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HYTHE, AB—The day after controversial eco-activist Wiebo Ludwig died, the RCMP wanted to open his coffin and take his fingerprints one final time. His family refused.
The media-savvy reverend was seen as an "eco-warrior" by his supporters; to his foes he was an "eco-terrorist." He was best known for his run-ins with the oil and gas industry—and the police—because of his objection to poisonous leaks.
The Dutch-born preacher died from cancer of the esophagus on April 9 at his log cabin near Hythe, in northwestern Alberta. Ludwig was 70. The ink had barely dried on his death certificate when his casket was carried to a small cemetery in woods nearby and placed in an above ground concrete crypt. The previous fall I’d walked with Wiebo on a path that curves through the graveyard. At one point he stopped and, pointing with his cane, said, “This is where I’m going.”
The graveyard is a short walk from Trickle Creek, the small Christian community Ludwig founded 26 years ago. Today it’s home to nearly 60 people, a sprawling complex of chalet-type homes, machine shops, greenhouses, barns, woodsheds and a dental office.
Richard Boonstra, Ludwig’s long-time friend and a resident at Trickle Creek, called the RCMP’s request to fingerprint his corpse “odd,” “invasive” and “a terrible disrespect and interference” with human remains. Boonstra suspects the Mounties wanted to see for themselves that Wiebo Ludwig was actually dead. The request showed authorities’ discomfort with Ludwig, according to Boonstra, because, he said, Ludwig had embarrassed the "establishment."
Doris Stapleton of RCMP Media Relations says “a fingerprint is the best way to positively identify someone, and if that person has a criminal record the fingerprints are sent to Ottawa so they’re able to take the record off CPIC.” CPIC is the Canadian Police Information Center where criminal history files are kept.
The family’s attorney, Paul Moreau of Edmonton, informed the RCMP “that wouldn’t be happening.” The Mounties dropped the matter, and the heavy top covering the crypt was never raised. Moreau, a veteran criminal defence lawyer, says it was the first time he’s heard of police lifting prints off convicted criminals to close a file.
The request to fingerprint a dead and buried man came as news to recently retired correctional officer Rick Dyhm. In his 34 years as a guard at federal prisons—where numerous inmates have died—Dyhm says police never showed up to take prints off a dead inmate.
In 2001, an Edmonton judge handed Ludwig a 28-month prison sentence after finding him guilty of oilfield vandalism. He was found guilty of attempting to possess explosives and “public mischief” over $5,000 after two gas well-heads nearby Trickle Creek were damaged. One had been dynamited; the other encased in concrete. Ludwig was released after serving two-thirds of his sentence. What precipitated the vandalism was a series of sour gas leaks that poisoned people and animals at Trickle Creek. The Ludwigs say when they complained to the authorities, nothing was done. The leaks continued and the people of Trickle Creek put duct tape around their doors and windows to try and keep the toxic gas at bay.
Two years prior to his conviction, tensions reached a boiling point when a local girl, 16-year-old Karman Willis, was shot and killed at Ludwig’s farm. Willis had been riding in one of three pick-ups that tore around Trickle Creek in the dead of night. Drivers did doughnuts and tossed empty beer cans, with one truck coming to within a metre of plowing down four children sleeping in a tent. A bullet hit the radiator of one truck and ricocheted off the frame, striking Willis. No one was charged with the shooting; neither were any of the intruders charged with trespassing at night, or impaired or dangerous driving.
In January 2010, about 200 RCMP officers raided Trickle Creek to search for evidence in the bombing of a gas pipeline near Tom’s Lake, BC, about an hour’s drive from Ludwig’s farm. Mounties told reporters they had proof—DNA evidence—that Wiebo Ludwig was connected to the bombings. Ludwig was tricked into thinking he was just meeting with Mounties in nearby Grande Prairie, but was arrested and locked up for 24 hours. He was never charged with the Tom’s Lake bombings.
Boonstra finds it odd the Mounties didn’t get around to meet with Ludwig in his final days. If police believed Ludwig shot Willis—or was behind the BC bombings—Boonstra wonders why investigators wouldn’t want to see him in the hope they might get a deathbed confession.
Ludwig, a carpenter, built his own coffin in February when he realized his battle with cancer was going south.
In his final media interview, published in The Dominion, a weakened Ludwig revealed he was looking forward to what he called crossing over. “[Death] doesn’t bother me,” he offered. “It is apparent to everyone there is an afterlife, even though we repress that in our anxieties. I am eager for redemption, eager to see what’s there. I just hope I die without too much pain.”
He got his wish, thanks to a combination of herbal medicine, oxycontin and morphine. Right up to the day he died, Ludwig went for walks, often arm-in-arm with Maime, his wife of 43 years.
In his last hours, family members made their way to the log cabin where their leader, frail and lying on a couch, blessed them one by one. Wiebo Arienes Ludwig took his final breath at 11:30 am on Easter Monday. On his last day he said “...Think I’m afraid of dying? Hardly.” His last words were a request: that family members not quarrel and that they keep the faith.
No outsiders were permitted at the funeral service, held in the family’s large dining hall. I first learned of Wiebo’s death when Josh, one of his sons, phoned late that afternoon.
Family members wept openly when I played back recordings of the final interviews with Wiebo. I had called Trickle Creek on April 2 for an update on his condition. Ludwig managed to get to the phone. “Why are you calling?” he queried. I joked I was curious to see if he’d died on April Fools Day. Ludwig chuckled. It was the last time we spoke.
What has changed at Trickle Creek since Wiebo Ludwig’s death? Plenty, but much remains the same. Trickle Creek continues to be managed by a council of eight family members, its spiritual core much the way it was when Wiebo was alive.
Trickle Creek remains a strong Christian community, bordering on Old Testament-like values. Meals are followed by readings from the Scriptures. No one is addicted to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or television. The adults work every day except Sundays. Food and herbs are home grown, no one in the community suffers from obesity. The children have chores; they pick berries, help with the harvest, feed the chickens and milk the goats and cows. For kicks, they ride bikes, collect cattails, learn pottery and play volleyball, soccer and hop-scotch.
There are no video games at Trickle Creek. Put it this way: the apple products they admire hang on trees and the twitter comes from birds.
But a few changes have taken place. Wiebo’s log cabin was moved closer to the forest; the inside is now being refurbished and a second floor added. Plans are underway to build another multiple-story house, complete with a turret and an aerial walkway; the idea is that in cold weather people can travel between buildings without having to don extra clothes. A huge barn was recently constructed to store five thousand bales of hay and to give livestock shelter on cold winter days.
Before I pulled out of Trickle Creek I chatted with beekeeper Fritz Ludwig. “Sorry if I seem out of place here,” I explained, “I don’t go to church.” Holding a young child in his arms and swaying from side to side, the bearded Fritz smiled and replied, “neither do we.”
Byron Christopher is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Edmonton, Alberta. For more on his career, click here.
Wiebo Ludwig’s last interview was published in The Dominion on March 16, 2012. See Wiebo’s Final Battle.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.