Known for his flowing white hair, preacher’s bearing and an implacable grudge against the oil and gas business, convicted saboteur Wiebo Ludwig has died at the age of 70 at his home in Alberta.
Mr. Ludwig, who had esophageal cancer, died Monday at his home with family at his side, his son Josh said.
“In some ways it was a beautiful occasion – he had the chance to say goodbye to everybody,” the younger man said.
An intensely polarizing figure, Mr. Ludwig was a folk hero to some for standing up to big oil interests and a cold-blooded terrorist to others, his voice and image becoming symbols of a homegrown ecological battle that sent shock waves across the country and abroad.
Mr. Ludwig, who had a degree in theology from a U.S. seminary, moved to Alberta in the 1980s, setting up a family compound near the small town of Hythe with his friend Richard Boonstra.
The men moved their families to the region after Mr. Ludwig served as pastor in Goderich, Ont., where he clashed with his congregation over his views about the role of women, saying they should be subservient to their husbands.
In Alberta, the families farmed, raised livestock and home-schooled their children.
As the clans settled in to the region, so too did the oil and gas business, with wells proliferating and trucks trundling along once-quiet roads. Mr. Ludwig complained that the industrial activity was polluting the environment, and linked it to animals dying and family members having miscarriages.
In the 1990s, a series of attacks began to target the sector, ranging from nails strewn across the road to shootings and bombings.
The attacks struck fear into the region and became the focus of an intense police investigation, which itself became controversial because of covert tactics used by police.
Mr. Ludwig’s profile increased dramatically when 16-year-old Karman Willis was shot dead on his property. The teen was among a group of local youths joyriding in two pickup trucks around Mr. Ludwig’s compound in the early morning hours of June 20, 1999, when someone fired at them, striking one man in the arm and Ms. Willis in the chest.
Although police recovered a shell casing and a rifle from the farm, they did not have enough evidence to charge anyone.
The shooting enraged many in the community, where Mr. Ludwig struck a nerve by suggesting that Karman’s parents needed to reflect on why their daughter had been out so late at night with “wild young teenagers.”
“If anyone pulled the trigger, it was the oil industry that started this controversy and the government which refused to delve into it before it got out of hand,” he told Maclean’s magazine.
In April of 2000, Mr. 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.
Mr. Ludwig’s life and anti-industrial campaigns have been covered in books, theatre and film, including a 2011 documentary called Wiebo’s War by Toronto filmmaker David York.
Mr. Ludwig was investigated in relation to a string of pipeline bombings on gas facilities near Dawson Creek, B.C., in 2008 and 2009.
The area where the B.C. bombings took place is relatively close to Hythe.
Police searched his property, collecting items such as books, tools and ammunition.
When a Globe reporter and photographer visited Trickle Creek – the name given to the family compound – in January of 2010, the day after police had scoured his property, Mr. Ludwig was a gracious host, showing visitors around the property and livestock facilities while trailed by friendly dogs.
He showed off a windmill, a solar-heated greenhouse and a home built using straw bales, citing the group’s efforts to become energy self-sufficient.
During the visit, rosy-cheeked children skated on a frozen pond, adding to the bucolic nature of the scene.
With a report from Adrian Morrow and The Canadian Press
LUDWIG AND THE LAW
1996 - Puts up a roadblock to stop the drilling of sour gas wells around his farm.
1997 - Dumps oil in the offices of the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. Convicted of mischief.
1998 - Charged, along with his wife and son, in connection with a blast at a Suncor gas well
1999 - Police search his property after Karman Willis, 16, is shot dead while joyriding there. No one is charged.
2000 - Sentenced to 28 months in prison for blowing up one gas well and vandalizing another.
2010 - Arrested in connection with the bombings of EnCana pipelines, but released without charge.