ATLANTA — With his trial underway, Eric Robert Rudolph agreed to plead guilty to a series of bombings that advanced a militant antigay, antiabortion ideology -- including a deadly explosion at the 1996 Summer Olympics here.
The plea agreement, which the U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday, calls for Rudolph to serve a life sentence without parole and allows him to escape the death penalty.
The four bombings killed two people -- a 44-year-old Georgia woman who had come to celebrate the Olympics and an off-duty police officer guarding an Alabama abortion clinic -- and left hundreds of others injured, with lacerations and shrapnel embedded in their bodies. Rudolph is alleged to have claimed responsibility on behalf of the Army of God, a group that advocates killing abortion providers.
In 1998, Rudolph, a survivalist, withdrew to the Appalachian foothills where he grew up. He was captured about two years ago while searching for food in a trash bin in Murphy, N.C. He told jailers he had lived on acorns and lizards while federal agents combed the woods below.
Potential jurors had reported for the trial of Rudolph, 38, in the clinic bombing in Birmingham, Ala. As part of the deal, Rudolph told investigators where to find four large stashes of dynamite that he had buried, federal officials said.
"Justice has prevailed," said Carl Truscott, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Four heinous bombings resulted in two deaths and hundreds injured, and the serial bomber Eric Rudolph will spend the rest of his life behind bars for them."
But as news of the deal rippled through the Southeast on Friday, several victims said they were disappointed that Rudolph would not face the death penalty.
"I've got a piece of metal embedded in my skull, and I got several pieces in my back that always amuse the doctors when they do X-rays," said Ted Riner, 52, a state trooper who was standing near the Olympic Park bomb when it exploded. "Yeah, I'd like to beat ... him. I'm very much shocked at what they done, letting him plead off on it."
Prosecutors said the deal hinged on finding the 250 pounds of dynamite Rudolph had hidden in North Carolina. Authorities detonated a bomb they found amid his stash that contained 20 to 25 pounds of dynamite; it was hidden "in close proximity to a road, homes, and businesses," according to the Justice Department.
By contrast, the Olympic Park bomb contained 10 pounds of dynamite, said Kent Alexander, who was the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Georgia at the time of the bombings.
"With all this nitroglycerin buried underground, he could be killing people after he died," said Alexander, now the general counsel at Emory University in Atlanta. "I've got to think the condition of the deal was finding all the dynamite."
Rudolph is expected to plead guilty to the Alabama bombing Wednesday morning in Birmingham, and then be transported to Atlanta to plead guilty to the three Georgia bombings the same afternoon.
The announcement brings closure to a brutal campaign of domestic terrorism. At 1:25 a.m. on July 27, 1996, a bomb full of nails and screws stuffed into a backpack exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, where a crowd had gathered for an open-air concert.
Alice Hawthorne, 44, was killed by the blast, and more than 100 people were treated for shock or shrapnel wounds. President Clinton denounced the bombing as "an evil act of terror."
Three days later, authorities named security guard Richard Jewell as their lead suspect, unleashing a flood of publicity about him; when they had found no evidence linking Jewell to the crime after two months, Alexander announced that Jewell was "not a target" of the investigation.
In January of 1997, two bombs rocked an abortion clinic in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs. The second, probably timed to hit police responders, injured more than 50 people, according to the Justice Department.
The third target was the Otherside Lounge, a gay nightclub in Atlanta. On Feb 21, 1997, two bombs exploded there, injuring five people. Dana Ford, the bar's general manager, said she and her partner lost several million dollars as a result of the bombing. Eight years later, she said, they still stiffen when firetrucks or helicopters pass nearby.
"A wedge of years were just taken out of our lives," said Ford, 42.
On Jan. 29, 1998, the fourth bombing targeted New Woman All Women Health Care, an abortion clinic in Birmingham. That attack killed Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer, and left nurse Emily Lyons studded with nails from her head to her feet.
Lyons underwent a 10-hour surgery the day of the blast and has had 19 more surgeries since, most recently because a piece of shrapnel in her neck had shifted to affect her breathing, said her husband, Jeff Lyons. He is collaborating with his wife on her upcoming book: "Life's Been a Blast."