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Heartbreak in Oregon

updated 09/09/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/2002 01:00AM

In the long, uncertain months since two Oregon City girls disappeared while walking to the same school bus stop—Ashley Pond, 12, on Jan. 9; Miranda Gaddis, 13, on March 8—friends and relatives have never wavered from three key convictions. Neither girl, they say, would have climbed willingly into a stranger's car. If grabbed, both would have put up a violent struggle. Each girl, therefore, must have known her kidnapper.

That chilling theory may have been confirmed when police announced on Aug. 25 that a body discovered in a shed behind a nearby home had been identified as Miranda; a day later a second set of remains unearthed beneath a cement slab in the house's yard were found to be Ashley's. As townspeople thronged the site, they leapt to one conclusion: Ward Weaver, 39, who rented the house, is the murderer in their midst. Weaver, who knew both Ashley and Miranda and was once imprisoned for assaulting a woman, professes his innocence, and Oregon City Police Chief Gordon Huiras says charges "will not be filed until after we're finished at the scene." But local residents are already upset with police for not closing in on Weaver sooner.

"We all informed the FBI that he was a person to look at," says Andrea Perry, 34, a data processor who lives near the apartment complex where both girls resided. "All the teenage girls who run around here say he's creepy." One of those girls, Maria Vera, 16, lives within yards of Weaver's unkempt yard. She says Weaver often stepped from his home on school mornings to watch the girls congregate at the bus stop a block away. "He would act like he was working on his cars or he just stared at us," she says. "I would get this creeped-out feeling." Vera says she shared this information with investigators when she was questioned in mid-March. "Everybody was telling police to look at him," she says, breaking into tears, "and they didn't."

Others, though, saw Weaver's house as a safe haven—including Ashley, who was estranged from her own father and was close friends with Weaver's daughter Mallori, 13. "She looked up to him because he was a father figure," says close pal Marissa Marquardt, 13. Ashley joined the Weavers on a family vacation to California and even lived with the Weavers for a couple of months. "She said she had fun," says Michelle Rizzo, who coached the school dance team on which Ashley, Miranda and Mallori all competed.

Rizzo remembers Weaver as an overprotective father. "He would bring Mallori lunch in the middle of practice and also bring extra food for some of her friends," she says. "He didn't want his daughter wearing makeup." Though Weaver, who has repeatedly described himself to reporters as a prime suspect in the case, likes to reinforce that paternal image, his own sister seems to have a very different sense of him. In a July interview he said, "My sister, the first time she saw Ashley, she told me I got to watch myself. I said, 'Shut up, she's 12.' "

Several of Ashley's friends say that her friendship with Mallori crumbled in seventh grade after Ashley accused Weaver of molesting her, a charge that he denies. James Keightley, 35, who is the fiancé of Ashley's mother, Lori, says that after Ashley told him and Lori in August '01, they reported the alleged assault to authorities. "We thought it was taken care of," says Keightley. "Only recently we figured out that no charges were filed." Around the same time, authorities successfully prosecuted sexual-abuse charges against Ashley's biological father, who had abused her several years earlier. He was sentenced to probation.

The girls' disappearances ("Who Took These Girls?" PEOPLE'S June 3,2002 cover story) hit Mallori hard'. "She would just start crying suddenly," says Rizzo. Mallori told her coach that on the days that each of her friends went missing, she was supposed to have met them at the bus stop, but instead had been given a lift by her brother. "She kept saying that nothing would've happened to them if she'd been there," says Rizzo. "She blamed herself."

Huiras says that the police search that finally turned up the bodies in Weaver's backyard began Aug. 23, "the first day we could legally get on this property," given Oregon's strict search laws. Charles Mathews, who heads the FBI field office in Oregon, allows that police dogs may have missed Ashley's scent during an earlier, more limited search because her body was concealed in a steel barrel buried beneath cement. He adds that evidence indicates that Miranda's body "had been moved and put in the shed fairly recently." As for the public outcry over investigators' failure to move more quickly, he says, "To classify someone as being a suspect without a confirmation of charges, frankly, we're not so comfortable doing that." Both girls' families support investigators' efforts. "We'd like to see it move faster, but not at the cost of not convicting whoever is responsible," says Ashley's great-uncle Arnold Ebright. "They're doing it correctly, and we have great admiration for all involved."

But many in town take issue with the deliberate pace of the investigation. On Aug. 13 Weaver was arrested on charges of raping his son Francis's 19-year-old girlfriend, to which he has pleaded not guilty. After Weaver was safely under lock and key in Clackamas County Jail, Francis phoned 911 and alleged that his father had admitted to killing Ashley and Miranda. "I'm holding the FBI responsible for what happened to [Francis's girlfriend]," says Kristi Sloan, one of Weaver's two ex-wives. "It should have been taken care of five months ago."

Sloan says that she repeatedly urged the FBI to check beneath the concrete slab that Weaver poured shortly after Miranda's disappearance, claiming that he planned to install a hot tub. "I felt like I was talking to a wall," she says. That slab also attracted the attention of Harry Oakes, 46, a dog handler for the International K-9 Search & Rescue Service. Called in by Lori Pond to conduct a private search, Oakes says that when he searched the property in March with Weaver's permission, his dog signaled "death alerts" near both the concrete and a shed. According to Oakes, he urged authorities to "dig up Ward Weaver's backyard" when he forwarded his findings in April. "Dogs," he says, "don't know how to lie."

While Weaver sits behind bars, unable to post a $1 million bail bond on the rape charge, details from his family history are emerging that bear an eerie resemblance to his current situation. His father is a California death row inmate who murdered a young woman and her fiancé in 1981, then moved the woman's body twice before settling on a burial spot in his backyard, which he topped with a wooden platform. Weaver himself spent three years in a California prison after hitting his son's babysitter in the head with a chunk of concrete. Both of his ex-wives have obtained restraining orders against him, charging that he threatened them with violence.

Miranda's mother, Michelle Duffey, 34, has the sickening sense that Weaver was viciously toying with her. She recalls that after Miranda's disappearance, Weaver asked her out for drinks; invited her and daughters Maryssa, 15, and Miriah, 12, to a barbecue in his yard; and invited Miriah to go with him and Mallori to Disneyland. "It was like a game, a joke, with him," she says. Duffey has spoken with Mallori several times since the girl was taken into state custody, following Weaver's arrest on the rape charges. Duffey stresses that she does not hold Mallori accountable for her father's alleged actions. "I can't imagine what she's going through," she says.

Mourners who congregated last week outside the barbedwire-topped Cyclone fence that surrounds Weaver's property no doubt feel the same pain on Duffey's behalf. The fence has become a makeshift shrine in memory of the two girls. As school chums congregated there, recalling Ashley's fondness for roller skating and Miranda's passion for hiphop dancing, Rikki Depue, 14, a friend of both girls, tucked a message in the wire: "You are still alive to me."

Jill Smolowe
N.F. Mendoza, Alexandra Hardy and Emily Bazar in Oregon City and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles

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