Terror in the woods

The man accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing has spent the past five years on the run from the FBI. Eric Rudolph's deadly game of hide-and-seek around North Carolina ended with his capture last weekend - but who is this alleged backwoods terrorist?

Andrew Gumbel
Thursday 05 June 2003 00:00 BST

Nobody ever pretended that the hunt for Eric Robert Rudolph, the white supremacist wanted for bombing the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was going to be easy. Nevertheless, there was a moment, right at the beginning of his five-year-long run from the law, when his pursuers were forced to acknowledge that the weirdness they faced was more tawdry than they could ever have imagined.

The time was March 1998. Six weeks earlier, Rudolph had vanished without trace from his mobile home in Murphy, a tiny backwoods town in western North Carolina. The Feds were crawling all over the area, sending helicopters, camouflaged agents equipped with night-vision goggles, and professional sharpshooters into the thickly wooded mountains of the Nantahala National Forest, but all to no avail.

This was the moment that Eric's older brother Daniel chose to go down to the basement garage of his house on the outskirts of Charleston, South Carolina. The Rudolphs were a close-knit family who shared many things: a virulently racist religion, an abiding belief that a Jewish conspiracy was running the world, and a suspicion of the federal government so deep-seated that none of them drank tap water for fear of being poisoned by the fluoride. Daniel, who worked with Eric in the carpentry business, had been hounded by journalists and the cops ever since his brother had been identified as the chief suspect in the Atlanta bombing and a string of other major unsolved crimes. He hadn't wanted to play ball with any of them, and now he had had enough.

So he mounted a video camera on a tripod in his garage and started the tape rolling. He tightened a tourniquet around his left wrist. Then he grabbed a radial power-saw and, staring straight at the camera, hacked off his hand, shouting: "This is for the FBI and the media!" Somehow, he found the strength to pop the blood-spattered tape into an envelope and post it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation before driving himself to hospital. (The hand was later recovered from the garage by ambulance workers and reattached.)

What Eric thought of this insane gesture, assuming that he heard about it, has never come to light. He remained as elusive as ever, putting his image as a backwoods survivalist to the ultimate test. He was, after all, considered the radical in the family. In the summer of 1998, he made his one and only confirmed visit back to civilisation, dropping in on a health-food store owner near Murphy whom he knew because of a shared interest in white supremacy - the two of them had spent evenings rubbishing the Holocaust together. Still, Rudolph took no chances; he told the store owner, George Nordmann, that he had staked him out for a month before approaching him.

Rudolph got his friend to give him food and water, and then asked him to provide six months' worth of supplies. Nordmann said he would think about it. (Rudolph ended up helping himself, stealing Nordmann's pick-up, and poisoning his dog for good measure.) In the meantime, Nordmann asked him where he had been living. "Where no man or dog will ever find me," came the response.

And that, for another four years and 11 months, was that. Some became convinced that Rudolph was dead. Others speculated that he had left the area, possibly the country. There was widespread suspicion that he was receiving help from the white-supremacist movement, which became quite organised in the western Carolina mountains during the 1990s. (The suspicion only increased when a gang of far-right survivalists opened fire with high-calibre bullets on the FBI's task-force station in Andrews, 10 miles down the road from Murphy, brushing against the hair of one agent and only slightly less narrowly missing another.) Every now and again, someone would report clothes going missing from a washing-line, or food vanishing from the kitchen table, and the assumption every time was that Rudolph was responsible.

To some, he became a folk hero. "Rudolph ate here", joked a sign outside one restaurant. To others, he was the backwoods equivalent of Osama bin Laden - no doubt living in a cave, possibly kitted out with weapons, radio communications equipment and, who knows, maybe an electricity generator. To the police, who slowly withdrew their surveillance teams until their task force was reduced to a half-dozen nonplussed men, he was a never-ending irritant, an extraordinary source of frustration that pointed out all the shortcomings of a hi-tech, militarised federal force unable to negotiate such alien, not to say hostile, territory.

"It's incredibly difficult," an exasperated task-force spokesman, Patrick Crosby, once explained. "You can't see squat, and there are sudden cliffs and rocks, and you could get shot or blown up at any time. It's hot as hell during the day and cold as hell at night. And once you're in the woods, all bets are off. This is a guy who plants bombs... and now you're on his turf."

Except that suddenly, last weekend, the long stakeout came to an end. A dishevelled man in builder's clothes, running-shoes and a camouflage jacket was seen loitering around the rubbish bins behind a supermarket in Murphy. Challenged by the town's rookie policeman, the man initially gave his name as Jerry Wilson, but soon admitted that he was Rudolph.

He didn't seem startled to have been discovered so much as relieved, like a runner who simply has no breath left to keep in the race. He was booked, shackled and shuttled, first to Asheville, the closest town with a federal courthouse, and thence to Birmingham, Alabama, the scene of an abortion- clinic bombing that first put the Feds on Rudolph's trail.

In all, Rudolph, now 36, is charged with carrying out four bombings. The first, at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, commanded worldwide attention because of the timing - a week into the 1996 Games - and because it led to a major FBI blunder over the arrest of a hapless, and entirely innocent, private security guard called Richard Jewell. The damage in the end was mercifully slight, with just one death - it might have been a lot worse if the backpack containing the nail bomb had not been knocked over by a group of men stumbling about the worse for drink.

Subsequent nail bombings bore the same signature, according to investigators: one at an abortion clinic in suburban Atlanta in 1997; another at a lesbian nightclub a month later; and, finally, in January 1998, the assault on the abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in which an off-duty police officer absorbed the worst of the blast as he leaned over to examine a suspicious object - the bomb - in a flowerpot. Witnesses in Birmingham saw a man hastily leave the scene, pull a blond wig off his head, and climb into a grey Nissan pick-up whose licence plate was subsequently traced to Rudolph.

What kind of a man would carry out such atrocities? Was Rudolph cast from the same mould as Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, a disaffected army veteran outraged by what he saw as paramilitary assaults on heartland values by a distant federal government? Or was his vendetta more narrowly ideological, focused on a hatred of homosexuals, abortion providers and non-whites?

Our best information suggests that Rudolph does not entirely fit either of these pictures. Rather, he comes across as a white-supremacist version of Otto, the Kevin Kline character in A Fish Called Wanda - a bumbling, somewhat unhinged amateur philosopher, who smoked pot all night as he leafed through Nietzsche and railed about how right Hitler was to eliminate all the "weak" people in society because they had nothing to contribute.

"Eric loved philosophy, especially Nietzsche. The whole family was into philosophy," his former sister-in-law, Deborah Rudolph, said in a remarkable interview two years ago with the Intelligence Report, the magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a leading campaign group devoted to fighting far-right extremism.

Along with the philosophy came subscriptions to neo-Nazi tracts, gun magazines and High Times - the bible of home-grown -marijuana enthusiasts. Eric not only liked smoking, Deborah recounted, but made most of his income by growing weed - both hydroponically, in his basement, and in the open, on land belonging to the US Army Corps of Engineers. "What do I not know about the guy?" Deborah said. "If you were to walk into my house, you'd see him hanging out with his brothers, talking about an issue they were discussing on TV with a joint hanging out of his mouth. They'd say, 'Hey, dude, let's eat a pizza'."

Eric was brought up with his four brothers and sister in Florida, only moving to North Carolina after the death of his father when he was 11. The family's hatred of the federal government appears to have grown out of resentment that an alternative cancer treatment based on apricot kernels was not authorised by the Food and Drugs Administration. They blamed Washington for Bob Rudolph's death, and they swore that they would never let another family member undergo any surgical operation.

The family came under the influence of several fringe far-right leaders, one of whom, a survivalist called Tom Branham, became a kind of surrogate father to Eric. Much later, Branham was arrested after federal agents found a sub-machine gun, dynamite and blasting-caps in his home - prompting him to complain that he was a victim of "tyranny and despotism" by an oppressive federal government. (The charges were later dropped.)

The part of North Carolina where the Rudolphs settled had been a hotbed of anti-federal sentiment since the Whiskey Rebellions of the 1790s, and was now home to a number of viscerally racist political rabble-rousers. One of them, Nord Davis, almost certainly introduced the Rudolphs to the Christian Identity sect, which holds that white Protestant Americans are the true children of Israel.

According to Deborah Rudolph, family conversation would often focus on how Jews were running Wall Street and the media. "You could be watching a 30-minute sitcom and the credits would roll and there'd be Jewish names and, excuse my expression, but he [Eric] would say, 'you fucking Yids'," she said. He referred to the TV as "the electronic Jew" - although he was not averse to watching videos. "He loved videos, because he could control that," Deborah said. "I think it's about control with Eric."

At one stage, Eric had ambitions to join the Army Special Forces - an ambition shared by Tim McVeigh - but dropped out of the 101st Airborne Division after just 18 months. Apparently, it had never dawned on him that most rank-and-file soldiers were black or Latino - something that he found so abhorrent that he served out much of his time in a marijuana haze. The experience was not wasted, however. It taught him invaluable lessons about surviving in the wild for months on end. He almost certainly acquired some bomb-making skills along the way, too.

By the time Eric was back in civvies, he was collecting guns and using pit bulls to protect his marijuana crop. Then his politics hardened - if he was indeed the nail bomber, he started writing letters on behalf of the "Army of God", espousing the revolutionary overthrow of the federal government. Shortly before he disappeared, his family started to worry about his radicalism - it was, in Deborah's words, all "hate, hate, hate", and they had a feeling that he would soon get into big trouble.

They were certainly right about that, although they may well have been more surprised by his ability to stay on the run and become a bit of a folk hero into the bargain. There is still much that we do not know about the past five years - if he really lived off lizards and acorns, as he told his captors this week, or if he had help maintaining a slightly more dignified lifestyle. As federal prosecutors focus their energies on securing a conviction and asking for the death penalty, it is possible that we will never know all the details.

In the meantime, Bo Emerson of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution probably put it best: "Eric Rudolph may have been the most successful leave-no-trace camper in history. Or perhaps he was just lucky."

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