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Behavior May Leave a Mark on Genes

A father is on death row. His son is accused of an eerily similar crime. Scientists are exploring the biochemistry behind violent actions.

June 28, 2003|Robert Lee Hotz And John Johnson | Times Staff Writers

OREGON CITY, Ore. — There were two missing schoolgirls and too many coincidences.

After police found two corpses in Ward Weaver's backyard, near the apartment building where Miranda Gaddis, 13, and Ashley Pond, 12, had lived, even case-hardened homicide detectives were queasy. Had they not seen this once before?

For there are two Ward Weavers.

One lives on death row in San Quentin.

The other is his son.

The father -- Ward Weaver Jr. -- has spent 18 years awaiting execution for the 1981 murder of a young woman and her fiance, whose car broke down near Tehachapi. He buried her under a concrete slab in his backyard.

The son -- Ward Weaver III -- also has a history of violence. He was convicted of attacking two teenage girls in 1986. He now awaits trial in the killings of Miranda and Ashley.

Police discovered one body under the freshly poured concrete pad behind his home, the other bagged in a box in the toolshed. Prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty. He has pleaded not guilty.

The enigma of the two Ward Weavers goes beyond legal riddles of guilt and innocence. It taps into the wellspring of human violence, where the sins of the father may link to the sins of the son.

Family violence a generation apart prompts nagging questions about heredity and the biology of crime. Can homicidal behavior pass, like an heirloom, from one generation to the next? Scientists are convinced that genes influence behavior. But is there a criminal element in the human genome?

Upbringing also influences behavior. Research is revealing that life experiences can alter the biochemistry of many genes.

Striving to document how the interplay of genes and the environment molds the brain, researchers chart the biology of fear, neglect and abuse. By reducing antisocial behavior to biology, scientists are deconstructing the criminal mind.

In patterns of genes, brain activity and biochemistry, they seek the mark of Cain.

*

Lay the mug shots side by side.

Ward Weaver Jr., 59, and Ward Weaver III, 40.

Both are nicknamed Pete.

Both were abused as children and were themselves abusive, according to court records and interviews with family members. Both were accused, never charged, of raping relatives. Both have been accused, never charged, of torturing animals.

Both have been outdoorsmen and hunters. Both went into military service.

Both married and divorced twice. Both have five children.

Both have a record of violence against women.

In 1976, the father met a waitress after her night shift in Eureka. In the darkness of a parking lot, he hit her with a bat and forced her into his truck. She scrambled free before he could drive away. He went to prison for three years.

In 1981, the father picked up two teenage runaways hitchhiking to Yreka along Interstate 5, which he traveled regularly as a long-haul trucker.

He took the couple -- David Galbraith, 18, and his girlfriend Michelle, 15 -- to his home in Oroville. He arranged for an accomplice to shoot the young man in the head. He raped the girl repeatedly over several days, telling her he wanted to keep her as a daughter, then abandoned her near Marysville.

Weaver was serving a 40-year sentence for those crimes when he boasted to a cellmate of having killed another couple -- Robert Radford, 18, and Barbara Levoy, 23 -- stranded by car trouble. Weaver beat the man to death with a pipe. He raped the woman twice, then strangled her with a diaper when she bit him.

Weaver buried her body in his backyard.

He built a concrete platform over the grave, ostensibly so that his wife could hang out the laundry without getting her feet wet in the grass, recalled Garry Davis, the Kern County sheriff's detective who investigated the murder.

Weaver had his 10-year-old son, Rodney, help dig the hole for the pad.

The crime put Ward Weaver Jr. on death row.

At his trial, defense attorney Donnalee Huffman argued that his service in the Vietnam War had unhinged him and fed his fantasies, about women in particular. "He had a proclivity for fantasizing about him being the power and her doing everything he told her," she said.

He also claimed to hear voices.

In different criminal proceedings between 1977 and 1984, Weaver's mental state was scrutinized by 18 psychologists and psychiatrists.

Some judged him schizophrenic and paranoid. Five diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Three thought he was faking. Only one found him legally insane.

"In most things, he was pretty normal," prosecuting attorney Ron Shumaker said recently. "He seemed like your basic good ol' boy truck driver."

During Weaver's trial, Shumaker recalled, the defense attorney made an unsettling proposal: If prosecutors would agree not to seek the death penalty, Weaver "could clear up a lot of other cases." The offer was turned down.

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