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Olympic Bombing Suspect Captured

Eric Rudolph, wanted also in abortion clinic blasts, had evaded an Appalachian manhunt for five years. A rookie officer makes the arrest.

June 01, 2003|Ken Ellingwood and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

MURPHY, N.C. — 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."

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