Sympathy for Bombing Suspect May Cloud Search for Evidence

New York Times/June 2, 2003
By Jeffrey Gettleman

Peachtree, N.C. -- Betty Howard made many people happy today, and it was not for her daily special. Around noon, Mrs. Howard walked outside, glanced up at the sign in front of her diner and decided to change the lettering on the marquee from "Roast Turkey Baked Ham" to "Pray for Eric Rudolph." "Bless his heart," Mrs. Howard said. "Eric needs our help."

Mrs. Howard said she was going to start an Eric Rudolph legal defense fund. Many customers have already said they would chip in.

A day after the authorities finally collared Eric R. Rudolph, the 36-year-old phantom survivalist who had been wanted for five years in connection with the bombing at the 1996 Olympics and attacks on abortion clinics, it is becoming clearer how fiercely loyal this community is to him, and how that might complicate the case.

With Mr. Rudolph in jail, the investigation is shifting to who in this rugged corner of western North Carolina might have helped him. And there may be no shortage of suspects.

While F.B.I. agents hacked their way through miles of rhododendron bushes today, trying to retrace the invisible man's footsteps, people here brazenly voiced their support of Mr. Rudolph, who is accused of bomb attacks that killed two bystanders and maimed dozens.

While most of his supporters cite his anti-abortion views, a popular stance in many rural, conservative areas, they gloss over the most notorious charge against Mr. Rudolph, that he set off a pipe bomb in a random crowd at the Summer Olympics.

"I didn't see him bomb nobody," said Hoke Henson, 77. "You can't always trust the feds."

If there is an antigovernment current here, coursing through the woods clear as a splashing brook or a pint of moonshine, it is nothing new. Tucked away in the foothills of Appalachia, surrounded by towering forests and fading mills, many people in the neighboring towns of Peachtree, Andrews, Murphy and Hanging Dog say they have always preferred to handle their own problems their own way, which may explain why nobody turned in Mr. Rudolph.

Mr. Rudolph, who once topped the Federal Bureau of Investigation's most wanted list, is accused of four bombings: the blast at the Olympics that killed one woman and injured more than 100 people; an attack on an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., that killed an off-duty policeman; a bombing at an abortion center in Atlanta; and an attack at a gay nightclub, also in Atlanta.

Mr. Rudolph is scheduled to appear in federal court in Asheville, N.C., on Monday for a hearing to decide where he will go next. He faces more than 20 charges, some of which could carry the death penalty.

The authorities are also not saying what, if anything, Mr. Rudolph has revealed to investigators. On Saturday, the police said that Mr. Rudolph told them he had never left the Murphy area, as they had suspected, and that he felt relieved to no longer be on the run. Today, the authorities called off a morning news conference, sending the dozens of reporters who have converged on Murphy spilling into the sleepy streets to gather comments from churchgoers and photograph children licking ice cream.

Mr. Rudolph remained under tight guard, with SWAT team officers prowling the rooftop of the red brick jail in downtown Murphy where he is being held.

"We came just to get a picture," said Peggy Conley, as she sat with her son on a little hill overlooking the jail. "Look at those guns, honey."

The circumstances of Mr. Rudolph's arrest have raised questions. Ever since Mr. Rudolph, a former airborne soldier and a skilled woodsman, was named a suspect in 1998, the authorities concentrated on the woods in this part of the state, where Mr. Rudolph hiked and fished as a boy and reportedly grew marijuana as an adult. Hundreds of agents were deployed in one of the largest manhunts in the history of the F.B.I., rappelling down old mine shafts, scouring caves and scanning the ridge lines with heat-seeking military equipment.

But it was no scraggly mountain man who emerged on Saturday morning. When Mr. Rudolph was apprehended by a rookie police officer behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store in Murphy, he was relatively well groomed, in clean clothes and jogging shoes. He had two to three days' growth on his chin at most.

"He didn't look like he'd been living in the woods," said Officer Charles Kilby of the Murphy police. Agents shut down local highways today as they searched the woods for hideouts, caves or other signs of where Mr. Rudolph might have spent the last five years.

Norm Chandler, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marines who teaches sniper courses in Moyock, N.C., said he suspected that Mr. Rudolph had been aided by underground white supremacists or marijuana growers known to have farms in the Carolina hills.

"He wasn't making sewing needles out of bear bone, or making clothes out of animal hides and living like the Iroquois," Mr. Chandler said. "I think he had a support group of people. Somebody probably bought food for him, too."

However, when Mr. Rudolph was arrested, he was scavenging produce from a Dumpster, suggesting he had no one bringing him food, at least not recently.

Some people in Murphy said they saw Mr. Rudolph lingering around the town square, just feet from the police department, the day before his arrest.

"He was just checking out the scene," said Stephanie Walters, a server at the Peachtree Restaurant, which Mrs. Howard owns. "I didn't know who he was until the next morning."

The authorities say Mr. Rudolph planted the 40-pound pipe bomb that ripped through a crowd on July 27, 1996, at the Olympic Park in Atlanta. The blast killed Alice Hawthorne, 44, a receptionist, and injured more than 100.

The next strike was on Jan. 16, 1997, when two bombs blew up outside the Northside Family Planning Service, an Atlanta-area clinic where doctors perform abortions. The explosions injured seven people.

Then on Feb. 21, a bomb detonated at the Otherside Lounge, a gay nightclub in Atlanta, injuring five people.

The last attack attributed to Mr. Rudolph was on Jan. 29, 1998, outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Center in Birmingham, Ala., which also provided abortions. The bombing killed Robert D. Sanderson, an off-duty police officer, and left Emily Lyons, a nurse, blind in one eye.

A medical student said he saw Mr. Rudolph walking away from the Birmingham clinic. Investigators then got a tip from someone who spotted his license plate, and the chase was on. Around the same time, news organizations received letters linking the bombs to Christian Identity, a white supremacist group that operated from a compound near Murphy.

Mr. Rudolph was last sighted in July 1998, when he showed up at a friend's health food store in Andrews and walked off with cartons of food and vitamins.

No one in this area will say if they helped Mr. Rudolph hide. Aiding and abetting a fugitive is a federal offense.

But many said they would have.

"He was a man who stood for what he believed in," said Bo Newton, a short-order cook in Andrews. "If he came to my door, I would've given him food and never said a word."

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