Suspect in '96 Olympic Bombing and 3 Other Attacks Is Caught

New York Times/June 1, 2003
By Jeffrey Gettleman with David M. Halbfinger

Murphy, N.C. -- After leading investigators on one of the most exhaustive manhunts in history, Eric Robert Rudolph, the wily survivalist charged in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics and attacks on abortion clinics, was arrested this morning behind a supermarket, digging through a Dumpster.

Mr. Rudolph, who had vanished into the thick forests of Appalachia, living off a mix of wild berries, tuna fish and help from sympathetic local residents, surfaced here in the very corner of rural North Carolina where the search began five years ago.

A rookie police officer, Jeffrey Postell, spotted Mr. Rudolph, 36, behind a Save-a-Lot and arrested him for attempted burglary. After he took Mr. Rudolph to jail, a colleague recognized his face from the F.B.I. posters plastered across town.

"I did not have a clue" who he was, Officer Postell said.

Mr. Rudolph is thought to be the author of the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta that killed one woman, an attack at an abortion clinic that claimed the life of a police officer, and two other blasts, one at another abortion center and one at a gay nightclub. He was first named a suspect in 1998.

A white supremacist and skilled woodsman, Mr. Rudolph became something of a local folk hero, a cheered-on phantom, as he eluded hundreds of F.B.I. agents who chased him with bloodhounds, helicopters and heat-seeking military equipment, but always came up empty.

Today, even after his capture, many people here still identified with him.

"Rudolph's a Christian and I'm a Christian and he dedicated his life to fighting abortion," said Crystal Davis, 25, a mother of four. "Those are our values. These are our woods. I don't see what he did as a terrorist act."

Murphy is a conservative place, a saw mill and cow pasture town of 1,500, with the Appalachian foothills rising like the rim of a bowl in every direction.

At the height of the manhunt, businesses here printed up T-shirts and bumper stickers that said "Run, Rudolph, Run," and "Eric Rudolph the Hide and Seek Champion of the World."

Today, Mr. Rudolph told investigators he had been hiding out in the Murphy area all along, as many of them suspected.

Police officials have said that Mr. Rudolph was able to remain on the loose for five years because he turned to local residents for help. The last time he was seen before his arrest was in July 1998, when he descended from the mountains and stopped at a friend's health food store in nearby Andrews.

When asked if the F.B.I. was investigating anyone else, Special Agent Chris Swecker said: "Five years is a long time. And that's one of the things were going to be looking at. It's one of our primary areas of inquiry right now."

In households across the country, victims quietly absorbed the news of the arrest.

"I feel like I should weep," said Calvin Thorbourne, who still carries a splinter of shrapnel in his leg from the Olympic Park bombing. "But then I realize there are people who are worse off than I am."

It is not quite clear how a good-looking former airborne soldier, who was born in Florida but spent his teenage years hiking and fishing the woods of western North Carolina and learning the ropes of carpentry, became one of the most elusive fugitives the Federal Bureau of Investigation has chased in years.

The authorities say Mr. Rudolph first struck July 27, 1996, planting a knapsack bomb that drilled nails and shrapnel into visitors at the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. It was midway through the Games. The explosion, which tarred the event, killed Alice Hawthorne, 44, and injured more than 100.

The investigation into that bombing was immediately thrown off track when the authorities identified Richard A. Jewell, a part-time security guard, as the suspect. Mr. Jewell, after great controversy, was eventually cleared.

Six months later, on Jan. 16, 1997, two bombs ripped through a crowd outside the Northside Family Planning Service, an Atlanta area clinic where doctors perform abortions. The blast injured seven people.

Then on Feb. 21, a bomb detonated at the Otherside Lounge, a gay nightclub in Atlanta, injuring five people. A second bomb, apparently intended for rescue workers, exploded while being handled by a police robot.

It was only after a fourth blast that the authorities began to focus on Mr. Rudolph, a college drop-out who served in the Army from 1987 to 1989, when he was discharged for smoking marijuana.

On Jan. 29, 1998, a bomb blew up outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Center in Birmingham, Ala., which also provided abortions, killing an off-duty police officer, Robert D. Sanderson, and maiming a nurse, Emily Lyons.

Mr. Rudolph was identified after he was seen walking away from the clinic. Investigators said a witness noted the North Carolina license plate on the pickup truck he was driving. It was the big break.

Around the same time, news organizations began receiving letters that claimed the bombs were the handiwork of the extremist group Army of God. The letters included language associated with Christian Identity, a white supremacist group that operated from a compound near Murphy.

When the authorities put the clues together, all signs pointed to western North Carolina. Mr. Rudolph still had many friends in Murphy. Some of the bomb-making materials were thought to have come from a factory in nearby Franklin. And the endless woods were the perfect place to hide.

In the spring of 1998, the F.B.I. sent hundreds of camouflaged agents to scour every inch of the Nantahala National Forest, on the edge of the Appalachian trail. They employed bloodhounds, electronic motion detectors and helicopters with heat sensors, aerial maps, local guides, hunters and volunteers.

At one point early on, agents found cartons of oatmeal, jars of vitamins, and cans of tuna. But no Mr. Rudolph.

"We'd get hundreds of tips," said Jim Cavanaugh, an investigator for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "He was like Elvis - he's here, he's there, he's everywhere."

At the start of every hunting season - the woods here are teeming with deer and rabbit - F.B.I. agents held meetings with hunters and reminded them of the $1,000,000 reward.

But townsfolk remained chilly. There were those who supported Mr. Rudolph's stance against abortion. And as time went on, more and more felt put off by F.B.I. agents, who openly suspected the local populace of providing Mr. Rudolph with food and shelter.

"We thought it was kind of funny when the feds rolled in here all arrogant," said William Hoyt, who makes birdhouses in Hanging Dog, another small town three miles away. "They kept saying they didn't need our help. We thought they did. Nobody around here condones murder, but I think a lot of people weren't sure which side to be on."

The last sighting of Mr. Rudolph was on July 7, 1998, when, the authorities say, he emerged hungry and bedraggled and asked the owner of a health food store for help. Two days later he took food and a Nissan pickup from the man's home and disappeared.

Eventually, the search was scaled back. By last spring, only a dozen agents were still on it. Many people thought Mr. Rudolph had died.

But that all changed today, shortly before sunrise.

Officer Postell, 21, who joined the Murphy police force less than a year ago, was checking businesses on the east side of town when he saw a man lingering near the trash behind the Save-A-Lot.

When the officer yelled stop, the man bolted. When the officer drew his gun, Mr. Rudolph emerged, the authorities said. He was wearing a blue work shirt and pants, jogging shoes and a camouflage jacket. He was thinner than his picture on the F.B.I. poster and he initially gave the name Jerry Wilson. But officers at the jail recognized the eyes.

When confronted, Mr. Rudolph acknowledged his identity and said he was relieved to no longer be on the run, said the Murphy police chief, Mark Thigpen.

Mr. Rudolph is scheduled to appear in federal court in Asheville on Monday, before being taken to Birmingham or Atlanta, depending on which case the Justice Department prosecutes first.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Rudolph topped the F.B.I.'s most wanted list, and as the news of his arrest spread via cable TV and the Internet, little Murphy was transformed into the center of the world. Dozens of satellite trucks chugged into town. The streets were clogged with reporters and law enforcement officials. There was so much hubbub it almost felt as if Osama bin Laden had been hiding here, in this land of red-roofed barns and boiled peanuts.

"I'm simply amazed," said the manager of the Save-A-Lot, Wes Lackey. "It really spiced up my weekend."

Yet some Murphy residents almost seemed let down. As happened with the Washington area sniper suspects found sleeping by the road last fall and the man suspected of being the Louisiana serial killer arrested at an Atlanta tire shop last week, the suspenseful hunt for Mr. Rudolph ended with a lackluster finish.

"I guess he lost focus," said Bill Gaither, an assistant high school principal here. "I agree with his views. But not his ways. I'm glad they finally got him."

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