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Fugitive's Capture Heightens Speculation

Locals are touchy about the theory that some sympathetic with his anti-government views helped the suspected bomber elude the law.

June 02, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MURPHY, N.C. — For five years, the mystery of Eric Robert Rudolph's whereabouts provided a kind of parlor game for residents here along the forested flanks of the Appalachians.

But the arrest of the accused serial bomber over the weekend placed a new question on the lips of just about everyone in this western North Carolina town, locals and visitors alike: How did he do it?

As authorities began Sunday to retrace the steps that led Rudolph to his capture behind a supermarket on the edge of town, there was only speculation about how the former handyman managed for years to elude a manhunt by federal agents seeking him in connection with several blasts across the South.

Those included an explosion in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics that killed one and injured 111 others, and a 1998 attack on a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic that left a police officer dead and another person hurt. Two separate bombings in 1997 caused injuries at a family-planning clinic and a gay-oriented bar, both in Atlanta.

Rudolph, who had been on the FBI's 10 most wanted list, could face the death penalty if convicted.

On Sunday, law enforcement officials were tight-lipped, canceling a media briefing on the capture and offering no hint about what Rudolph has told them, if anything. The 36-year-old former soldier remained under heavy guard in a county jail awaiting transfer to Asheville, N.C., for a scheduled hearing in U.S. District Court today; federal prosecutors soon will reveal whether they want him moved to Birmingham or Atlanta for trial.

"Where's he been? Did he live under the bridge? Did he live in the animal shelter or what? How did he survive?" wondered Kay Burnette, a sheriff's deputy visiting from Georgia who stopped to snap pictures of the spot where Rudolph was caught by a rookie police officer on routine patrol.

The circumstances of Rudolph's capture -- which took place not deep in the forest, where much of the searching had focused, but near a trash bin where he may have sought food -- added to the intrigue, because he was last spotted not far away from here in July 1998.

Although Rudolph spent his formative years in these rugged mountains and prided himself on his outdoors skills, many wondered how he could have endured without help. Adding to the mystery, Rudolph appeared well-groomed when captured, sporting a neat mustache and tennis shoes -- hardly the signs of a lengthy mountain-man existence under the pines and oaks of the surrounding Nantahala National Forest.

As many as 100 federal, state and local law enforcement officers are expected to join the probe in the coming days. Investigators on Sunday afternoon appeared to be combing a patch of woods near the supermarket, but reporters were kept away.

The question of whether any residents lent support to Rudolph is a touchy one around this scenic backwoods region, which is home to a handful of factories and some farms and serves as a getaway for weekenders and outdoors enthusiasts from Atlanta. The area is also known for conservative religious leanings -- alcohol is not sold in Murphy restaurants, although there is a vote on the matter Tuesday. Many here are vehemently opposed to abortion, but say they denounce the use of violence as a means of stopping it.

It also is not difficult to detect a current of the same suspicion toward government that those who know Rudolph say he espoused -- and that helped make him a near-folk hero while he eluded capture. During the manhunt, locals printed up bumper stickers and wore T-shirts that said: "Run Rudolph Run."

"It sounds crazy, but people around here think he's a danged Robin Hood. They say, 'I wouldn't turn him in,' " said Ronnie Beaver, a local painting contractor.

Town leaders bristle at suggestions that Rudolph may have had a support network. They say such speculation has unfairly led outsiders to see this hamlet of 1,650, and the surrounding region, as a breeding ground for survivalist zealots.

"That is totally, totally false. People here deplore" the actions Rudolph is accused of, Murphy Mayor Bill Hughes said a few hours after the capture.

What Rudolph knew of the outdoors came in large part from his childhood in Nantahala, a village about 30 miles northeast of here in the heart of the national forest -- a swath of densely covered and sometimes steep terrain.

There, he lived with his mother and four siblings. While quiet, he stood out for his unorthodox views before dropping out of school after the ninth grade. In a social studies paper, for example, Rudolph denied that the Holocaust took place, recalled his former principal Richard Baldwin.

"He was just a quiet student; he wasn't very outgoing, kept to himself a little bit, appeared to be intelligent," Baldwin said by telephone Sunday. Rudolph "had a skewed education in my opinion," Baldwin said. "Even at that age, [he] was somewhat anti-government."

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