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ajc.com | News | Finally caught: 5 year hunt for Eric Rudolph ends [ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 6/1/03 ]

Finally caught: 5 year hunt for Eric Rudolph ends

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Complete coverage

MURPHY, N.C. -- In the end, alleged bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, target of an intense, five-year manhunt, was captured early Saturday by a rookie cop on routine patrol.

The 36-year-old fugitive charged with four bombings, including the 1996 attack at Centennial Olympic Park, was discovered scavenging through a garbage bin behind a grocery store.

Authorities said the man, dressed in work clothes, running shoes and a camouflage jacket, initially hid behind some crates and told them his name was Jerry Wilson. Rudolph, who is charged with killing two people and injuring at least 120, gave up quietly.

"He complied with everything I asked him to do," said Jeff Postell, a 21-year-old police officer who worked in the tool department of a Wal-Mart before he joined the Murphy department less than a year ago. Postell was matter-of-fact about his prized pinch, "All in a day's work," he said. "I'm just doing what I was hired to do."

At the Cherokee County, N.C., jail, Rudolph was confronted about his identity. "They asked him his name and he said it was Eric Robert Rudolph," said Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin. Fingerprint checks later proved that true.

"Oh, wow. Lord have mercy," said Normanly Roye, a construction worker visiting Centennial Olympic Park on his day off Saturday. "He's no better than the terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center."

Rudolph looked thinner than he appeared in photos that have been circulated the past few years, but he was in relatively good health. He scarfed down a jailhouse breakfast of biscuits, gravy, eggs and bacon. "He seemed relieved," the sheriff said.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, visiting Missouri for his son's wedding, released a statement: "Today, Eric Robert Rudolph, the most notorious American fugitive on the FBI's most-wanted list, has been captured and will face American justice."

Rudolph has been charged with the July 27, 1996, Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, which killed Albany resident Alice Hawthorne and injured 111 others; bombings in early 1997 at a Sandy Springs abortion clinic and at a gay and lesbian nightclub in Atlanta; and a Jan. 29, 1998, bombing outside a Birmingham abortion clinic, which killed an off-duty police officer and injured a nurse.

Emily Lyons, the nurse, said she still has a "Rudolph-damaged face" from the attack, and now has a simple question for the suspect: "Why?"

Lyons said she would prefer he get the death penalty if convicted.

"They are not going to torture him or blow him up," she said. "And he is not having to go through the torture and the pain and the agony I and other families went through."

Outlasted by law


Cost of manhunt: More than $24 million

Federal agents assigned to case at its peak: More than 200

Approximate number of acres in Nantahala National Forest, roughly the size of Fulton and DeKalb counties combined: 500,000

Days on FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list 1,852 or 5 years and 26 days

Federal indictments: 23, including 21 in Georgia; 2 in Alabama

Miles between Murphy, N.C., and Centennial Olympic Park, about a 2 1/2-hour drive: 118

Reward offered: $1 million

Retired GBI agent Charles Stone, who headed the agency's probe in the bombings, said the fact that Rudolph was found near a garbage bin foraging for food and gave up without a fight shows the years of running wore him down.

"I think he's tired of running, physically tired," Stone said. "That life runs you down. He probably had no reserve."

Chris Swecker, the FBI special agent in charge of North Carolina, had a similar feeling. "I kept thinking over the last three years that one day he would just wander down from the mountains, just tired and hungry, and turn himself in," he said. "There was never a credible sighting anywhere else, the bombs stopped going off, so the real question in [investigators'] minds -- those who knew him well and had studied this -- the only question was whether he was dead or alive. They always thought he was still in this area."

Stone also never wavered in his belief that Rudolph had not left the area.

"He was comfortable with the surroundings, and he knew that we couldn't catch him," said Stone, who retired in 1999. "He was successful hiding there, so why leave?"

News of the arrest spread quickly in Murphy and by late Saturday morning dozens of residents and visitors converged on the tiny downtown armed with cameras.

Kathy Bost, a 5-year resident of Murphy, said the Rudolph investigation sullied the town's reputation. "This is like getting rid of that black eye," she said.

Great place to hide

The rugged, 500,000-acre Nantahala National Forest proved to be the perfect hiding place for Rudolph, who spent much of his youth in the area and had often practiced his survival and evasion skills, improved during a stint in the U.S. Army.

"The terrain was almost vertical and it was a double canopy forest" of tall oak and poplars with mountain laurel underneath, said Stone. "There were hundreds of old mines he could have been in. Trails crisscrossing all over. There's 500 miles of gravel roads. There were hundreds of springs."

Bloodhounds apparently picked up a scent several times, only to lose it in thick underbrush and on creek bottoms. Agents slid down ropes from helicopters to search craggy terrain. They scoured deep woods with sophisticated infrared equipment.

Rudolph sightings became frequent from North Georgia to Virginia, where an Appalachian Trail backpacker was briefly detained and fingerprinted because of his resemblance to Rudolph.

The fugitive was last spotted July, 7, 1998, in Andrews, N.C., about 20 miles from Murphy. He was hungry and contacted George Nordmann, a health food store owner he knew in Andrews. Two days later, he took a six-month supply of food and a 1977 Datsun pickup from Nordmann's home and left five $100 bills. Investigators speculated the cash was payment for the food he took.

Nordmann reported it to police, again kicking off a manhunt, this time with nearly 300 agents.

Frustrating search

But the searching proved fruitless, and the fugitive's elusiveness had become something of a national punch line.

The mountain search created a cottage industry along the winding two-lane roads of western North Carolina, especially after the 1998 sighting. Entrepreneurs sold bumper stickers. Agents rented cabins. Reporters jammed hotels. Diners that rarely had lines turned away frustrated locals.

The investigation later dwindled to just a handful of agents working the case. Residents and authorities for years saw petty thefts of food and clothing as evidence that the resourceful Rudolph was still out there.

In 2001, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article estimated the cost of the search at more than $24 million in state and federal resources.

The fact that Rudolph wore casual clothing and jogging shoes instead of rags spurred speculation that he had been getting help from residents who sympathized with his anti-government, anti-abortion, anti-Semitic views.

"Someone's been putting him up this whole time," theorized Ernie Cabral, a truck driver in Murphy, a town of 1,600.

But Kent Alexander, the U.S. attorney in Atlanta during the bombings, said Rudolph's foraging in the garbage tells him he wasn't getting help.

"It shows the people in North Carolina weren't supporting him if he was reduced to that," said Alexander, who like almost anyone who has paid attention to the case, is keenly interested as to where Rudolph has been.

Gruesome attacks

The bomb at the Olympic park burst from a hidden military knapsack loaded with masonry nails, powered by nearly 4 pounds of smokeless powder and timed with a wind-up alarm clock. Authorities said the bomb would have caused even worse carnage if it had not been inadvertently knocked over by some men drinking near it.

The pipe bomb was filled with smokeless powder, but the four remaining devices used dynamite, according to federal documents. All but the first Sandy Springs bomb used nails for shrapnel, and all five had steel plates to direct the blast, prompting officials to call them the bomber's signature.

The Birmingham bomb, hidden in a tool box underneath an artificial potted plant, killed Birmingham Police Officer Robert Sanderson, 35, who was working a second job as a security guard at the abortion clinic. His body was riddled with nails and other shrapnel as he apparently bent over to check the unfamiliar box.

A witness recorded the license number of a gray Nissan pickup truck parked near the clinic around the time of the blast. It was noticed, apparently, because someone saw a man removing what appeared to be a blond wig as he hurried to the truck and drove away.

The North Carolina license plate was traced to a registration in the name of Eric Robert Rudolph, a 31-year-old carpenter. The registration listed an Asheville address, and law enforcement officers throughout North Carolina began looking for Rudolph. Within hours, authorities traced him through power company records to a mobile home on the outskirts of Murphy.

'Lone wolf'

Rudolph apparently did not know for several hours that police were looking for him. A video store clerk in Murphy remembered waiting on Rudolph the next day, Jan. 30. He rented "Kull the Conqueror." Receipts found later indicated Rudolph might also have stopped at an Ingles grocery store and a Burger King.

By the time local and federal agents arrived at the trailer that evening, the lights were still on, but Rudolph had vanished. The gray pickup was found abandoned in woods near Murphy on Feb. 7. Federal agents wearing flak jackets and toting rifles began scouring the rugged hills around Murphy and Andrews, without success.

"He's dead in them hills, or he's hid out somewhere else," Richard Riddle, a Murphy resident, said last year.

Brent Smith, a terrorism expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said at that time that "lone wolf" bombers are often difficult to catch. "If he is eventually captured, it will probably be due to what I call a serendipitous police contact, like getting a parking or traffic ticket."

Rudolph is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Monday at a removal hearing before a federal magistrate judge in Asheville, N.C.

Justice Department officials in Washington are expected to decide soon where Rudolph will stand trial first -- Atlanta or Birmingham. "That's going to be a very important decision," Swecker said. "Wherever the strongest case is, obviously."

Janet Reno was U.S. attorney general when the bombings occurred and when Rudolph was charged. Before she left office, a tentative decision was reached to try him first in Birmingham, where the evidence against him is believed to be the strongest.

Whether that plan will still be followed is up to Reno's successor, Ashcroft.

-- Staff writers Patricia Guthrie, Marlon Manuel, Bill Rankin and Ron Taylor and The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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