WASHINGTON — The FBI is assigning more investigators and stepping up the search for a North Carolina fugitive on the theory that a recent abortion clinic bombing may be tied to two earlier bombings in the Atlanta area, including the explosion during the 1996 Olympic Games.
Technicians for the FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have concluded that small steel plates built into the knapsack bomb that exploded in Olympic Centennial Park match metal plates in two bombs planted at an abortion clinic in an Atlanta suburb last year, federal sources said Friday.
There is an indirect link between these crimes and the explosion at a Birmingham, Ala., clinic last month in which an off-duty police officer was killed.
The telltale plates, officials said, appear to have been fashioned from steel found in the search of a metalworking plant that employed a friend of Eric Robert Rudolph, the North Carolina man who is a suspect in the recent Birmingham bombing.
"We're taking a hard look at the evidence suggesting a link between these crimes," a federal law enforcement official said. "But we need to obtain stronger evidence before we make an absolute direct link [to Rudolph]."
Rudolph, 31, a part-time carpenter, is being hunted in rural western North Carolina. Earlier this month, after examining his hastily vacated trailer and his rented storage locker, investigators said that they believed Rudolph was responsible for the crude homemade bomb that went off outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic on Jan. 29.
Aside from examining bomb fragments, agents are trying to reconstruct Rudolph's movements in 1996 and 1997 to see if they can place him at the sites of earlier bombings, sources said. But they are finding that he was an extremely private man who did no banking, used no credit cards and left no "paper trail."
Federal officials in Atlanta said last year that the suburban abortion clinic blast in January 1997 might have been perpetrated by the same person or group responsible a month later for the bombing of a gay nightclub in Atlanta.
In letters sent recently to media outlets, a mysterious group called the Army of God took responsibility for the Birmingham explosion. The same group sent letters claiming that it also was responsible for last year's Atlanta bombings.
The possibility of links between some of the bombings has occupied high-level meetings at FBI headquarters this week, it was learned. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh is assigning more agents and technicians to the investigation and putting bureau supervisor Terry Turchie in charge of the case.
Turchie headed the FBI's successful effort to track down and prosecute Unabomber suspect Theodore J. Kaczynski, who subsequently pleaded guilty. The veteran official is expected to coordinate an investigation in which the ATF, a division of the Treasury Department, and the Birmingham Police Department will play significant roles.
The small steel plates built into the bombs show similarities in construction, investigative sources said, because they were designed to force the blast in one direction.
Agents determined that these plates were fashioned from steel at the Franklin, N.C., Machine Co. after a search there this week. Franklin employee Jan Unger said: "We have cooperated with them fully." But he declined to answer further questions.
Federal sources said that other forensic evidence is mixed. An analysis of the rubble showed one Atlanta abortion clinic bomb and the Birmingham device appear to be connected through a rare type of flooring nail that matched nails found in a storage shed Rudolph had rented in North Carolina.
The nails from the clinic bombings were produced and sold in a small area, sources said. However, they do not seem to match the nails found in the Olympic Centennial Park explosion, the sources added.
Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.