Reporter: Weavers dad was pure evil

Journalist recalls 1980s meeting with Ward Weaver Jr.

Editor's note: The following is a first-person account written by Michael Trihey, who covered the murder trial of Ward Francis Weaver Jr. for the Bakersfield Californian in the 1980s.

The first time I saw the movie, 'Silence of the Lambs,' I was immediately propelled back in time to the sunny spring afternoon I met Ward Francis Weaver Jr. Get a sense of Hannibal Lecter, and you've got a sense of Weaver, the man whose son and namesake now dominates Oregon headlines.

Police in Oregon City consider the son Ñ Ward Weaver III Ñ the prime suspect in the deaths of two teenage girls whose bodies were found recently on the property he rented Ñ one buried in the back yard, the other in a shed. Some have speculated that the son is following in the footsteps of his 58-year-old father, who is on death row at San Quentin State Prison in California for a 1981 double-murder.

But if the younger Weaver hoped to keep up with his father, he may be far behind. Nineteen years ago, police thought that the senior Weaver might have killed as many as 24 young women. That was the Weaver with whom I found myself face-to-face in 1983, the homicidal sociopath who spoke with a haunting laugh when he told of destroying villages in Vietnam.

As a newspaper reporter for 20 years, I interviewed a score of murderers and multiple murderers. None of those interviews stuck with me as stubbornly as my brief visit with Ward Weaver Jr. It wasn't a very productive session, either. Weaver wasn't talking much, and he didn't tell me what I'd come to hear Ñ about the 24 others police think he killed. What I heard that afternoon filled only a couple of lines in a newspaper story.

It wasn't what he said, or didn't say, that stuck with me. It was his whole manner. It was an aura of malevolence. It was a menacing persona that communicated more in that tiny room than any words could, but something that could not be communicated in a newspaper article Ñ not then and not now.

It just was clear to me that, like Hannibal Lecter, Ward Weaver Jr. simply could not feel anyone's pain but his own. I had seen him in court, of course. But none of the real Weaver came across the way it did up close and personal between the cement walls of that windowless room in the county jail. Even shackled hand and foot, he still conveyed the undeniable message: He was pure evil.

It was his defense attorney who first got me interested in Weaver, persuading me over beer and Irish whiskey in a Mexican restaurant in downtown Bakersfield, Calif., that Weaver was more unique than any of the other 30 or 40 killers who came to trial that year.

The lawyer was working his angle Ñ he wanted to prove that Weaver was insane. I was working my angle Ñ always on the prowl for a good scoop. Besides, I was ready to graduate, to move up from multiple murderers to a real mass murderer.

The attorney didn't have much to work with. The cops had Weaver dead to rights. In fact, they had a confession. Insanity was about the only courtroom strategy between the then 39-year-old Weaver and the gas chamber that then was California's mode of execution.

Jailhouse braggart

Two years earlier, Weaver, a long-haul truck driver, had picked up two teenage hitchhikers in Oregon and drove them 800 miles to California's central coast. He had a friend there, a crime partner, who he called from the town of Oxnard. Weaver handed the 18-year-old man over to his friend. The friend took the man to the country, shot him three times in the head and pushed him down a steep embankment.

Weaver kept the 16-year-old girl for himself. He drove her back to his home in Oroville, about 60 miles due north of Sacramento. Along the way, over several days, he repeatedly raped her in the sleeper compartment of his truck. When he got home, he locked her in a closet, taking her out only to rape her.

Police think he certainly would have killed her except for something of a miracle: Her boyfriend somehow survived. He climbed back up the hill, where he flagged a passing motorist. He was able to provide a near-perfect description of Weaver's truck.

Police telephoned Weaver's house to arrange an interview. That was, he later admitted, when Weaver knew he couldn't kill the girl. Instead, he took her to a rural area and released her. Weaver and his pal were convicted of a number of charges, including rape and conspiracy to commit murder. They both got life sentences.

Weaver was in the penitentiary when he made friends with a small-time hustler named Ricky Gibson. In my interview with Weaver, I was trying to get him to tell me what he had told Gibson.

He told Gibson he may have been caught for kidnapping and raping the 16-year-old, but he had gotten away with murder. He bragged to Gibson about a kidnap-rape murder that began in rural Kern County, Calif., three months before he picked up the hitchhiking teenagers in Oregon.

On Feb. 5, 1981, he was pushing his rig across the California desert along Highway 58 near Mojave when he spotted a car by the side of the road. An 18-year-old Air Force recruit and his pretty, red-haired, 23-year-old girlfriend were stranded. They reluctantly accepted a ride with Weaver, who quickly killed the man with a tire tool and abducted the woman at gunpoint.

Just as he later would do with the 16-year-old near Oxnard, he raped and sodomized her in the sleeper compartment of his truck, completed his Vegas-to-L.A.-to-San Francisco truck route, and then back to his home town of Oroville.

He intended to tie her up under a bridge and come back for her two days later when he was scheduled for another road trip. But she struggled, and he strangled her with a baby diaper. He took her body back to his house in Oroville where he later took the 16-year-old Ñ the same house where Oregon City's Ward Weaver III spent some of his formative years.

He buried her in the back yard.

Gibson, of course, went straight to the authorities, trading his testimony for time off his prison sentence. That's how Weaver came to be in Bakersfield, the seat of Kern County, where the recruit was murdered, where the redhead was kidnapped and where Weaver's attorney attempted, in 1983, to build a defense strategy of insanity.

The lawyer told me Weaver had admitted to 24 murders. He said Weaver was going to draw him a map to some of the bodies. In those boozy afternoons of the early 1980s, he suggested that some day soon he and I would follow a map and dig up a body or two. This, he said, would prove his client's monstrosity, and, by reference, his insanity. It never happened, but he did give me a complete copy of Gibson's statement to police, and that sent me running to the jail for an interview.

We were buddies

Back in those days, inmates could smoke in jail. They were issued cans of tobacco and rolling papers, and I knew from previous interviews how they coveted real cigarettes. I took a pack of unfiltered Camels with me.

Weaver was escorted to where I was by two beefy deputies. He shuffled short-step into the room, his feet connected by a mere 12 inches of chains. His hands were cuffed in front of him, and the cuffs were latched to a stout leather belt around his waist. He wore jail-issued coveralls and flip-flops. His hair was long and shaggy, and his beard was scraggly. Still, he didn't look much different from many of the homeless who congregated downtown.

As we sat down together in a room usually reserved for attorneys and their clients, the deputies disconnected his hands from the belt. I offered him a cigarette and lit it with the Zippo I had bought just for the occasion. 'How's the food?' I asked. 'How are the guards treating you? How about another Camel?' He was a regular guy. We were buddies.

'Well,' I said, a couple cigarettes later, almost feigning reluctance, 'I guess I've got to ask you about this case. Why'd you do it?'

The change was instant. Immediate. What little color was left in his prison pallor drained. His eyes went flat Ñ completely expressionless. Not a flicker of any kind of emotion. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I've been searching for an adequate description ever since. I still haven't found it. That remarkably obscene feature of human physiology may be beyond the English language. 'Don't want to talk about it,' was all he said.

So I did the talking. I danced all around it, trying to draw him out. I read him what was in Gibson's statement to police. He didn't flinch. I read to him from the woman's autopsy report, all the damage he had confessed to causing to her body. There was not even a flicker of emotion. No denial, no acceptance Ñ not even anger at having to endure my repetitive questions, my near-desperate posturing, my appeals to his decency, to his manhood.

In the end, he shuffled across the sticky floor and back to the cell block, a half-pack of Camels in his pocket, and I left with only three lines of quotes, a small moment when he reflected on officially sanctioned homicide: 'I was in Vietnam. Battalion engineers. I blew things up, mostly towns and villages. I loved it. Always volunteered.' He said it with a cold-as-liquid-nitrogen laugh, a snicker that made clear how much he loved killing.

I went back to the office, wrote a story for a law enforcement bulletin that said Weaver might be a mass murderer and urged detectives to check old cases for similarities to his MO. As far as I know, nothing ever came of it. I included Ñ in 'sensational detail,' the California Supreme Court later said in affirming the conviction and death sentence Ñ all of what was in Gibson's statement.

The case was delayed several times, but two years later, a jury convicted Weaver of two murders, kidnapping and rape, found him sane at the time of the crimes and sentenced him to death.

Who's to blame?

That was in 1985. Today Weaver remains a condemned man as his appeals process enters the federal courts. A spokesman for the California Department of Corrections said Weaver won't be executed 'any time soon' because of his appeals.

The Bakersfield Californian had a great story just two weeks ago Ñ before the bodies were found in Oregon Ñ about prisoners using the Internet to make friends and find romance. Weaver was looking for love.

'I'm a blood brother to a Cherokee medicine man, and I grew up next to an Indian reservation. É'

The newspaper also reported on another Web site in which Weaver wrote a short story called 'Who's to Blame?' It describes a father who takes his boy hunting and teaches him to kill. Then, the story says, the boy changes. 'When something happens and he kills someone,' Weaver asked in his short story, 'who's to blame?'

Michael Trihey works on the assignment desk of KGET, the NBC-affiliated television station in Bakersfield, Calif.