A chance arrest by an alert policeman led to the capture Saturday of Eric Robert Rudolph, the backwoods phantom who vanished into the North Carolina hills and was hunted for five years as the lone suspect in the fatal 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing and a series of blasts across the South.
Rudolph, 36, is charged with detonating homemade bombs that sprayed a deadly rain of nails, metal shanks and other shrapnel, killing one woman and injuring 111 at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park and fatally wounding a policeman in 1997 outside a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic. Similar devices also exploded that year at a gay-oriented nightclub and at an office building in Atlanta.
Until the moment he was spotted in the dark, lurking near a supermarket dumpster, Rudolph had been an outlaw on the run, evading a massive law enforcement task force that repeatedly flooded the remote Appalachian foothills with hundreds of agents, search dogs, helicopter patrols, and high-tech heat sensors and motion detectors.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said Saturday that the arrest of Rudolph -- one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitives -- showed that “working with law enforcement nationwide, the FBI always gets its man.”
The intensive federal effort may have kept Rudolph at bay in the wilds of the Nantahala National Forest, but it was the sharp eyes and long memories of local police officers that ended his life on the run.
Police had long been cautioned to take care in approaching the former Army Airborne trainee. He fused his extremist leanings with an intricate knowledge of guns and explosives and survivalist techniques that allowed him to melt into the familiar pine forests near his birthplace not far from Murphy.
But when rookie police Officer Jeff Postell spotted the suspect foraging for food in the alley behind a supermarket, Rudolph gave up surprisingly meekly.
Rudolph, who is being held in the Cherokee County Detention Center, is scheduled for a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court in Asheville, N.C., on Monday.
Postell stopped Rudolph at 3:17 a.m. behind a Save-A-Lot market. Rudolph’s military-style camouflage jacket attracted notice, along with an 18-inch heavy flashlight he had wrapped in a sling. But Rudolph appeared thin and was unarmed, carrying only an empty backpack -- a sign, police said, he was scavenging for food.
He tried to hide his identity, telling a growing contingent of police that he was “Jerry Wilson.” Although he had added a mustache, several officers recognized Rudolph’s facial features and a distinctive jagged chin scar, repeatedly pressing him until he sighed and admitted who he was.
“He really didn’t show much emotion, but after he told us his real name, he did show a sign of relief,” said Murphy Officer Charles Kilby.
Federal search teams had dwindled in recent months in the region, a tactical move some law enforcement agents credited with possibly luring an emboldened Rudolph into emerging from his forest refuge.
“The fact that we were not traipsing around up there with helicopters and bloodhounds might have served to make him come down to the dumpster,” said James Cavanaugh, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent in Nashville.
Rudolph had become a folk hero to some in the rugged western corner of North Carolina, where the federal government is viewed with suspicion and right-wing extremist compounds have sprouted in recent years.
Although law enforcement officials long suspected Rudolph could not have remained free without some local aid, residents insisted they were relieved he was finally behind bars.
“He had an agenda which a lot of people agreed with,” said John Rhoat, an antiques dealer in Murphy. But Rudolph had “no right” to pursue militant acts, Rhoat said -- even though he was sure the fugitive had found assistance in rural homes around Murphy.
“They had to be pretty loyal,” Rhoat said, “not to turn him in for the amount of money they were offering.” A $1-million reward had been posted by the FBI.
Special Agent Chris Swecker of the FBI said a team of 100 federal agents and state police were swarming into the area to try to learn where Rudolph had holed up in recent months and determine if he had helpers.
“We’re going to work backward,” said Swecker, who heads the bureau’s office in Charlotte. “He’s been somewhere, and we have to go to those places and process those places.”
Swecker said he wasn’t surprised that Rudolph was found so close to home. “An extensive psychological profile on him suspected strongly that he’s always been in this area -- dead or alive.”
William M. Baker, former assistant director of the FBI who ran the bureau’s criminal investigations division, said the Rudolph arrest “ends an embarrassing chapter for law enforcement” that turned into “a feather in our cap.”
After the Atlanta bombing, police initially targeted security guard Richard Jewell, eventually acknowledging in embarrassment that he was not a suspect. Jewell’s lawyer, L. Linn Wood, said Saturday that Jewell was “obviously aware of the arrest ... when someone either pleads guilty or is convicted, that would be closure for Richard Jewell.”
Baker, who retired in 1991, said the key questions now are how Rudolph lived so long in the mountains. “Was he a real mountain man? Because if he was scrounging out of food dumpsters, it doesn’t sound like he had much of a support network.”
While Rudolph remained at large, apparently stealing underwear and provisions from remote mountain cabins, firearms and FBI agents and state and local investigators in Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina built a massive case against the fugitive.
Using microscopes, they traced the shards of metal used in several blasts to a single machine shop, back-routed the black powder used as a detonator, and recovered hate-tinged pamphlets that may shed light on the motives behind the killings.
Rudolph was first targeted as a suspect after the Birmingham bombing. A witness gave police the license plate number of a Nissan pickup registered in his name. When officials opened a storage locker he rented in Murphy, they found nails like those used in the attacks, and extremist literature.
The suspect was last seen in July 1998, when he visited a health food store owner in nearby Andrews to stock up on supplies. Searchers raided one rural shack, only to miss Rudolph by hours. And they turned up suspected camping sites stocked with cartons of oatmeal and raisins, jars of peanuts and tins of tuna.
Specialists in domestic terrorism say Rudolph was a classic fringe movement figure, steeped in rage and the theories of Christian Identity -- a loosely organized white supremacist movement that bases its racist beliefs on its interpretations of biblical passages.
Police officials have suggested that as a young teenager he was bitter over the death of his father from cancer. In 1985, Rudolph enlisted in the Army. He was given a less-than-honorable discharge in 1989.
Several letters sent to newspapers after both the Atlanta and Birmingham explosions claimed that they were the handiwork of the militant separatist Army of God and contained language rife with Christian Identity references.
“Rudolph’s politics were his religion,” said Brian Levin director of the Center for Study of Hate and Terrorism at Cal State San Bernardino.
Some activists who contend that the abortion clinics and gay bar were clearly singled out in the bombings expressed hope Saturday that Rudolph’s arrest marked an upturn in the fight against domestic terrorism.
“The violent fringe of the antiabortion movement has been dealt significant blows by lawsuits and good investigative work,” Levin said. “But this movement was always one that was decentralized and local in nature.”
Dana Ford, co-owner of the bomb-targeted Otherside Lounge in Atlanta, also expressed hope. “We’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Ford, recalling the “panic” and “bleeding” that followed the Feb. 21, 1997, blast that injured five people.
But others said they remained wary -- even after Rudolph’s arrest.
His “alleged crimes are a painful reminder of the threat posed by extremists,” said Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt.
And Levin cautioned that “a small cadre of other extremists will definitely take his place.”
The bombings Rudolph is accused of plotting began with the most devastating -- the July 27, 1996, blast that tore through Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, killing Alice S. Hawthorne, a 44-year-old mother, and maiming scores of others with flying, skin-shredding metal.
“I still have shrapnel in my leg,” said Calvin Thorbourne, a music marketer who was cut down by the explosion. “I have bad scars and several stitches.” His fear rises whenever he plunges into a crowd, but Thorbourne said he got a measure of satisfaction when he heard about Rudolph’s arrest.
He felt numb at first, “then I felt a sense of relief. And the relief came [because] now we can begin the process of trial.”
Half a year after the Olympic attack, Rudolph allegedly struck again, setting off two bombs outside the Northside Family Planning Service in Sandy Springs, an Atlanta suburb. The blasts injured seven people, including Mike Rising, an FBI investigator working on the Olympics case.
A month later, another bomb detonated outside the Otherside Lounge. A second device was set off harmlessly while being handled by a police robot.
About a year later, Rudolph was allegedly back at work again, setting off a shrapnel bomb outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Center in Birmingham. That explosion killed Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer, and blinded and seriously wounded nurse Emily Lyons.
Ellingwood reported from Murphy, N.C., and Braun from Washington, D.C. Times staff writers Greg Miller and Richard A. Serrano in Washington also contributed, as did researchers John Beckham in Chicago and Rennie Sloan in Atlanta. Associated Press also contributed to this report.