NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/27/2006 9:55:34 PM ET 2006-01-28T02:55:34

This story aired Dateline Friday, Jan. 27, 9 p.m.

It was evening, dark and cold, in a suburb of Portland Oregon, when the call came in to 911 dispatcher. A mother was reporting a missing daughter. During her 911 call, the immediate assumption was that 12 year old must be a runaway. So began the long strange tale of what happened to Ashley Pond. It began not with a bang, but a whimper, as it dawned on a young mother what terrors could lie ahead. 

Lori Pond’s daughter, Ashley, had simply vanished— gone, or so it seemed on her way to school in the town of Oregon City in January 2002.

Linda O’Neal, relative: It was very upsetting. A 12-year-old child had disappeared, you know? This is a child!

Linda O’Neal is a member of Ashley’s extended family; Linda’s husband was once married to Ashley’s grandmother.  Not exactly a close relationship... but Linda certainly knew about Ashley.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: How would you describe her as a little girl?

Linda O’Neal: Well, she was kind of known as having an attitude…

But Linda was not just family; she was also a licensed private investigator. And, in those first days, her experience told her Ashley was probably okay.

O’Neal: My first thought would have been that she probably ran away.

Police in Oregon City apparently agreed. But then a whole week went by, no sign of Ashley anywhere. Runaways inevitably contact someone, but she didn’t. And now local officials, thinking “abduction,” called in the FBI.

Jim Redden, crime reporter for Portland Tribune: One of the problems with the case is that there was a wealth of suspects.

Jim Redden is a veteran crime reporter for the Portland Tribune. Ashley, he soon learned, had disappeared from an apartment complex that was a "mulligan stew" of troubled souls.

Redden: It had a lot of welfare cases. It had a number of mentally ill people that would be placed there by the county. There were a lot of single mothers who attracted a lot of really bad boyfriends.

In fact police searching for suspects found no fewer than 90 sex offenders living within a mile of the complex. One possible suspect was Ashley’s own biological father. He’d been convicted of sexually abusing her during one of her visits.

Had he taken her? And if not him, who?

As weeks passed, a terrible realization began to set in around town. Ashley’s little group of best friends knew it, and everybody seemed to sense it— something awful had happened to Ashley.

A friend of Ashley’s, Miranda Gaddis, was interviewed by a TV reporter, not knowing that fate had its eye on her too.

Miranda Gaddis (TV footage): It’s really hard to believe that happened to one of your friends or something.  It’s just really different and really sad.

In the weeks that followed, the task force would chase hundreds of leads.They would, according to newspaper reports, watch Ashley’s mother, and her mom’s boyfriend. Investigators even began tailing a couple of male neighbors from the apartments. No one, it seemed, knew anything. It was as if Ashley Pond had disappeared into thin air.

And then, two months after Ashley disappeared, the girl interviewed by a reporter, Ashley Pond’s friend Miranda unbelievably, turned up missing too. Two girls vanished from the same apartment complex. They went to the same school, and were even on the same dance team! Both vanished, within 8 weeks of one another.

O’Neal: When the second girl disappeared, it caused panic, absolute panic. They were afraid that there was a serial killer among them.

In a suburb of Portland, Oregon, everyone could feel the chill.  The disappearance of 13-year-old Miranda Gaddis was a sickening reminder of the way 12-year-old Ashley Pond vanished 2 months before.  Now, the FBI ramped up its investigation, and called in scores of agents. 

Soon more than 60 of them were working on the case. A true task force was assigned to find the answers about Ashley and Miranda.

Private investigator Linda O’Neal began to turn down other work to work on this case full time. It was a little crazy, maybe, given the size of the official investigation, but Linda felt a real family connection with Ashley. This was personal.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: What made you think that you could help solve this crime?

Linda O’Neal: Well, the FBI would say “We have no suspects, we have no crime scene, and we have no clues,” so it appeared that they needed a little help.

But where to start? Suspects were no problem, narrowing it down was.

Some on the list: A former neighbor on the wrong end of a restraining order taken out by an ex-girlfriend, Miranda’s father once convicted of abusing two minor girls. And that was just for starters. So Linda decided to start with a name she’d heard from Ashley’s aunt.

O’Neal: I asked, “Who are the people in Ashley’s life?” And she told me about Ward Weaver.

Ward Weaver as a neighbor, and a family friend, whose home was right next to the apartment complex in which Ashley and her mother lived. In fact, Weaver had been interviewed on television too…

Ward Weaver (TV footage):  That little girl took off, I wholeheartedly believe that.

Weaver did have a criminal record for assault, but it had been 16 years before. Now, he seemed like a hard-working single father raising a daughter Ashley’s age. And police had already checked out his alibi and sent several teams of officers and dogs to search his house and property. They found nothing. And after all, there were so many suspects.

Morrison: Why would Ward Weaver stand out in that group?

O’Neal: Because Ashley had complained that he had sexually molested her.

And yet, as Linda learned, those allegations had apparently been investigated. And no charges had been filed.

But she decided to run a computer check on Weaver and she was stunned!

O’Neal: I get this information Ward Weaver is on death row!

Morrison: Death row? But you’ve got ward weaver in your town!?

O’Neal: This fellow on death row for serial murder was Ward Weaver’s father!

Strange, but true: Weaver’s father had been on California's death row for two decades. But surely just having a father who was a killer wasn’t reason enough to suspect the son?

Was it?

Then, just about the time Linda was contemplating that question, a second private investigator offered to help: Harry Oakes. Oakes was a bit of a maverick who runs a for profit search and rescue center. And this is his partner was a 12-year-old pound rescued mutt named Valerie.

Many police departments don’t like him, says Oakes, and don’t use him. But in this case he waived his fee, did some background work, showed the dog some of Ashley’s clothing, and went to work.

Harry Oakes, private investigator: The track led from the apartment complex up the road, the staircase, to Ward’s property.

That name again.

Harry, with his Valerie now excited and on the chase, knocked at Weaver’s door and asked for permission to search the house.

Harry Oakes: He said, “I don’t have any problem with you searching, they’ve already brought in 7 different search dog teams. I have nothing to hide.” During the search of the house she gave me a death alert of Ashley’s scent in Ward’s hallway.

Morrison: Did Valerie alert anywhere else?

Oakes: Yes. When we went outside to the back area, there was a slab that had been poured.

Morrison: A concrete slab?

Oakes: A concrete slab. And where the slab met with the grass, the dirt where they came together, my dog was smelling Ashley’s scent coming out of there.

Morrison: Did you call 911?

Oakes: I made a report and turned it into Oregon City police department.

A record of Harry’s report shows it was indeed turned in to police on March 20th, less than two weeks after Miranda disappeared.

Morrison: Was there any reaction from the police?

Oakes: They basically ignored us.

Morrison: What about the FBI?

Oakes: Ignored us.

But not long after, Harry’s report found its way to the desk of private eye Linda O’Neal.

Morrison: What did his report say to you as an investigator?

O’Neal: It said “red flag.”  His dog had alerted a death alert over a freshly poured concrete slab in our Ward Weaver’s backyard.

And something about that slab resonated with Linda: Remember, when she was digging into the background of Ward Weaver’s father, the serial killer on death row? She found out what he had done with one of his victims.

O’Neal: He buried her in the middle of his backyard. And then covered it with concrete.

Morrison: A concrete slab?

O’Neal: Yes.

And Linda’s suspicions were about to grow. Over the next few weeks, teachers, dance coaches, and even Weaver’s ex-wives would tell her stories of disturbing and inappropriate behavior. There was the teacher who saw Weaver drop off Ashley at school, and here was a man in his late 30s locked in a passionate kiss with 12-year-old Ashley. There was the family friend who said Ashley spent weeks at a time at Weaver’s house,  often sleeping in his bed, with him. There was the girlfriend who said that Weaver was angry with Miranda because she had been telling girls in the neighborhood to “Stay away from Weaver’s house, he might molest you.”

By June, Ashley now gone six months, and Miranda, three months. The story had hit the cover of People Magazine. But it seemed to reporters that the FBI wasn’t anywhere close to closing the case.

Jim Redden, reporter for Portland Tribune: It was very much [like], “We have a range of suspects, maybe six to eight different men. The entire impression I got was that they had not in fact, focused on any particular individual.”

The reporter didn’t know it, but he was about to play a key role in the case.

And Linda O’Neal says she was about to get the scare of her life, returning home one day to see her son working on his car with a stranger.

O’Neal: I came face to face with Ward Weaver.

Morrison: And he’s with your son?

O’Neal: He’s with my son.

Morrison: What did he say to you?

O’Neal: He said, “Kids are so naive aren’t they?” And I said, “Mr. Weaver, I don’t think that my family is any of your business.” And he said, “Ms. O’Neal, that’s what I came here to tell you.”

O’Neal: I dug out my gun and loaded it, and put it in my purse.

Morrison: Did you really think he might be capable of coming after you or your family?

O’Neal: I had thought he was capable of anything.

By June 2002, Ashley Pond had been missing for six months and Miranda Gaddis, for three.

All of Oregon City seemed to be clinging to faint hope: their dance team, their mothers, the whole community.

Lori Pond: We can’t wrap our arms around them. Whoever did this took that away from us and hopefully they’re going to give our babies back so we can do that again.

FBI canines were dispatched once again to sniff around the apartment complex where the girls lived. Even Weaver’s house, but apparently found nothing. An FBI spokesman continued to insist the agency had “no suspects,” and “virtually no clues.”

But this private eye disagreed.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: You must’ve been going nuts!

Linda O’Neal, private eye: I couldn’t think of anything else.

Remember, Linda O’Neal, was part of Ashley’s extended family, and had been working the case for months. And she believed the FBI should by now have focused on Ward Weaver, a 39-year-old single father who lived in a house near the apartments.

O’Neal: I was getting very upset and nervous about what was going to happen next. Who was going to be next?

Linda thought it was time to take what she knew to the FBI.

Morrison: Did the FBI understand that you were a recognized private investigator who was calling them?

O’Neal: Yes.

Morrison: What did he say to you?

O’Neal: He said, “We really don’t need help from private investigators, you know. We’re the FBI and we really don’t think that Ward Weaver is a suspect.”

Morrison: How did you feel when you got off the phone?

O’Neal: Devastated!

Still whatever happened on that call got Linda so mad, so angry, and so hurt, that she got in touch with Portland Tribute reporter Jim Redden.

Jim Redden, Portland Tribute reporter: She thought that she had legitimate information that they should be interested in, and they weren’t responding the way she thought they should. She said, “Have you ever heard of Ward Weaver”? And at that point, I had not heard of Ward Weaver.

The private eye and the reporter came up with a plan: A surprise interview of Weaver. So the reporter got up early one Sunday morning and drove to Weaver’s house, knocked on the door and wonder of wonders, Ward Weaver invited him in for an interview that would lift law enforcement’s “shroud of secrecy” on the case, and put one suspect in the spotlight for the very first time.

Morrison: Did he seem to you at all like a potentially sociopathic killer?

Redden: He really seemed like a very normal kind of guy. The more he talked, the more nervous he got and that’s when he said, “I’m the FBI’s prime suspect.”

Morrison: What was your feeling as you sat there next to the man?

Redden: Well, he was coming across to me as sort of honest and candid…

The reporter’s gut feeling put Linda back on her heels.

O’Neal: Jim Redden said to me, "You know, he seems like an okay guy."

Morrison: Maybe you were the crazy one!

O’Neal: It sort of was looking that way!

But the reporter wrote the article, putting Ward Weaver’s name in print for the first time. Weaver was now the center of attention, and he seemed to be enjoying it. He even appeared on national television, saying “She’s better off hiding out wherever she’s found a place to live.”

And just days later, what did the local police and the FBI and local police do? They launched a huge raid, executing a search warrant, towing away vehicles that might contain suspicious materials, and informing the target of all this attention that he’d failed a polygraph test.

The surprise? Well, the surprise was in the man’s name: It was not Ward Weaver.

It was another prime suspect, a neighbor of the girls, who denied any role in the murders, said he’d been interviewed five or six times. He was questioned about a camping trip he took the day Miranda disappeared. And his friends had been warned to stay away from him.

What no one knew is that the big break was about to occur. And it would come, not from the FBI task force, or local police. But from a woman, a teenager at the time, who’s never before spoken about what happened to her— or how she somehow found the strength to survive.

By August, seven months had passed since Ashley Pond disappeared; more than 4 months since Miranda Gaddis vanished. Still, Oregon City police and the FBI appeared to the public to be no closer to an arrest, even though neighbor Ward Weaver had told whoever would listen that he was the prime suspect.

And though Ashley’s step-grandmother Linda O’Neal firmly believed there was enough probable cause to search his property for the two bodies, police did not appear to her to be interested.  No search warrant was asked for or issued.

By early August, Linda learned Weaver had apparently had enough media attention.

Linda O’Neal, step-grandmother and private eye: He told people he was going to Mexico or Idaho. He had emptied his entire house of all of his possessions..

But with his house empty, and apparently ready to move out of Oregon, Ward Weaver made a move that still mystifies everyone involved.

Randi Oneida, girlfriend of Ward Weaver’s son: He was a nice person to be around. He fooled people I guess.

Oneida is the girlfriend of Ward Weaver’s son, the mother of Ward’s grandchild. Never before has she revealed publicly what happened that day in August 2002 when at the age of 19, she got in a car with Weaver, a man she assumed she could trust.

Oneida: All the way to his house, he wasn’t acting different or anything.

Keith Morrison, Dateline correspondent: And then you walked in the house, and..

Oneida: That’s when he snapped. That’s when I noticed a different face.

He threw her to the floor, tore off her clothing, and raped her. She couldn’t talk about the worst of it, she said. Her body seemed to stiffen at the memory.

Morrison: Do you remember the look in his eye?

Oneida: He was possessed. It wasn’t him. It looked like satan inside of him, but the second he stood up off of me, his face went back to normal.

Morrison: And then you ran?

Oneida: Yeah, I pushed him with my feet, pushed him back, and I ran.

On the way out, she grabbed a tarp covering the concrete slab in Ward’s backyard.  And then she ran naked and trembling after a savage sexual assault— into the street, where she flagged down a passing car. And within hours, Ward Weaver was arrested, booked, and behind bars, charged with rape.

Portland Tribune reporter Jim Redden: That was the moment that I really thought, "This is the guy."

Linda O’Neal says she’d known it for months. She had known in her gut that Weaver was a violent man, who’d killed Ashley and Miranda. And they had him in custody now, for a violent rape, so she felt sure the FBI would move quickly to charge him in the disappearance of Ashley and Miranda.

Morrison: Once he was in custody was a search warrant issued for his property?

O’Neal: There was a search conducted that had everything to do with the rape, with the crime that occurred that day, but then they took down the yellow crime tape and they left.

And without crime scene tape or a steady police presence, Weaver’s house became a kind of open house. After weeks of people seeing Weaver’s name in the papers, or seeing him on the news, sitting near that freshly poured concrete slab, and hearing of his arrest for rape, many of the locals had come to the same conclusion as Linda: What was the FBI waiting for?

In mid-August, in the days after Ward was arrested for raping his son’s girlfriend, protestors gathered at the property. They left their accusing signs lying around the unexamined back yard...

Morrison: How long was it between the time Ward Weaver was arrested, and the time somebody got a search warrant to look into his property?

O’Neal: Well, he was arrested August 13, and it was August 23 when they got the search warrant.

Then, with crowds gathering again as if they knew what was to come, the FBI showed up in force, erecting two white tents, bringing in dozens of agents and tons of equipment.

Hours later, there was the first discovery: a box, in a shed behind the house, with remains. The Oregon state medical examiner positively identified the remains of the discovered body of Miranda Gaddis.

The following day, there was another vigil and another discovery. Investigators finally dug up that concrete slab. It was the very spot at which that search dog had issued a “death alert” five months before.

And there beneath it, they found another body — Ashley Pond’s.

O’Neal: It was very sad news because I think you always hope, until there’s a body, you always have hope. And even though I always believed the bodies were there, the reality of it was difficult. These two beautiful young girls were gone forever.

During all those days, weeks, months, of anxiety and hope… the long investigation, the scores of officers, the bodies of the two little girls were right here all along in Ward Weaver’s backyard.

And Weaver himself? At first, claimed he had not a thing to do with it. But in the end, Ward Weaver, without explaining how or why, simply pleaded guilty and was sentenced to remain in prison for the rest of his life.

At his sentencing, the judge said: “I think everyone probably shares in the hope that there is a special place in hell for people like you.”

How could Ward Weaver have gotten away with it for so long? And how could the FBI have seemed so, well, off?  Especially when others seemed to have figured it all so neatly? There was sadness, yes, for the loss of those two girls— but also now, anger.

Redden: Our headline was “Why did it take so long?” And that was the question that we were trying to get answered. We still don’t know.

Although there’s no evidence that a faster investigation might have saved Ashley or Miranda—the question remained, what about Randi? The young woman whose presence of mind and physical strength in the face of rape— and maybe something worse— saved her own life?

Morrison: You know better than anybody else on earth what Ashley and Miranda went through.

Randi Oneida, Ward Weaver's victim: Uh-huh.

Morrison: If you hadn’t had the abilities you had, what would’ve happened to you?

Oneida: I would be exactly where Ashley and Miranda are.

Morrison: Are you angry?

Randi: Yeah, I’m very angry.

Morrison: What does that anger feel like?

Oneida: It’s anger, frustration that this happened to me. It could have been stopped, I really believe that it could have been stopped.

Morrison: Who could have prevented it?

Oneida: I think the FBI, the Oregon city police.

O’Neal: If they were watching Ward Weaver, how did he move all of his possessions out of his house, give notice, and rape, and almost kill one more girl?

How indeed? We wondered how the police and FBI would respond to allegations that they had taken too long or bungled their investigation. What could they say to this young woman?

After all the waiting, the investigating, the discovery of the bodies of Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis, and the arrest and conviction of their killer, Ward Weaver—  that’s when the questions really began. It was a question splashed in a banner headline: Why exactly had it taken so long?

And now, for the first time, police and the FBI agreed to answer their Portland critics. Were they in some away ashamed of their investigation? 

Well, as a matter of fact, absolutely not.

Robert Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: This was a very, very successful investigation.

Robert Jordan is special agent in charge of the FBI’s office in Portland. He came to Oregon city after murders were solved. The FBI, with the Oregon city police department, were the two agencies that made up the task force on this case, and they bristle at suggestions that they didn’t move as quickly as they should have.

Gordon Huiras, chief of Oregon City police department: The investigators involved were driven to solve that case. They put their heart and soul in that case. They would have arrested someone just as soon as they had probable cause to make an arrest in that case.

Keith Morrison, Dateline Correspondent: There are those who believe though that probable cause existed long before the rape of Randi Oneida.

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: People who were not associated with the investigation.

People, like Linda O’Neal. She’s now co-written a book detailing her investigation, called ‘Missing: the Oregon City Girls.” Remember, it was Linda who said she called the FBI in June 2002, two months before Weaver’s arrest to outline what she said was solid circumstantial evidence that Weaver was the killer, and that the girls’ bodies were buried on his property. Information, it turns out, that was true.

Linda says the FBI agent she spoke to wasn’t interested in her opinion. And reporter Jim Redden confirms Linda told him the same story.

But the head of Portland’s office now says no record of such a call exists.

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: The first and only documented contact our investigators had with the author was in March 27 and she said she had a tip she wanted to pass on. The tip was a psychic tip and that is the only documented contact this investigation had with the author.

No documents. But, we wondered, could an agent have spoken to Linda, heard her allegations about Ward Weaver, without keeping a full record of the call?

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: Absolutely. We had over 4,000 tips that came into us. But we had many people who wanted to tell us Ward Weaver did it, but all those people were interviewed, and none of those interviews provided us with a witness or something we could put in an affidavit for probable cause to arrest Mr. Weaver, or search his property.

The FBI says Weaver was always among the top three suspects, especially after flunking a polygraph.

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: Our polygrapher followed him out to his car, literally haranguing him, trying to get him to confess. He wouldn’t. This is the United States of America. We don’t have any physical ways to make somebody confess.

And so, the investigation continued, say police, until Weaver was arrested for raping Randi Oneida. And Weaver’s own sons came forward with incriminating information that allowed prosecutors and the task force to agree that finally, 10 days after the arrest, that they now had “probable cause” to search his property.

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: We were working an investigation, to try to a) find the girls, and if we couldn’t find them safe and alive, b) find out who did it. We did that. That’s a successful investigation.

Morrison: Is that what you’d say to Randi Oneida?

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: No, I don’t think I’d say that to Randi Oneida.

Morrison: What would you say to her?

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: She was at risk, no question about it. She was at risk from Ward Weaver.

As for Linda and her book, the task force has come out swinging. The FBI says the book is not credible, and points to an author’s note that tells of “reconstructed conversations,” “composites of characters” and the fact that some “names have been changed.”

Jordan, FBI special agent in charge: The book is fictionalized, in some manner. So what’s fiction, what’s real, it’s hard to say.

Linda O’Neal, private investigator, author: Well, I was offended.

Linda says she made it quite clear that while some names and narrative details were altered.. her story is a true telling of events from her own perspective.

Morrison: Do they have some point? That it’s easy for you to say, “We  could have moved quicker, but you weren’t part of the investigation, so how would you know what went on?”

O’Neal: I wasn’t part of their investigation.  I was on my own, conducting my own investigation.  And all I know is what I did and what I found out.

Should Ward Weaver have been stopped sooner than he was?  The question, for Randi Oneida, is altogether too personal.

Morrison: What has he done to you?

Randi Oneida, Ward Weaver's victim: He’s ruined me. I really believe that they could have stopped him before he had gone as far as he did.

And around Oregon City, Oregon, the strange disconnect lingers: Bitterness among some who believe it took too long to solve the murder of two little girls; and among police, satisfaction for a job well done.

We contacted Ashley Pond’s mother for comment. She said that she will be forever grateful to the FBI and all the police agencies who worked on the case, and that any criticism of their efforts is unfair.

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