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Grief, Questions Linger in Oregon Slayings

by Dan Eggen, Washington Post

OREGON CITY, Ore., -- Ward Weaver III seemed confident in his innocence, cocky even, announcing to the world earlier this year that he was the chief suspect in the disappearance of two girls who had lived around the corner.

At one point, Weaver even gave tours to reporters of his dreary rental home and its overgrown yard, explaining that a concrete slab had been poured to support the weight of a new hot tub.

But two weeks ago, the focus of the case shifted dramatically: Weaver was arrested on charges of raping his 19-year-old son's girlfriend, and the son told emergency dispatchers that Weaver had admitted killing Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis as well.

The developments led to this weekend's discovery of the girls' remains on Weaver's property and Clackamas County prosecutors have announced that they hope to charge Weaver, 39, with murder. The body of Miranda, 13, was found under a tarp in a shed out back. The remains of Ashley, 12, were buried under that new concrete slab, her body stuffed into a barrel.

Coming eight months after Ashley vanished, the gruesome discoveries have stunned this historic working-class burg south of Portland and have prompted some residents to question why the FBI and Oregon City police were not quicker to focus on Weaver.

The case is made more bizarre by the suspect's familial history: His father, Ward Weaver Jr., is on California's death row for two killings -- including the rape and murder of a woman he buried under a deck in his back yard.

"We were constantly driving by here, 20 to 30 times a day, and to think she was right there all along is just heartbreaking," Terry Duffey, Ashley's aunt, told reporters here Monday. "It's horrifying to think that they were right there all the time."

The crime scene fence around Ward Weaver III's residence -- over six feet tall and topped with barbed wire -- has been rapidly transformed into the type of makeshift memorial now common to such cases. The chain-link barrier has nearly disappeared, blanketed in teddy bears and flowers and poems of remembrance from friends and hundreds of others who didn't know either of the girls.

Crowds over the last four days have been so large that authorities at one point had to close South Beavercreek Road to traffic. Many of the girls' classmates and other town residents have maintained a vigil around the clock, illuminated at night by candles and soothed by occasional singalongs.

"I've lived here all my life, and it's such a tragedy for the town," said Brandi Hanks, who came to pay her respects at the memorial fence with her boyfriend, Anthony Purifoy, and their two children, 5-year-old Raeleigh and 11-month-old Anthony Jr. "This is a country kind of place. Nothing like this has ever happened here before."

Certainly nothing as tragic as the fates of Ashley and Miranda, two friends who lived in the same apartment complex around the corner from Weaver and who disappeared two months apart after leaving for school in the morning.

By the time Miranda disappeared in March, the girls' fate had transfixed much of the Pacific Northwest, a local version of the kidnappings and child brutalities that have dominated cable newscasts this summer. Now residents of Oregon City, a rough-around-the-edges kind of place that crawls up the side of a bluff overlooking the Willamette River, must cope with evidence that one of their own neighbors may be responsible.

"The loss of these two girls is the most horrific thing that has happened to this town, and it will be with them for a very long time," Charles Mathews, special agent in charge of the FBI's Portland office, said in an interview.

The case is made more bizarre by the details surrounding Weaver, who had been accused by Ashley last year of molestation but was never charged. In the weeks following Ashley's disappearance on Jan. 9, Weaver allowed investigators to search the property with dogs, with no results.

Authorities now say that Miranda's body was likely moved into the shed relatively recently, while Ashley's corpse may have been behind the house since Weaver laid the concrete slab in March. It could take weeks, however, before the state medical examiner is able to determine with certainty how the two girls died.

The FBI, which has concluded its search of Weaver's Oregon City home, may now turn its attention to other houses Weaver has rented in the area in recent years. Authorities say they don't know of any missing persons cases that they could tie to Weaver but given the grisly discoveries at his home in Oregon City, they want to be prudent.

Some residents have criticized the FBI, which routinely investigates child kidnappings, and local authorities for not pursuing Weaver aggressively enough. Kristi Sloan, Weaver's ex-wife, told reporters that she informed the FBI months ago that Weaver was dangerous and had been suspiciously digging in his back yard.

But Mathews, a veteran FBI agent who took command of the Portland field office a year ago, said authorities lacked the probable cause necessary for a search of Weaver's home until his arrest and his son's report of a confession. "Frankly, there was very little information to go on at first," Mathews said. "This was not as straightforward as it might look now."

By today, FBI investigators had completed their search of Weaver's home with backhoes and ground-penetrating radar, saying they did not believe there were any other bodies on the property. Now that the girls' bodies had been discovered, several giant billboards in the Portland area seeking information in the cases have been taken down.

But the memorial fence, still drawing crowds and memorabilia, will remain in place for the foreseeable future, officials said.

The testimonies range from "United We Stand" balloons appropriated for the occasion to deeply personal messages from those who knew the two girls.

"I'm not going to lie and tell you she was my best friend," wrote one of Miranda's classmates, "Mary." "We didn't get along so great and that makes me sad . . . I wish she were here so I could say sorry for being so mean."

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