HYTHE — The scars left behind by years of animosity between Wiebo Ludwig and his neighbours may have faded around the edges, but the wounds have never really healed.
Ludwig, who died Monday at the age of 70 after fighting esophageal cancer, had his supporters among those who debated the merits of Alberta’s oil and gas industry, and he certainly enjoyed the fealty of his followers on his Trickle Creek compound near Hythe, Alta.
But to many who lived near him, there was just one word to describe the barrel-chested, grey-haired former preacher.
“I can remember talking to reporters at that time and using the word terrorist, and nobody would have it,” recalled Brian Petersen, a neighbour of Ludwig’s.
“But now that we’ve all, to some degree, suffered from terrorism, it’s a lot easier to understand what people in this community went through at that time. I think after 9/11, people understand it more.”
Petersen recalled it as an intense and frightening period.
“People would go into work not knowing if they open the door, if things were going to blow up. I certainly didn’t have the worry myself every day, going to work, but my friends and other family members did.”
Ludwig always said he was first spurred to action by growing sour gas development around his sprawling Christian commune.
He claimed the wells were poisoning his family and farm. He blamed them for his daughter’s miscarriage and the deaths of livestock.
Between 1996 and 1998, there were at least 160 incidents at oil and gas facilities in northwestern Alberta. They ranged from nails strewn along lease roads to shootings and bombings.
In April 2000 Ludwig was convicted of bombing a Suncor well site near his home. He was also found guilty of encasing a Norcen Energy well in concrete and counselling an RCMP informant to possess explosives. He served 19 months in jail.
But nothing enraged the community more than the death of 16-year-old Karman Willis, a girl who was shot while she and friends were joyriding on Ludwig’s property in pickup trucks early one morning in June 1999.
Ludwig’s children were sleeping in a tent outside when the trucks entered the yard. It was Ludwig who called 911 after shots rang out. Police weren’t able to determine conclusively who pulled the trigger and no charges were laid.
Ludwig won no favours with his self-righteous dismissal of the girl’s death. He told reporters he was “sad” for Karman’s parents, but suggested they needed to reflect on why their daughter had been out so late at night with “wild young teenagers.”
Petersen said Monday that Ludwig’s death made him think of both families.
“I don’t believe anybody’s happy that he died,” Petersen said. “He still has a family and people that loved him.
“I would say the only thing that is different, perhaps, is that his family now can take this time to see what Karman Willis’s family went through and perhaps come forward with information they have. Someone out there knows who killed her.”
Rob Everton, a neighbour whose property bordered on Ludwig’s, agreed the teen’s unresolved killing is “a sore point for the whole community.”
But though he also expressed his sympathies to the Ludwig family, he cannot find it in his heart to forgive.
“He was not a nice man,” said Everton, who also used the words “evil” and “psychopath” to describe Ludwig. “He gave us a notoriety that we didn’t want or deserve.”
Both men agreed Ludwig’s impact on Hythe waned considerably in recent years.
“He was never the same person when he came back from jail,” said Everton. “I think the last time police raided Trickle Creek in the investigation of the (2008) bombings … in B.C., I think that really, really scared him. He did not want to go back to jail. That really took the wind out of his sails.”
Petersen said he believes Ludwig learned something from his experience in prison.
“He definitely wasn’t the presence he was prior to that but once you become a criminal, your credibility dissipates quite a bit.”
Everton wonders what will happen now to the children and grandchildren left at Trickle Creek. He said the compound members relied on Ludwig heavily, adding the children were sheltered and “taught to be afraid of the outside world.”
“I think there’s real compassion and pity and concern for the children who are there,” Everton said. “They’re certainly not being educated to an acceptable standard.”