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Christie Blatchford

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my strange days at Trickle Creek Add to ...

Every 10 years or so, whether I need to or not, I write about Wiebo Ludwig.

The once-convicted oil-patch bomber-cum-charismatic religious leader at Trickle Creek farm near Hythe, Alta., was arrested yesterday and is expected to be charged with extortion in connection with a series of pipeline bombings across the border in northern British Columbia.

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The last time I wrote about Mr. Ludwig was at the start of another decade, in February, 2000, when his trial and that of his acolyte Richard Boonstra on charges of conspiracy, mischief and destroying property - this related to an earlier round of oil-field vandalism - were beginning.

Though an extortion charge was later thrown out - the prosecutors had argued that Mr. Ludwig had a "bomb and bargain strategy," whereby he committed acts of vandalism whenever negotiations to buy his property bogged down - he was later convicted of five offences, including the bombing of a gas well, and eventually served two-thirds of a 28-month sentence.

Mr. Boonstra was convicted of one count of oil-patch vandalism.

Over the next almost eight weeks, at the Law Courts in Edmonton and 450 klicks north at Trickle Creek itself, I got to know Mr. Ludwig, his skittish wife, Mamie, (you'd be skittish too if your husband had once shaved your head bald as a form of discipline) and various of their grown children and adorable grandchildren, most of them apple-cheeked and great-looking, and learned more about soap-and-yarn making than I ever cared to learn.

Such things, in addition to making your own butter and cheese, are the sort of women's work of which Mr. Ludwig approves. Well, that and having children.

One young widow I interviewed back then, whom Mr. Ludwig had tried very hard to recruit (charm offensive first; then guilt, as in, "Wouldn't you like to have more kids?", then aggressive and unpleasant hard-sell), once said, "In a nutshell, they wanted me and my kids. I'm young. I'm Dutch. I like kids. We're good breeding stock." And the Church of Our Shepherd King gang at Trickle Creek - there were 17 grandchildren then, from only three bloodlines - were mighty short on that.

I was hardly Mr. Ludwig's cup of tea, a barren old mare even in those days, woefully lacking in all domestic skills, who prefers to buy her soap (the Trickle Creek sample they gave me, a peppermint job in the shape of the Lion King, I never used and have long since lost) and everything else from a store, preferably for a lot of money, and who regards the kitchen purely as a room I pass through in order to get somewhere else, in my case, the back deck.

Yet I liked him, especially at first, found him smart (though he must always be the smartest man in any room and thus is usually also the loudest), so dominant I almost expected him to relieve himself on the furniture, and occasionally even funny.

"I shave women like you bald," he once teased with a wicked smile. I laughed or smart-mouthed him back, but we both knew I was the last sort of woman he'd ever dream of shaving. Those he shaves bald, literally or metaphorically, are those already vulnerable to him, dependent, afraid, insecure.

Life at Trickle Creek struck me as being unimaginably weird. The married couples lived in various houses with their offspring; the youngsters worked or played with the chickens, rabbits and cows; the women made soap, ground it to power for laundry.

People made wine, even special hand cream. Girls wove hair from the goats into slippers. Everyone female seemed to wear an apron and be perpetually baking, and they practised "headship," whereby women show deference to men by covering their heads. None of the youngsters under the age of 12 was in school.

Mr. Ludwig's obsession was oil and gas wells and oil companies, sour gas leaks; he and his sprawling family blamed every health ill, serious and minor, on leaks or flaring. They were haunted by the death of one of their own, baby Abel Ludwig, born dead in 1998 with grave head and brain deformities, yet refused to call in a coroner to examine the baby's body. I remember Mamie once, very distressed, crying, "Proof! You people always want proof!" It's a standard she and Mr. Ludwig may be very glad of in the coming days.

Yet as stricken as the family was by that death, Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig at least were unmoved by another which occurred on their property a year later - the shooting death, still unsolved, of a teenager named Karman Willis.

She was the 16-year-old who, out driving with friends in the early hours of June 20, 1999, seems to have done what kids in the country back then did once in a while - go over to Trickle Creek, do a few wheelies to bug the local weirdos, and drive away.

But this time, there was a shooting, and Ms. Willis ended up shot in the chest.

Mr. Ludwig talked about her death as though it were a pick-pocketing incident. Whenever I asked him about it, he would demand to know why those marauding teens hadn't been charged with trespassing and was quick to suggest that perhaps one of Ms. Willis's friends had shot her. Mr. Ludwig was only ever interviewed by the RCMP once, refused to discuss the shooting, and instructed family members not to speak to police.

Mr. Ludwig is said by his lawyer to be confused by the current charge, though I have trouble imagining Mr. Ludwig in such a state. It was only in late 2008, after all, that he inserted himself into the investigation by going to police to offer his assistance in tracking down the bomber.

The Mounties are still searching Trickle Creek farm; the warrant allows them to keep looking for five days. My hunch is they'll find lots of handmade soap and baked goods.

cblatchford@globeandmail.com

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