Adventures in Wieboland

Brian Bergman,B.B. March 13 2000

Adventures in Wieboland

Brian Bergman,B.B. March 13 2000
I have a great love forfreedom of speech. —Wiebo Ludwig, in one of many media scrums during his ongoing criminal trial

The ritual is, by now, well-established. At least once a day, sometimes twice, Wiebo Ludwig emerges from Edmonton’s Law Courts building to face a phalanx of television cameras and microphones. In calm, even tones, the former Christian Reformed minister comments on the latest evidence in his trial on 18 counts of mischief and conspiracy related to vandalism and bombings at oil well sites—as well as one count of alleged extortion against an Alberta oil company. Even when the testimony is not going his way, Ludwig remains unflappable. Last week, a forensic chemist testified that a police swab sample taken from Ludwig’s hands shortly after a bomb went off at a well site near Hinton, Alta., revealed residues consistent with explosives. Outside court, Ludwig readily conceded the evidence “looks good to those who would like to nab me.” And was he comfortable with that? “Sure,” he replied.

The trial of a self-styled environmental crusader shows that truth can be stranger than fiction

Welcome to Wieboland. It is a place where little is as it seems, and where it is never exactly clear who, or what, is really on trial. At the center of it all is Ludwig, 58, the proverbial riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Looking, and often sounding, like an Old Testament prophet brought back to smite the unrighteous, Ludwig is a self-styled environmental crusader who has spent more than a decade loudly decrying an oil and gas industry he claims is spewing life-threatening toxins into the atmosphere. He is also the patriarch of a 35-member avowedly Christian commune based on an isolated quarter-section of land known as the Trickle Creek farm, near Hythe, Alta., 550 km northwest of Edmonton. The commune is largely made up of the extended families of Ludwig and Richard Boonstra—the 54-year-old co-accused on the 18 vandalism-related charges.

According to Crown prosecutor George Combe, Ludwig is more than just a devout crusader. On Feb. 14—at the outset of a trial that is expected to last up to three months— Combe portrayed Ludwig as a man so motivated by greed that he used both threats and acts of violence to drive up the asking price of his farm. As later testimony showed, in March, 1998, Ludwig entered into on-again, off-again negotiations with the Calgary-based Alberta Energy Co., which had become a key target of oil patch vandalism in the Peace River region of northwestern Alberta starting in 1997. Combe told Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman—the trial is being heard before a judge alone—that while talks continued with AEC, Ludwig exercised a unique form of leverage. “When negotiations stalled,” he said, “there was always some act of vandalism to an AEC site.”

At one point, Ludwig was demanding as much as $1.5 million for his property, which the AEC had appraised at $450,000. In June, 1998, the two parties settled on a selling price of $800,000. But Ludwig scuttled the deal six weeks later, after the AEC attached a set of conditions. Chief among them: Ludwig and all other Trickle Creek residents would have to leave Alberta and never return.

The court also heard how the escalating violence in the oil patch provoked a massive RCMP undercover investigation—most of it revolving around members of the Trickle Creek commune—and how closely AEC officials cooperated in that effort. The police used airplanes to spy on Ludwig’s farm, conducted round-the-clock ground surveillance and tapped his phone. Known as Operation Kabriole, the exercise cost the RCMP an estimated $750,000. While the police force declined a direct offer of cash and equipment from AEC, company senior executive Alan Johnston testified that AEC gave $25,000 to a community organization, the South Peace Rural Crime Prevention Society. Along with $163,000 donated by other oil companies and businesses, the money was eventually channeled to the RCMP.

In the fall of 1998, Robert Wraight, a friend of Ludwig and at one point also a suspect in the bombings, offered to provide information about the commune leader and Boonstra if the AEC bought his property for $ 109,000. While the company declined to do so, the RCMP took on Wraight as a paid informant. The police soon came up with the idea of enhancing Wraight’s credibility with Ludwig by covertly staging a bombing and allowing their informant to take the credit. The RCMP and the AEC agreed to blow up a metal shed at a company site near Hythe—a plan that was executed in the early hours of Oct. 14—and followed up with the usual public denunciations. “I classify it purely as terrorism,” senior AEC executive Ed McGillivray declared at the time.

The bogus bombing has invested the Ludwig trial with a rich vein of irony. Last week, Cpl. Donald Spitzke of the RCMP s explosives disposal unit testified about his investigation into a bomb that went off at the Suncor Energy Inc. well near Hinton in 1998. Later, Spitzke was recalled by the Crown to describe his own role in setting off the Oct. 14 explosion at the AEC site on the instructions of his superiors. Spitzke recounted how, the following day, he returned to the site to conduct the post-blast investigation along with a fellow RCMP officer who did not know Spitzke was the bomber. “Fair to say that wasn’t the hardest investigation you ever did?” asked Ludwig’s lawyer, Paul Moreau, on cross examination. “Put it this way,” deadpanned Spitzke. “I knew what to look for.”

Much of last week’s testimony centred on the bomb that exploded at the Suncor site at 5:02 am on Aug. 24, 1998. Three police witnesses described how, on the evening of Aug. 23, they began tailing Ludwig’s blue Dodge Caravan after it left the Trickle Creek farm. Ludwig was driving, with his wife, Mamie, in the passenger seat and at least two other unidentified passengers sitting in the rear. The officers followed the van to a point near the Suncor site, where they lost sight of the vehicle. One of them, Cpl. Roy Pickell, pulled onto an entrance road to the Suncor site. From there, he told the court, he spotted “a male individual of average size wearing a khaki-green jacket with the hood up, running into the bush.” Fie did not pursue on foot, but instead began shouting. “I said, ‘Were RCMP, come out of the bush, hands up,’ that sort of thing,” Pickell testified. No one responded.

At about 1 a.m., Ludwigs blue van was spotted again and pulled over by police as it sped north towards Hythe. Mamie Ludwig was the only occupant. After a search of the vehicle revealed nothing unusual, she was sent on her way. Four hours later, the bomb went off. Both Ludwig and Boonstra were arrested later that same day. Boonstra had hitched a ride with a trucker heading north of the Suncor site and was subsequently picked up at a police blockade. Ludwig was spotted in a ditch within 30 km of the well site. He was dressed in a green jacket and cap, with blue trousers and sandals. The arresting officer, Const. Blair Martens, described Ludwig's demeanor as "very calm, very polite."

The Crown has tried to paint a picture of a man who commits violence out of Breed violence out of greed

The clothing seized from Ludwig and Boonstra at the time of their arrests was sent for analysis. Leonard Lau, a chemist with the RCMP's forensic laboratory in Vancouver, testified last week that, while the clothing showed no traces of explosives, a swab taken from Ludwig’s hands did. But under cross-examination by Moreau, Lau confirmed the main ingredients of the explosives residue—potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate—could also be found in a number of other products. Among the examples cited by Moreau: firecrackers, barbecue briquettes and decomposing plants.

This week, the focus will shift to Wraight, a former Beaverlodge, Alta., pawnshop owner who is expected to begin lengthy testimony as the Crown’s star witness. And if testimony offered late last week by another RCMP officer, Sgt. Jerry Dunn, is any indication, there are likely to be more twists and turns ahead. Dunn, who oversaw the RCMP’s Oct. 14 covert explosion at the AEC site, recalled how, one week later, AEC’s Johnston informed him the company intended to increase the reward money it was offering for information leading to arrests regarding the oil patch bombings. But Dunn asked the company to hold off on the announcement, fearing it would reignite media interest in the case.

His concern? The police had received information that Ludwig, Boonstra and Wraight were just about to set off a bomb. And it had been Dunn’s experience that, when the media “became very active,” Ludwig spent all his time giving interviews. “So it would be inconvenient to your operation if Rev. Ludwig spent his time talking to the media and not committing crimes?” said Ludwig’s lawyer. “Yes,” replied Dunn.

Only in Wieboland.