Olympic bombing suspect captured

MSNBC News/May 31, 2003

Murphy, N.C. -- Eric Robert Rudolph, on the lam for years after being charged in deadly bombings at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and elsewhere in the South, was arrested at gunpoint early Saturday as he foraged for food in a trash bin in North Carolina. "The most notorious American fugitive on the FBI's most wanted list has been captured and will face American justice," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.

Rudolph, 36, was captured after a young rookie cop in western North Carolina spotted a man digging in trash behind a grocery story in the small town of Murphy about 3:30 a.m., said FBI Special Agent Chris Swecker at an afternoon press conference. After first giving police a false name, he revealed his true identity, which was confirmed through fingerprints, investigators said.

Rudolph had been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list and had eluded a massive manhunt for five years, much of it in the western North Carolina mountains near where he was arrested Saturday. The FBI had offered a $1 million reward for his capture.

Not Seen Since 1998

The Army veteran and experienced outdoorsman hadn't been seen since July 1998 after he took supplies from a health store owner in North Carolina.

Authorities believed he had fled into the mountains, and as more time passed with no reported sightings of him, some believed he must be dead.

"We always thought he was up here in the mountains," Swecker said. "We had no credible sightings elsewhere in the country."

Rudolph appeared thin and quickly scarfed down a jailhouse breakfast of biscuits, gravy, eggs and bacon. But authorities said he was in surprisingly good health, clean
and still resembled his wanted poster.

"He didn't look like he'd been living in the woods," Officer Charles Kilby said. Rudolph was captured after police in western North Carolina spotted a man digging in a trash bin in the small town of Murphy at about 4:30 a.m.

Agents spent years searching the hills and caves around Murphy for any trace of Rudolph. Early in the search, they ran across some camping sites believed to be his and found cartons of oatmeal and raisins, jars of peanuts and vitamins, and cans of tuna they said were the same brands Rudolph ate.

The 1996 bombing at the crowded Olympic park during the summer Olympics in Atlanta followed closely on the heels of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and stunned the world.

The bomb was left hidden in a knapsack in the crowded Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, 1996. When it exploded, it killed one woman and injured 111 other people.

Two years later, Rudolph was charged with that attack and in three others - at a gay nightclub in Atlanta and at an office building north of Atlanta in 1997, and at an abortion clinic in Birmingham in 1998. One police officer was killed.

In all, the bombings killed two people and wounded more than 100 people, according to the FBI.

Rudolph is expected to appear in federal court in Asheville, N.C., on Monday, where it will be determined if he is to be taken first to Atlanta or Birmingham to face charges.

Rudolph, a Florida native who moved to western North Carolina in 1981, was believed to adhere to Christian Identity, a white supremacist religion that is anti-gay, anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner. Some of the four bombs he is charged with planting included messages from the shadowy "Army of God."

"My heart aches for him. What he did was wrong, I know, but I understand where he was coming from," said 63-year-old Sarah Greenfield of nearby Marble. "People around here, they take care of their own. You can't put a price on a man's head, and I don't know anybody who would have given him up, even for a million dollars."

End of a Long Search

The search for Rudolph began a day after the Birmingham blast. He was initially sought as a witness: A gray 1989 Nissan pickup truck registered in his name was seen near the clinic following the explosion.

He was tied to the bombings when authorities who searched a storage locker he had rented in Murphy found nails like those used in the clinic attacks.

At its height, the search for Rudolph in the mountainous region in western North Carolina, just over the Tennessee border, included more than 200 federal agents. In 2000, it was scaled back to less than a handful of agents working out of a National Guard Armory just outside Murphy.

Pockets of western North Carolina have had a reputation as a haven for right-wing extremists. Some there mocked the government's inability to find Rudolph with bloodhounds, infrared-equipped helicopters and space-age motion detectors - and some said they would hide him if asked.

"Someone's been putting him up this whole time," theorized Ernie Cabral, a truck driver in this town of 1,600. "It's almost like the holy wars. He thinks he's doing God's work by stopping abortion. You won't run into a place where there's more religion than here."

The FBI's Swecker said investigators were actively looking into whether Rudolph had help, and he believed that the fugitive's entire time on the run had been spent in the same mountains where he had worked as a carpenter, roofer and handyman.

"An extensive psychological profile on him suspected strongly that he's always been in this area; dead or alive," Swecker said.

Murphy Police Chief Mark Thigpen would not comment Saturday on whether or not Rudolph had filled police in on his specific hideouts.

The aftermath of the bombing in Atlanta during the Olympics.

Early Saturday, Murphy Police Officer Jeff Postell spotted a man behind the Save-A-Lot grocery who was rooting through trash and looked suspicious, authorities said.

Postell, 21, who has been on the Murphy force about a year, was alone when he approached the man with his gun drawn because Rudolph was holding a flashlight that Postell thought might be a weapon, Thigpen said. Thigpen said Rudolph offered "no resistance whatsoever." No weapons were found on his person of in the backpack he was carrying.

Police said Rudolph first gave them a false name. When that didn't check out and they asked him again for his name he admitted he was Rudolph, Lovin said. Lovin said Rudolph appeared to be "somewhat relieved and he has been cooperative at this point."

"That's just in a day's work. I don't really deserve any credit," Postell told a news conference. "I think I put a lot of people's feelings at ease."

'He Can't Hurt Anyone Anymore'

Among those who have prayed for Rudolph's capture was Emily Lyons, a nurse who was crippled and nearly blinded from shrapnel and nails in the January 1998 bombing at the New Woman All Women clinic in Birmingham.

She said she is looking forward to seeing Rudolph when he goes to trial.

"You don't have to go to the Middle East to find terrorists. Rudolph is one of them. He terrorized and he murdered," Lyons said. "I know he can't hurt anyone anymore."

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