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The cold- blooded conundrum

Lone Wolf Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw Maryanne Vollers HarperCollins: 356 pp., $25.95

November 26, 2006|Valerie Boyd | Valerie Boyd, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia, is the author of "Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston" and the forthcoming "Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood."

"LONE WOLF" by Maryanne Vollers is the gripping story of one of America's most notorious domestic terrorists: Eric Rudolph.

The man who bombed Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park at the 1996 Games followed that high-profile crime by planting homemade bombs packed with nails at a gay nightclub in Atlanta and at two abortion clinics, one in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, Ala. All told, the serial bomber's rampage killed two people and wounded many more. Then he disappeared.

For five years, Rudolph -- folk hero to some, reviled killer to most -- evaded a $20-million manhunt, the largest in FBI history, according to Vollers. While the fugitive haunted the backwoods of North Carolina, entrepreneurs were selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with such slogans as "Eric Rudolph: Hide and Seek Champion 1998"; an inspired grandmother composed a catchy folk ballad in his honor called "Run, Rudolph, Run."

Vollers explores this strange territory with a cool-headed authority befitting the daughter of a New York City fire chief. The book begins on the night of Rudolph's capture in 2003, just a few miles from where he had last been spotted in 1998. "In the end, the moon was just another enemy," the author says. "It hadn't always been that way. When he started writing about his fugitive years the word he chose was 'addicting': 'There is something addicting about the full moon on an early summer or fall evening in the South.... ' Now the moonlight pinned him to shadows, kept him off the roads and dirt tracks where the breeze would disperse his scent before the hounds could follow it."

A 1995 National Book Award finalist for "Ghosts of Mississippi," Vollers quotes Rudolph copiously in an attempt to get inside his head. And she has plenty of the murderer's words to draw from: For reasons that Vollers never fully explains, she is the only journalist Rudolph communicated with (through "minutely observed and vividly written" letters) while he awaited trial.

Vollers uses his letters to great effect, and she similarly mines her remarkable access to the FBI and other investigators, to federal prosecutors, to Rudolph's family and neighbors and to his defense team. (Rudolph released his lawyers from the constraints of attorney-client privilege, allowing them to discuss his case with Vollers in detail.) The only explanation that Vollers -- or Rudolph -- offers for this unusual access is that he was a fan of the film "Ghosts of Mississippi," which explored the murder of Medgar Evers, although it was not based directly on Vollers' book.

What emerges in this effort is a disturbing and finely drawn portrait of a lone wolf, an unrepentant criminal who acted alone to express his fire-and-brimstone hatred of abortion and what he calls "the concerted effort to legitimize the practice of homosexuality" in America.

To avoid the death penalty, Rudolph pleaded guilty to four bombings. He is now serving four consecutive life terms plus 120 years at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo. Known as Supermax, the prison -- which Guinness World Records calls the most secure in the world -- houses so many bombers that Rudolph makes his "new home," as he calls it, in a high-security wing known as "Bomber's Row."

Rudolph's story is all the more interesting because of his celebrity good looks and disarming good humor. Video-store clerks remembered the handsome loner for years; lonely women sent him romantic cards while he awaited trial; his lawyers judged him "smart and intuitive." One attorney offered this surprising assessment of Rudolph: "He's one of the most genuinely considerate and kind people, in terms of one-on-one relations, that I've known."

Vollers takes pains to assure readers that she is immune to the pretty-boy bomber's charms. After watching him deliver a courtroom screed against abortion, homosexuality and "every variety of filth" in America at his sentencing, she confides: "I stared at the empty space where Eric Rudolph had just been and tried to imagine the somber but rational man who wrote me letters, or the funny, thoughtful person his lawyers had come to love, or the wayward son his mother had forgiven, but all I could see was a self-righteous bastard in sunglasses and a cheap wig, his blue eyes darkening as he clutched [a bomb's] remote control and flipped the switch."

Vollers seems to need Rudolph's physical presence in the narrative to do her best writing. When he is absent -- and he is absent for long stretches -- the book bogs down as the author recites the names of countless investigators at the dozens of law-enforcement agencies involved in the case. Some paragraphs are so weighted by agency initials -- the FBI, the NRT, the new SAC of the ATF -- that they're nearly impossible to follow.

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