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World & Nation

Frein manhunt: ‘Striking similarities’ to 5-year Olympic bomber search

Eric Frein and Eric Rudolph
The search for Eric Frein, 31 -- pictured at left in an undated photo -- who is suspected of killing a Pennsylvania state trooper, has drawn comparisons to the search for 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph, shown at right outside a federal courthouse on March 29, 2005.
(Pennsylvania State Police and Dave Dieter / Huntsville Times)

The circling helicopters haven’t found him. Neither have the tactical squads in the armored vehicles that have been rumbling up and down the rural mountain roads of eastern Pennsylvania.

Fourteen days into the search for Eric Frein, hundreds of law enforcement officers have yet to capture the 31-year-old survivalist suspected of killing one Pennsylvania state trooper and critically wounding another.

The state and federal dragnet cast over the Pocono Mountains has spooked and frustrated area residents.

But 14 days is nothing compared to a similar manhunt that began in western North Carolina in 1998, when another Top Ten Most Wanted suspect managed to elude hundreds of law enforcement officers for five years.

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Eric Robert Rudolph, like Frein, was 31 when he disappeared.

Rudolph, like Frein, was capable of surviving and enduring in the daunting mountain wilderness where he’d grown up.

Rudolph, like Frein, was a suspected cop killer, among other crimes he’d carried out.

And the story of Rudolph’s eventual capture in 2003 might serve as a cautionary counterpoint for the Pennsylvania officials who’ve repeatedly said they were closing in on Frein, only to discover traces of Frein’s presence -- an abandoned AK-47, soiled adult diapers, empty packs of cigarettes.

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In North Carolina, Rudolph was brought to heel not by the search dogs, helicopter patrols and high-tech cameras deployed to catch him, but by a small-town rookie cop.

As an antigay and anti-abortion advocate who decided to turn his ideology into violent action, Rudolph carried out the bombing attack at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that killed one woman and injured 111 people.

In a string of attacks across the South, he had also bombed a gay nightclub and two abortion clinics; those explosions wounded dozens more people and killed an off-duty police officer.

By the time Rudolph was identified as a suspect in 1998, the trail started warm and quickly got cold.

The Nissan truck he’d been driving — a witness to one of the clinic bombings scribbled Rudolph’s license plate number on a McDonald’s coffee cup — was found ditched in the woods near Murphy, N.C., in the Appalachian Mountains.

“If you’ve never been to the mountains of North Carolina, I would encourage you to take a visit, because it’s probably some of the prettiest country you’ll ever see,” says Jeffrey Postell, a former officer in the Murphy Police Department, who grew up in the “very wooded, very rural” area.

And the vast gorgeousness of the Appalachians, although soft on the eyes, offered countless caves, crannies and cabins as hiding places for Rudolph, an Army veteran.

“I think there’s some really striking similarities with what we’re dealing with with Frein,” said Chris Swecker, a security consultant and the former special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina, recalling the hunt for Rudolph.

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At the peak of the search, as many as 400 or 500 local, state and federal searchers combed through the area and came up empty-handed. So did a volunteer task force made up of 40 people, which included an ex-Green Beret, teenagers and a family dog.

By the time Swecker took over the search in 1999, only six or seven federal agents were still working full-time at the command post in Murphy.

“Frankly,” Swecker said, also nodding to the so-far fruitless search for Frein, “it just shows you the limitation of technology. We had cameras out in the trails, we hired scouts to walk the trails, we talked with people who frequented the area to make sure they had posters, we put out bait cars to see if he [Rudolph] would steal the cars and we could track it.”

But Rudolph didn’t nibble, and neither did any potential accomplices on a $1-million reward. The rhododendron-packed mountains certainly became no less forbidding. Swecker recalls how the father of one of the federal agents took a private plane to come for a visit, but the flight crashed in the mountains — probably.

“They never found the plane,” Swecker said. “That’s how dense the vegetation in the area was.”

Rudolph’s elusiveness made him something of a local folk figure, earning him minor tributes on posters, bumper stickers and T-shirts bearing slogans like “Eric Rudolph Ate Here” and “Eric Rudolph: 1998 Hide and Seek Champion.” Some officials suspected Rudolph might even be dead.

In reality, Rudolph was very much alive, and had been sustaining himself by stealthily mooching off local businesses and residents.

In the autumn of 1999, Rudolph was sleeping beneath an improvised bed made of leaves and plastic and was plundering produce from gardens in the nearby town of Andrews, according to letters later sent to his mother, which were eventually published by USA Today.

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One of his greatest enemies wasn’t just the FBI, but a dog — a “20-pound pile of canine crap named ‘Fluffy,’ waiting patiently on guard for the slightest noise,” Rudolph wrote of the animal, which guarded one home’s garden. “A sound from the garden would send him into a rage, forcing my hasty retreat. I tried to make friends by feeding him (McDonald’s) hamburgers, but he would have none of my blackmail. He hated me, and I hated him, and the battle would continue every time I invaded his territory.”

Yes, hamburgers: Rudolph, the great outdoorsman, wrote of surviving by making nocturnal raids on the trash bins behind a McDonald’s, a grocery store and a furniture store, where he found “cigarettes, lovely cigarettes, half smoked and many of them. A little work back at camp, cut the filters down and wipe the remainder with a clean towel, and you have nicotine-induced bliss.”

For years, Rudolph would also subsist on pancakes that he made from hundreds of pounds of corn, wheat and soybeans that he filched from local silos, he wrote to his mother. He also wrote of picking up old newspapers during the day and reflecting on the news during his nighttime expeditions, which involved several-mile treks.

Rudolph was on one of those scavenging-off-civilization missions in Murphy on May 31, 2003, when the end of his freedom arrived behind a Save-A-Lot market after 3 a.m.

Postell, a rookie cop who’d been on the job in Murphy, population 1,600, for 10 months, was on patrol when he spotted a shadowy figure crouch down and scurry for cover in the darkness behind the market.

“Being a police officer in a small town, I know people, I was very knowledgeable of who was out at certain hours,” Postell said. And his first thought on seeing the unknown scavenger was, “Who, what, and why is this going on?”

Rudolph at first tried to hide his identity after Postell peaceably detained him. But he would soon confess after other officials arrived and continued to prod him for his real name.

“Maybe [Postell] watched ‘Cops’ the TV show last night. ... But whatever the case, he had me,” Rudolph wrote to his mother later. “I knew he would get me, if anybody could; that some FBI tactical team, and a platoon of helicopters would not do the trick, but rather this lonely rookie cop patrolling garbage cans.”

The hunt was over. Rudolph eventually pleaded guilty to the bombings and received a life sentence. Now 48 years old, he resides in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.

Postell, for his part, moved on, and is now a lieutenant for the Boston College Police Department. Postell recently became the first winner of a community-policing award named after Sean Collier, the MIT police officer who was killed shortly after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which also launched a massive manhunt.

“It could have turned out worse than what it did, and for many years I have been thankful,” Postell said of Rudolph’s arrest.

Swecker, who eventually became executive assistant director of the FBI before leaving the bureau, added that the extensiveness of the manhunt, even though it wasn’t directly responsible for Rudolph’s capture, contributed by limiting his ability to move around, mingle with the public, and possibly commit more harm.

“The fact he was able to move about for five years without being caught, without running into people who recognized him was very surprising to me,” recalled Swecker. “He was within sight of our command post at times.”

Swecker imagined that Frein, wherever he is, has also likely spotted the hundreds of law enforcement officers now hunting for him.

“He may have built some hiding places that can carry you over temporarily, and when the intensity of the search dies down, you can move into the cabins,” Swecker said. “No matter how good you are as a survivalist, it’s hard to survive outdoors for extended periods of time. And I think they like to watch CNN and figure out what’s going on, as well.”

Follow @MattDPearce for national news


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