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Trail of Many Fugitives Has Grown Cold

June 12, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — It took 25 years, but federal marshals thought they were finally closing in on Neil Murdoch.

Way back when Richard Nixon was president, Murdoch had skipped out on $20,000 in bail while awaiting trial on drug-smuggling charges in New Mexico. This April, the federal marshal's office here was tipped off that Murdoch was living under an assumed name in remote Crested Butte, Colo.

The marshals staked out his house. They found the front door unlocked and a computer screen still flickering. And they waited. But Murdoch never came home. He had vanished again.

He was last seen heading farther west into the Four Corners area--where federal officers now are looking for a pair of suspected cop killers hiding in the rough canyon terrain.

About 200,000 fugitives are wanted nationally at any given time, and increasingly the federal government is finding itself lagging in the race to find them. But authorities have learned lessons from the failed government actions near Waco, Texas, and at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Most important is that fast is not always smart.

"Safety is our No. 1 issue, and you tend to see law enforcement not rushing into these incidents anymore without first stepping back and doing more planning," said Arthur Roderick, chief inspector for the U.S. Marshal's Service in Washington.

Domestic Terror, Militias on Rise

But with authorities dogging their prey with more caution these days, another phenomenon has also set in: Since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people, episodes of domestic terrorism have risen in the United States, as has an expanding network of anti-government militias and hate cells that officials say provide shelter to their brothers on the run.

The result is that it often is getting harder for law enforcement to run their prey to ground. For example:

* Eric Robert Rudolph, suspected in abortion clinic bombings in the South and possibly the 1996 bombing at the summer Olympics in Atlanta, has eluded officials for nearly six months, apparently in the woods and hills where North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia fold together.

The search for Rudolph has grown decidedly cold, conceded Brian Lett, a supervisory agent for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A million-dollar reward has yet to bring him in.

"We haven't even had any 'Elvis sightings' for a few months," Lett said with a shrug.

* In Missouri, the hunt goes on for Timothy Thomas Coombs, a member of a militant religious group who allegedly fired a high-powered rifle through a window and gravely wounded a state highway patrol officer who had arrested Coombs' friend.

Trooper Bobby J. Harper was shot near the heart while eating ice cream in his kitchen. That was in 1994. He died in 1996. Authorities still cannot find Coombs, last known to have no driver's license, no car and no Social Security number.

"There are no new leads," said the case agent, Sgt. Miles Parks. "We're just following up on old information."

* Glen Stewart Godwin, with black hair and green eyes, remains on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List after escaping from California's Folsom State Prison.

Godwin was convicted of murder in 1981 and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. In June 1987, he escaped through a prison storm drain and made it to the American River and a waiting raft. Five months later he was arrested in Mexico. Sentenced to seven years for dealing cocaine, he escaped again, this time from the Jalisco state penitentiary.

He made it out of that Mexican prison just before he was to be turned over to U.S. authorities.

"There is an informal and sophisticated network of far-right extremists who knowingly hide fugitives," said Brian Levin, director of the Center on Hate and Extremism at Stockton College in Pomona, N.J.

Underground Network

At the nonprofit Intelligence Project of Klanwatch and the Militia Task Force in Montgomery, Ala., experts who track hate criminals said that the underground network is growing exponentially. Before Oklahoma City, the FBI was investigating about 100 domestic terrorism cases, they said. Now there are more than 900 open files.

Add to that the countless other fugitives gliding unfettered across the country--bank robbers, prison escapees and those like Murdoch.

Predictably, the more sensational cases get most of the attention. But even those do not always end with an arrest.

In October, 1995, saboteurs derailed an Amtrak train in Arizona, killing one person and injuring others. Left behind was an anti-government message signed by the "Sons of Gestapo." The "sons" remain at large.

And in May, 1997, a standoff between Texas authorities and a band of seven anti-government separatists ended with the surrender of five of those belonging to the self-styled "Republic of Texas." A sixth republic member was killed in a gun battle with police, while a seventh lost himself in the West Texas brush country.

It took four months to bring him out.

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