Behavior May Leave a Mark on Genes

Times Staff Writers

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.

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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.

Eighteen years later, Shumaker still wonders. The California Department of Justice once checked Weaver's truck logs against unsolved homicides around the state, he said. They came up with 26 matches -- meaning that Weaver had been in the area when a killing occurred.

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The compulsions that motivate someone like Ward Weaver Jr. are hidden variables in the human equation. Not even the man himself may see them clearly. He declined to be interviewed for this article unless he was paid for his story.

For the first time, however, the minds of murderers are opening to direct scientific scrutiny.

With new gene sequencers, researchers can study the action of tens of thousands of genes in an afternoon, compared with one or two genes a month a few years ago. With brain scanners, researchers can also measure the blood flow and metabolic energy of thought in action -- and link it to the activity of genes.

Fifty years after scientists discovered the structure of DNA, researchers have launched a comprehensive search for the biological roots of human behavior, an effort that promises to dominate scientific research for decades.

Scientists in five countries are cataloging the millions of variations in that human biochemical text that sets people apart one from another, including those that may affect behavior and emotion.

After a century of false starts, the effort to dissect human nature is entering a new era, said Yale University science historian Daniel Kevles. It may be only a matter of time before genes involved in human behavior can be identified, patented and, perhaps, altered.

Research is revealing that the workings of genes are more complex than scientists had thought, that the brain itself is more open to change, and that the effects of everyday experience are more powerful.

Indeed, growing evidence suggests that what happens in life controls the activity of many genes.

"The new way of looking at this is that different experiences turn different genes on and off," said psychologist Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin. "Experience matters."

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Oregon City is an old town. It lays claim to being the end of the Oregon Trail. It's also a pretty town with plenty of postcard vistas. Each spring, the Willamette River is choked with skiffs fishing the chinook salmon run.

Murder here is rare. Missing girls are rarer.

So when two girls vanished from the Newell Creek apartments last year, police and reporters swarmed through the neighborhood. The younger Weaver readily admitted he was a suspect, but took in stride the suspicions about his family background.

"They are trying to make a father-and-son connection here because my father has such a severe history," he told an interviewer on ABC's "Good Morning America."

He was arrested several weeks later, and pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder in the death of the girls.

Denied bail, he may not stand trial until June 2004. He is being kept in the medical wing of the Clackamas County Jail to avoid harassment by other prisoners. His attorney, Peter Fahy, turned down a request for an interview with his client.

Like his father, the younger Weaver had troubled marriages. Both of his ex-wives filed restraining orders against him.

In 1986, he was convicted of bludgeoning 15-year-old Jocelyn Ordona with a 12-pound concrete block and attacking her sister, Jennifer, then 16.

Jennifer Ordona had considered Weaver a family friend. In a recent interview, she recalled her shock as she struggled beneath him. "What are you doing?" she screamed. "It's me, Jennifer."

Weaver never said a word. The girls finally escaped. Weaver was arrested the next day. He went to prison for three years.

He was in jail last November, facing charges of raping his son's 19-year-old girlfriend, who fled from him naked into the street. Then a Clackamas County grand jury indicted him for murder in the deaths of the two girls.

He had his son, Alex, help him dig the hole for the concrete pad.

His second wife, Kristi Sloan, said in an interview that she remembers her disbelief when Weaver matter-of-factly told her that his father was in San Quentin for murder and had buried a girl in his backyard.

She also remembers his explosive temper.

Sloan left Weaver in 1998, but was a regular visitor at his rented house on South Beavercreek Road when the two girls were reported missing. In fact, she remembered the day her former husband took her out back and showed off the new concrete slab, supposedly a platform for a hot tub.

"Ward, this doesn't look too good," she said. "Your dad killed people and buried one under concrete."

He walked up so close to her that she was forced to take a step back onto the new concrete slab. He put his hands on her shoulders, she said. "Do you think I could kill somebody without anybody noticing?" he asked her.

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What these two Ward Weavers do not share -- at least not that any scientist can readily demonstrate today -- is a single gene for violence. No genetic basis for impulsive violence has been proven.

Nor did Ward Weaver Jr. play a direct role in much of his oldest son's upbringing.

They lived apart from about the time the son was 4 years old, family members said.

When his parents divorced, Ward Weaver III was raised by his mother's second husband, a man several relatives today recall as quick-tempered and abusive.

Still, his father retained a place in the life of Ward Weaver III.

When the son was 21, he faithfully attended his father's murder trial, said Huffman, the defense attorney.

The younger Weaver also visited his father on death row.

On one such family trip to the prison at San Quentin, according to a local newspaper, Weaver brought along one of his daughter's friends -- young Ashley Pond, the girl whose body was later discovered under his patio.

The inexplicable twists of family history easily confound researchers trying to sort out the biology underlying human behavior.

Until recently the most powerful tool to analyze behavior and heredity was statistics, not molecular biology or neuroscience.

Scientists followed thousands of children for years in hopes of discerning what influenced their behavior.

Based on such surveys, researchers believed that at least half of behavior is somehow the result of genes.

Studies of twins appear to demonstrate that bullying and aggressive behavior are influenced by heredity, said scientists at the University of Southampton and the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden.

Even social attitudes like a fondness for roller coasters or an opinion on the death penalty appear to be shaped by genetic factors, according to studies by independent research teams at USC, the University of Western Ontario and the University of British Columbia.

Nonetheless, no one has been able to pin down any genes that might be responsible.

"There is no doubt that much of personality is genetically influenced," said Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature."

"We know that tens of thousands of genes working together have a large effect on the mind," Pinker said. "The challenge for the field is to resolve the paradox: We know it is genetic but we can't find the genes."

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The Weaver family also has questions.

They ask themselves why.

"I always thought about whether there was some psycho gene in my family," said Tammi Weaver. The man on death row is her father; the man awaiting trial is her brother.

Now living 30 minutes outside Portland in Troutdale, she has two children. She does her best to raise them right, she said. She keeps the shades drawn as if to keep the world at bay. All her life she wrestled with misgivings about her family and her father. What kind of man was he? Did he really do the things that so many people say?

It was 20 years before she could bring herself to seek the answers.

Her father, she said, was the one bright spot in an otherwise grim upbringing marred by beatings from her stepfather and sexual abuse by her brother, the younger Ward Weaver. She never complained to authorities.Though he remarried, her biological father would still come by to visit on occasion. She treasured those memories. "I didn't want to lose that," she said.

A few months ago, she decided to do some online research into her father's crimes. She was reluctant to face his criminal record alone. She asked a friend to sit at her side as she read the legal transcripts.

"He is the monster everybody said he was," she said, shaking her head.

If only she could see into the depths of her father's mind, perhaps she could find some hint of an explanation.

Peer into the brain of a convicted killer -- as USC psychologist Adrian Raine has done so many times -- and a distinctive signature of neural activity can be discerned, like reefs and shoals rippling the surface of the ocean.

In a series of studies during the 1990s, Raine scanned the brains of 41 convicted murderers in California prisons.

He used positron emission tomography (PET), which measures differences in neural metabolism, and computerized tomography (CT), which can take detailed anatomical images of the brain's soft tissues. Together, the two can measure patterns of mental activity.

Some of the men had killed on impulse -- as the older Weaver argued in his defense -- while others were more deliberate, premeditated murderers.

Raine found a series of metabolic patterns that suggested the neural networks underlying some conscious behavior of the killers were different from normal people's.

The patterns also separated those who killed with premeditation from those who murdered on the spur of the moment, and those murderers who were abused as children from those with more normal childhoods.

Not everyone was convinced the patterns were meaningful.

At this level of inquiry, the mind is a special effect produced by the chemistry of neurotransmitters.

Love is in some measure the influence of a brain chemical called oxytocin and fluctuating levels of vasopressin. Aggression and depression are a measure of serotonin levels.

By altering a single gene that affects vasopressin, scientists can turn philandering mice into faithful, devoted mates.

Eliminate four genes that affect levels of oxytocin and estrogen, and mice cannot recognize their friends or their enemies.

Make just one genetic change in how a brain hormone such as serotonin is controlled and researchers also can eliminate or elevate some kinds of aggression -- at least in mice.

By examining images of the brains of identical twins, UCLA neurologist Paul Thompson and his colleagues have shown how such genes shape the anatomy of the human brain. The more genes people have in common, the more their brains are alike, the researchers discovered.

This strong family resemblance may explain why neural diseases and mental disorders, including schizophrenia and some types of dementia, run in families. It suggests one way parents may pass on personality traits to their children.

If genes bind family members to one another, the nuances of experience are what set families' members apart, according to the American Society of Human Genetics.

The way a mother holds and strokes her child can chemically alter the expression of some of the child's genes and temper their effects, said psychiatrist Glen Gabbard at Baylor College of Medicine, who studies how biology and the environment affect personality disorders.

"The quality of maternal interaction may override the genetic predisposition to criminal behavior," Gabbard said.

Such biochemical changes in how a gene behaves can, in turn, be inherited, even though they do not actually change the structure of the gene itself.

Molecular biologists at the University of Wisconsin and King's College London last year discovered a gene linked to antisocial behavior whose activity seems to be controlled by the intersection of heredity and home life.

One variant of this gene, which can affect levels of serotonin, appears to be triggered by the experience of child abuse.

"We have come to the realization that there is no dichotomy between genes and environment," said UCLA clinical psychiatrist Regina Palley. "They both interact at a biological level."

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Brain scans and genetic pedigrees have become a staple of death penalty proceedings, said Alison McInnes, director of the laboratory of neurobehavioral genetics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

As an expert defense witness in the trial of Yosemite Park killer Cary Stayner, she testified during the sanity phase of his death penalty proceeding. She tried to show how genes influenced the state of mind that led him to murder three tourists and a nature guide in 1999. A second scientist testified that a brain-imaging scan showed abnormalities that might have made Stayner more prone to violent impulses.

Even so, the jurors decided that he was legally sane and sentenced him to die.

On death row in Georgia, convicted murderer Stephen Mobley appealed his death sentence by arguing that he had a right to be tested for genes linked to impulsive and uncontrollable violence. The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. He is awaiting execution.

Forensic neurobiologist Paul Rossby in El Paso has testified as an expert witness in seven death penalty cases, in which he measured serotonin and dopamine activity in the brains of the accused.

"We are able to provide a jury with plausible explanations for the most inexplicable acts of horror," Rossby said. "This is the wave of the future."

If researchers can better understand how biology makes the brain go awry, they may one day predict who is predisposed to aggressive, violent behavior and, perhaps, find ways to intervene long before any harm can occur.

Today, all 50 states are building computer data banks of DNA sequences collected from convicted felons. At least 20 states allow scientists to use those data banks for genetic research.

"The genetic markers [they find] are going to be far more useful in criminal justice and forensics than they will be useful for medicine," said sociologist Troy Duster of New York University and UC Berkeley.

Some legal experts, sociologists and ethicists worry that medical techniques developed to treat behavior will instead become tools of control, transforming crime and punishment.

In the past, scientific theories of deviant behavior were used to justify abuses, from U.S. eugenics programs to sterilize the "feeble-minded" to the Nazi genocide of the genetically "unfit."

Biological research on human aggression and violence remains controversial today, in part because genetic discoveries about human behavior so often have been wrong or oversimplified.

In recent years, scientists have offered genetic explanations for homosexuality, smoking, divorce, suicide, schizophrenia, alcoholism, shyness, political liberalism, intelligence and criminality.

All too often, the connection between genes and behavior was too tenuous to bear up under scrutiny.

Once a genetic diagnosis for a predisposition to impulsive violence or antisocial behavior is possible, it may only be a short step to classify violence as an inherited disease, subject to medical controls that do not offer the same safeguards and civil protections as criminal proceedings, Columbia University law professor Harold Edgar said.

Those diagnosed as potential offenders might be detained as a precautionary measure or required to undergo treatment.

"What will we do once we know what predisposes people to behavior? To what extent can we predict and punish antisocial acts before they occur?" asked Lori Andrews, director of the Institute of Science, Law and Technology at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "Should we identify these people and keep them under surveillance? Should we try to reprogram them or mandate medical treatment?"

"Are there basic principles of the legal system we might have to change, in terms of how we view responsibility?" she asked. "If we can say that my genes made me do it, we may have to rethink the very foundation of criminal law."

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The questions of human nature may be ultimately unanswerable. In this sense, the legacy of the two Weavers -- father and son -- is an heirloom of self-doubt.

Tammi Weaver's son is haunted by the questions he inherited.

How could his grandfather kill anyone? How could his uncle? Is something wrong with his family?

For answers, he wrote the one man who might best know -- his grandfather on death row. In the letter, the boy enclosed a photograph of himself at school and a drawing he made of a favorite cartoon character.

From San Quentin, Ward Weaver Jr. replied in January with a five-page, single-spaced typed letter.

Tammi Weaver intercepted her father's letter. She has not let her son read it yet. She can barely bring herself to talk to him about it.

In it, Weaver counseled his grandson about the importance of grades, urged him to work to be a better person, and cautioned that the boy's uncle may yet be found innocent of the murders of the two girls.

Then the grandfather urged the boy to look into himself for the seeds of homicidal rage.

Had he never been so angry that he wanted to kill?

The grandfather typed: "we are all capable of killing, you, your sister, mother, everyone is capable of killing someone.... When you get in a fist fight, are you doing it just to make that person go away or are you trying to hurt the person? YOUR TRYING TO BEAT THAT PERSON TO DEATH BEFORE THEY DO IT TO YOU."

Weaver said nothing of his own crimes. He wrote instead in general terms of rage and frustration and striking out at others. He offered explanations for his own son now in jail. He seemed to realize how inadequate it all must have sounded.

"I know how frustrating it may be to have these questions in your head and no answers, and asked by others and not be able to answer them with anything that makes since, but killing of any kind doesn't make since, it never has and never will.

"Each murder is as different as every face on the planet is different," he typed.

Then in the margin, he printed in tiny, sloping letters:

"Love, Grandpa."

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