- Janine Robben
- Portland Tribune - News
How Ward Weaver dared his family, police and the media to suspect him in the Ashley-Miranda case
Whenever Kristi Sloan stopped by Ward Weaver's house, she and her ex-husband usually just chatted on the porch.
But one day last March, Weaver was different. He led her around to the back yard of his Oregon City residence.
He talked about how he had given the FBI permission to search his property earlier that day. Investigators brought specially trained dogs to sniff around his yard in their search for clues to the disappearances of two Gardiner Middle School girls Ñ both of them good friends of Weaver's daughter, Mallori.
Already the mysterious case of Ashley Pond, 12, and Miranda Gaddis, 13, had grabbed national headlines.
Weaver showed Sloan places where the dogs had dug. It was not quite dark.
'I said, 'Ward, you've got to admit this doesn't look good,' ' Sloan recalls saying. 'He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Considering what your father did, killing people and burying them in his back yard.' '
Weaver, who at 5-foot-11 dwarfs the diminutive Sloan, raised both of his arms and walked her backward about 3 feet, she recalls. He held her head between his hands, turning it all the way to the left and then all the way to the right so she took in the total view of his back yard.
He looked her straight in the eyes and said, 'Do you seriously think I would be able to kill somebody and bury them in my back yard without someone seeing something?'
When he asked the question, Sloan was standing on a freshly laid concrete pad, still wet from being hosed down earlier that day. It was the same pad that investigators dug up five months later to reveal Ashley's remains.
Sloan, who met Weaver when she was 18, knew how persuasive he could be. She married him even though he had hit her in the head with a cast-iron skillet and threatened to kill her.
She remembers that she got 'goose bumps as soon as he touched me' on that March day, but he convinced her then that he had nothing to do with the girls' disappearance.
'He's an incredibly good manipulator and a really good liar,' she explains simply.
Flirting with a flame
Soon, Oregon's infamous case of two missing girls will become a tale of the trial of Ward Weaver III, who has pleaded not guilty to six counts of aggravated murder in the deaths of Ashley and Miranda.
But up to now, it has been the story of the cat-and-mouse game that Weaver played with the girls and their families, his own children and former wives, investigators and the media.
Weaver continued to encourage young girls to visit his home even after Ashley and Miranda disappeared. He taunted his two ex-wives with his family history Ñ his father is on death row in California for killing a woman and burying her body in his back yard Ñ and dared them to suspect him.
He chatted with investigators and allowed them to search his house and property. He later ridiculed investigators to a friend when they searched the apartment of other suspects. He embraced the media spotlight, all the while blasting the FBI for ruining his reputation.
Frank Colistro, a Portland psychologist who does criminal profiling, says Weaver's actions were similar to others he's seen by people with antisocial and psychopathic personality disorders.
'It's not like they want to get caught,' he says. 'But they want to get noticed. It's very much a big ego gratification thing: How close can I get to the flame and not get burned?'
Court case brings tension
Weaver's mind games began long before Ashley's disappearance.
In January 2001, Mallori Weaver's 11-year-old classmate, friend and neighbor Ñ Ashley Pond Ñ testified before a Clackamas County grand jury. Ashley's putative birth father, Wesley Roettger Jr., was charged with committing 40 sex crimes against her, including 10 acts of statutory rape.
During the next months, Ashley grew closer to the Weaver family. She stayed at the Weaver home for days at a time, essentially living there. She went on a summer vacation to California with them.
Weaver pursued an unusual relationship with Ashley. Tammy Place, Weaver's live-in girlfriend at the time, says Ashley often would sleep in the living room of the Weaver home. Weaver started sleeping in the living room, too, she said, and he and Ashley would hold hands as they went to sleep.
Mary Campobasso, Ashley's former stepmother, says Ashley told her they were sleeping in the same bed. Roger Stevens, Weaver's friend, says he saw Ashley sit in Weaver's lap and kiss him on the lips.
Elaine Garfield, Ashley's paternal aunt, says Weaver took control of Ashley's life. She says she was in a tug of war with Weaver that summer as she tried to see more of Ashley and get her away from Weaver.
Garfield had to check with Weaver when she wanted Ashley to visit, and Mallori always had to come along. The one time that Garfield arranged to take Ashley Ñ alone Ñ to Oaks Amusement Park, Weaver showed up there, too, with Mallori in tow.
'Honestly, it was like he was her parent,' Garfield says. 'He was the one calling the shots.'
Meanwhile, the rape case against Roettger continued, with Weaver keeping close watch over Ashley's conversations.
'Ward Weaver would physically go to the district attorney's office' with Ashley and her mother, Lori Pond, while prosecutors were preparing for the Roettger trial, Garfield recalls. 'He said, 'I have to take her to the DA's office: Lori doesn't have a car.' '
Garfield says Weaver told her he had offered to take Ashley to appointments with a sex-abuse therapist.
Linda Virden, Ashley's former teacher, also saw the darker side to Weaver's role in Ashley's life.
Ashley told Virden that Weaver was 'basically tormenting her with threats' that he would testify in the Roettger case, telling the court that Ashley had admitted making up the accusations against her father.
Another threat hit even closer to home. Weaver told Ashley he would hire a detective to make sure Ashley's mother lost custody of her three daughters, Virden recalls Ashley telling her.
Virden also asked Ashley about her relationship with Weaver. Virden says Ashley told her: 'Linda, Ward didn't rape me. He tried to rape me. I know the difference.'
Virden reported the conversation to state Department of Human Services caseworkers Sept. 5. Coincidentally, Roettger abruptly pleaded no contest to just one reduced charge in the rape and abuse case. The remaining 39 counts, including 30 more serious felony counts, were dismissed.
While the district attorney's office will say only that 'problems developed with the proof in the case,' it seems probable that the prosecutors no longer thought that Ashley would be a believable witness because of Weaver's anticipated testimony.
Blowup precedes disappearance
It's not clear how much time Ashley and Weaver spent together after the Roettger case ended. Ashley's mother says she told her daughter not to visit the Weaver house anymore. Mallori and her friends shunned Ashley at school.
Garfield recalls Weaver calling her out of the blue one day in November. He said Ashley was 'never allowed back' at his house because 'she just ruined the relationship.' Weaver said angrily: 'She ruined everything she had. She can just stay with her mother now.'
But investigators believe that Ashley renewed her friendship with Weaver and his daughter sometime that fall or winter.
Then, on Jan. 9, Ashley disappeared.
Her mother called 911 the day Ashley disappeared, but the investigation began slowly. Ashley fit the profile of a possible runaway Ñ she had been sexually abused by a male family member, she had been alienated from her friends at school, and others had complained that her mother was neglectful and abusive.
But some things didn't fit: Ashley disappeared between her home and the bus stop one school morning, but, unlike most runaways, she didn't take any extra clothes, makeup or other personal items with her.
Investigators visited Weaver three times during the next two weeks. He calmly let investigators search his home and yard, telling them that Ashley had been close to his family at one time but wasn't anymore, and that he believed she had run away.
Two days after Ashley disappeared, Weaver talked with Oregon City police Detective Viola Valenzuela-Garcia. During the casual 'canvassing' interview, Weaver told her that he'd severed all ties with the girl who used to practically live at his house.
In the next days, the Oregon City police decided the case looked less and less like a runaway and more like a possible abduction. On Jan. 18, the FBI joined the investigation.
That day, an FBI special agent and an Oregon State Police detective visited Weaver's house. Weaver told them about Ashley's history with his family. When asked about his whereabouts the morning of Jan. 9, Weaver told them his daughter had caught the 8:20 school bus, but a malfunctioning burglar alarm had kept him from getting to work until 9:30 a.m. Weaver worked as a shipping and receiving clerk for Manufacturers Tool Service in Clackamas. Colleagues said his work schedule was erratic.
Weaver allowed investigators to search the inside of his home. According to their reports, the 'cursory search' revealed nothing.
The next day, search-dog handler Marty Neiman says Weaver gave him and a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy permission to search his yard, but not his house. The men and dogs found nothing. There were no signs of burial or fresh dig marks in the yard then.
But later in January, Weaver made some additions to his yard.
A court document describes a conversation between Weaver and Maria Shaw, another of his former wives. Shaw told investigators that she remembers being in Weaver's back yard one day in January after Ashley's disappearance. She saw three rock-filled metal barrels in a hole in the yard. She asked Weaver about them. He told her they were going to be a platform for a hot tub.
Shaw says she thought that seemed unusual and asked Weaver whether he had buried Ashley there. No, Weaver told her, Ashley was buried somewhere else.
By February, no one had heard from Ashley. Miranda told one of her classmates that she thought the missing girl had 'gone with Mallori's dad.' She didn't sound worried or anxious, the classmate told the Tribune, and Miranda continued to visit Mallori at Weaver's house herself.
Weaver let Mallori have a sleepover party for her birthday in mid-February, and Miranda came. But during the party, Miranda warned another girl about staying overnight at the Weaver house Ñ saying that Weaver had molested Ashley and that the other girl might get molested, too.
Weaver got very angry when Miranda's comments were relayed to him by Mallori, says Shaw, Weaver's former wife and Mallori's mother. Shaw also spent some time at the party.
Then, on March 7, Weaver did an odd thing. He insisted that Mallori spend that night Ñ a Thursday night Ñ with her mother and drove her to Shaw's home near the Johnson Creek Fred Meyer store on Southeast 82nd Avenue. Mallori didn't want to stay and persuaded her mother to drive her back to Oregon City. But Weaver insisted and made the 10-mile trip from Oregon City to Southeast Portland again to drop her off.
Mallori stayed the night with her mother and didn't go to school the next day, which was just a half-day. It's not clear just when she returned home.
In the late afternoon of March 8, Miranda's mother, Michelle Duffey, called police to say that her daughter was missing and that no one had seen her since that morning at about 7:30, when Duffey had left their apartment to go to work.
Within hours, an Oregon City police detective was on Weaver's doorstep to interview him and his daughter. Weaver said Mallori had been home Thursday night, had stayed home sick Friday morning, and he had stayed home with her. Weaver said Miranda had not come to his house that morning for a ride to school or to meet up with Mallori before catching the bus, something she often did.
Mallori later told investigators that her father had told her to lie about her whereabouts Thursday night and Friday morning.
The news of Miranda's disappearance sent a shock wave through the city. Two girls Ñ both from the same middle school, both living in the same apartment complex Ñ had disappeared within two months of each other while reportedly planning to catch the morning school bus.
The community response was overwhelming. Investigators increased their efforts. Family friends and strangers conducted searches. Flyers with pictures of both girls were printed and posted throughout the region. Fund-raisers paid for billboards offering rewards for information.
But Weaver, apparently, was still focused on a hot tub.
He told Mallori that she could not attend a church service for her missing friends during the week of March 11 because he needed her help in digging a hole in the back yard. He told his 17-year-old son, Alex, that he might need his help, too.
Between March 10 and March 12, Weaver bought concrete mix and two shower curtains.
The concrete pad was freshly laid when Weaver gave the FBI permission to make a search on March 15. Alex Weaver was hosing it off when the investigators and search dogs arrived. Court documents show that the search dogs 'showed interest' in the rear of Weaver's house that day, which is near the pad. But Weaver had asked investigators to stay away from the fresh concrete.
The investigators were gone by the time Weaver got home from work, but Sloan dropped by. That's when Weaver led her onto the fresh slab.
Home becomes party place
Weaver now knew that he was one of the FBI's suspects in the case. In addition, at least one Web site devoted to the case of the missing girls was posting messages raising suspicions about him, although not by name.
Yet Weaver continued to make his house a preferred hangout for the neighborhood preteens by renting videos and providing snacks. Miranda's 11-year-old sister, Miriah, continued to visit Mallori and spend the night. Weaver invited another friend of Mallori's to go to California with the family over spring break in late March.
The trip looked like it would come off until an Oregon City police detective called the girl's mother and suggested that 'it's probably not a good idea to let her go.' The girl didn't make the trip, but her mother let her spend the night at the Weaver house.
'The thing is, he's a very good deceiver,' the mother told the Tribune later.
Weaver also was quick to get angry if anyone questioned whether children were safe with him. When Duffey, Miranda's mother, told Weaver that she wasn't comfortable continuing to let her younger daughter spend the night at a single man's home after her older daughter had disappeared, Duffey says, 'He took that offensively.'
Meanwhile, the search for the girls continued. The case was featured on 'America's Most Wanted' television program on March 16 and again April 6.
Janet Bates, a southwest Washington resident, became wrapped up in the search for clues. She vividly remembers searching May 4 for the missing girls with a group of volunteers in Oregon City's Newell Creek canyon, right next to the Newell Creek Village apartments where the girls lived.
On the way to the search site, Bates stopped and asked a man in a yard for directions.
'He offered me a drink,' Bates says. 'I remember thinking, 'How could anybody be drinking that early in the morning?' The man, who Bates now knows was Weaver, asked what they were doing. When she told him about the search for the missing girls, 'He seemed to perk up and asked a ton of questions. We walked around on his property for a bit.'
'I wish you could feel the misery those poor searchers went through,' Bates says bitterly of the hunt for the girls in the cold, slippery, overgrown reaches of Newell Creek canyon. 'And Ward sat there, knowing we were doing all that for nothing.'
Dance with the media begins
In June, the Ashley and Miranda case was featured on the cover of People magazine. Back in Oregon City, Weaver's name occasionally surfaced in discussions with people acquainted with the two missing girls.
On June 30, Tribune reporter Jim Redden decided it was time to meet Ward Weaver in person. He stopped by Weaver's house unannounced on a bright Sunday afternoon. Weaver opened the door, wearing a dirty white tank top and cutoff jeans.
He invited Redden into the small, run-down rental home.
Weaver immediately struck Redden as nervous, the reporter recalls. He talked about Ashley's relationship with his family, then seemed to grow even more nervous. After a few seconds, he said he wanted to tell Redden something but wasn't sure whether he should.
Then Weaver dropped the bombshell. He told Redden that the FBI considered him a 'prime suspect' in the case. Redden asked the basic question: Did you kill the girls? Weaver seemed temporarily stunned by the question, Redden says, but adamantly denied having anything to do with their disappearances, swearing that he and his daughter considered Ashley to be part of the family.
On July 2, the Tribune published the story. The next day, Weaver's son Francis, 20, told the Tribune that he thought the FBI was after Weaver because of the family history.
Twenty-one years earlier, Weaver's father, Ward Weaver Jr., had his 10-year-old son, Weaver's half-brother, dig trenches in the back yard of their California home. Ward Weaver Jr. then exhumed from a previous burial site the body of the 23-year-old woman he had killed, and buried her in his yard. He built a wooden platform over the grave so his wife could stand on it and hang laundry without getting her feet wet in the grass.
'My grandfather was a murderer, a freak,' Francis said. 'My dad is nothing like him.'
After Weaver identified himself as the prime suspect in the missing girls' case, calls from the local and national media came flooding in. Weaver did extensive interviews with local television stations, leading a camera crew through his house. He agreed to an interview with 'Inside Edition' and 'Good Morning America.'
In a July 9 live interview with 'Good Morning America,' Weaver looked directly into the camera and criticized Lori Pond as an unfit mother, explaining how Ashley had lived with him for an extended period in 2001.
In hindsight it may be one of the most disturbing crime stories ever aired by a major network: A possible killer publicly denouncing his victim's mother on live television.
Sloan says Weaver left her a 'gloating' message about the program on her answering machine.
Steve Noble, the correspondent who talked to Weaver for 'Inside Edition,' says he's interviewed his share of criminals. But Weaver was different.
'One of the reasons he was so believable was, he was accessible,' Noble says. 'He also had detailed explanations for everything. Generally speaking, people who are guilty don't come across that way. They tend to be evasive, hard to pin down, and don't like to talk.'
Meanwhile, Weaver paid close attention to the investigation. Stevens, Weaver's friend, recalls Weaver's reaction on July 12, the day investigators served a search warrant on the apartment of two men who lived above the Pond apartment.
'He laughed his head off,' Stevens says. Stevens said Weaver was familiar with the two men and 'didn't think they could do anything.'
Stevens thought that Weaver's relationship with Ashley was weird, and he thought that Weaver had acted strangely several weeks after she disappeared. Yet he believed Weaver's assertions that he knew nothing about the disappearances.
'He's a very good liar,' Stevens says. 'I never would've believed he did it.'
Although investigators were focused elsewhere, Weaver's willingness to talk to the media kept the spotlight focused on him.
Investigation documents also show that Weaver may have been tempting fate in other ways. A 15-year-old girl told police that she spent time at Weaver's house on July 18 with Weaver and Mallori. Weaver gave her vodka and Mike's Hard Lemonade, induced her to drink a large quantity of vodka and then sexually abused her, she said.
Colistro, the psychologist, says Weaver's actions don't surprise him: 'How's this kind of person going to respond to law enforcement and the press closing in? A rational, well-adjusted person would be defensive, scared.
'But this kind of person would see this whole intrusion as a threat to his omnipotence: 'I'll show you guys; come on in.' '
The law closes in
In early August, Weaver decided to make a move. He told people he was going to relocate. He rented a storage unit near his sister's house in Gresham and moved most of his belongings there.
On Aug. 8, Weaver drove his oldest son, Francis, to a local athletic club and told him about his plans, according to investigators' reports. Weaver told Francis he was going to send Mallori to Idaho to live with his brother.
Weaver then told Francis he was going to go to Mexico because of his involvement with the disappearances of Ashley and Miranda, according to the account that Francis gave investigators.
Francis told investigators later that he wasn't sure then that Weaver was telling him the truth. He said Weaver had established an informal honor code, dictating that family members wouldn't 'rat' on other family members to the police.
His father might be testing him, to see whether he would stick to the code, Francis told investigators.
Weaver also talked to his son Alex on Aug. 11 about going away for a while, investigators learned through later interviews with the 17-year-old son. Alex said Weaver told him he had done some bad things. Alex said he understood his father to mean that it had something to do with the disappearance of the two girls.
Weaver then arranged for his oldest son's girlfriend to give him a ride to court Aug. 13 to deal with his suspended driver's license. He asked her to stop by his nearly empty home on the way.
According to her account to police, he lured her inside, raped her and tried to strangle her. She managed to get away from him and ran naked from the house. Weaver was arrested soon afterward and booked into the Clackamas County jail.
When Francis learned of the attack, he called 911 and said his father had confessed to him earlier in the day that he had killed both missing girls. Francis later said that the confession actually had taken place five days earlier.
Weaver continued to manipulate events, even from his jail cell. Family members moved the rest of his belongings from his house.
A public outcry erupted to dig up Weaver's concrete slab, but investigators delayed for several days, insisting that there were more legal steps to take. Then, just before they were able to secure a search warrant, Weaver granted them permission to search his property to 'provide closure' to the families, in the words of Weaver's attorney.
Officials screened off portions of Weaver's back yard, including the slab and a shed. They searched the shed first and found Miranda's body wrapped in multiple layers of plastic and contained inside a cardboard box, also wrapped in plastic. They dug up the concrete slab and found Ashley's body inside one of the metal drums that had been buried there.
After examining the bodies, investigators surmised that both bodies were kept someplace else before they were relocated to the shed and beneath the concrete pad.
Miranda's body had to have been kept for a time someplace cooler, probably between 40 and 60 degrees, the medical examiner said.
The condition of Ashley's body was consistent with having been stored in a freezer. Weaver had a small, chest-style freezer in his kitchen. Investigators seized the freezer from the storage unit where it had been moved and have been trying to figure out whether it was usually locked and who had keys.
Weaver pleaded not guilty to six charges of aggravated murder, but the mind games still weren't over.
Finger-pointing from jail
In November, a Clackamas County juvenile court judge allowed Mallori's request to see her father in jail. Mallori, the judge said, 'loves her dad, believes totally in his innocence É wants desperately to see him.'
On Nov. 3, Weaver sent a letter to Anna Song, a reporter for television station KATU. He offered to sell his story.
'What if I told you that the DA (district attorney) has paperwork É that will prove the incompetence of the FBI and the Oregon City police detectives cost a little girl her life?'
It was yet another tease. Weaver didn't identify what girl he was talking about. And while it would make sense that he was talking about Miranda, he previously has used the term 'little girl' to describe Ashley.