’ but the show heaps blame on oil companies instead
That’s the Wiebo I observed and interviewed on several occasions. Arrogant. Selfrighteous. Manipulative. Within days, Ludwig would concede that “most likely” the fatal shots were fired by someone at the commune-style farm at Trickle Creek, where the discredited Christian Reformed minister reigned as patriarch. But he said he had no idea who that might be. With scant co-operation from Ludwig or his clan, the RCMP investigation was stymied, and no charges have ever been laid in Karman’s death.
I do see glimpses of the real Wiebo in the two-hour docudrama Bum, which CTV is airing on May 25. He is shown as a bully who believes women must submit to the will of husbands and fathers. But this is overshadowed by a storyline designed to convince us that Ludwig’s cause—if not always his means— is just. And Scarfe, who looks and sounds eerily like Ludwig, delivers such a compelling performance that I fear uninformed viewers will come away thinking Ludwig is simply a committed environmentalist who got carried away, rather than the petty tyrant he is.
Burn tells the story of Robert Wraight, a Ludwig confidante who became a police informant after Ludwig turned increasingly violent. Like Wiebo, Wraight (played by Jonathan Scarfe, son of Alan) blamed the oil industry for everything, including his daughter’s asthma. “People are dying—babies!” he declares. There are, in fact, serious and legitimate questions to be raised about the potential health risks of sour gas emissions. But Burn asks us to simply accept, on faith, that the oil companies are culpable.
The show’s producers say they focused on Wraight because they found him a more sympathetic character than Ludwig. They certainly strain to depict him as a salt-ofthe-earth family man used and abused by Ludwig and the police alike. Tellingly, they barely deal with his role at the trial that saw Ludwig convicted on five of 14 charges and sent to jail for 28 months (he served nearly 19). Small wonder. At the real thing, the presiding judge described Wraight as a “tainted witness” because he was a paid police informant who also tried to convince an oil company to buy his property in exchange for getting the goods on Ludwig. The judge added that Wraight seemed incapable of giving a straight answer to any question.
Burn does deal with Karman’s shooting in a final scene, but it seems almost an afterthought. My deepest misgiving about this “fact-based” movie? I suspect Ludwig, now free and back at Trickle Creek, will be delighted by it, while Karman’s family will be appalled. Where’s the justice in that? li1]
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