How Did Eric Rudolph Survive?

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"How Did Eric Rudolph Survive?"

Newspaper article

By: Patrick Jonsson

Date: June 4, 2003

Source: Christian Science Monitor.

About the Author: Patrick Jonsson is a reporter and features writer for the Christian Science Monitor, an international daily newspaper.


Eric Rudolph is one of the most infamous domestic terrorists in United States history. He masterminded the bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, along with several other terrorist bombings. Rudolph was born in 1961 in Florida and lived throughout his life in the Southeastern United States. Rudolph briefly served in the U.S. Army, but was discharged for drug use.

Authorities claim that Rudolph was a supporter of the Christian Identity group, a racist extremist group that incorporates fundamentalist Christian ideology. Christian Identity claims only white Aryans are members of God's chosen race. The group numbers about 50,000 believers in the United States. They closely identify with other neo-Nazi and White Supremacist extremists. Some officials suspect that Rudolph may have had contact with an anti-abortion terrorist group called Army of God. Rudolph denied association with any right-wing extremist groups, asserting that he always acted on his own.

On July 27, 1996, on the ninth day of the Olympic summer games held in Atlanta, Georgia, a bomb was placed near a stage in Centennial Olympic Park, amidst a crowd of thousands of visitors. The detonation of the bomb occurring at 1:20 a.m. killed Alice Hawthorne, an American citizen who had traveled with her daughter to watch the Games. A Turkish cameraman, Melih Uzonyol, died from a heart attack in his rush to record the devastation after the blast. Over one hundred other people were injured.

Despite the tragedy, Olympic officials and athletes decided that the Games should continue as scheduled. In the days following the attack, numerous media outlets named Richard Jewell, a security guard who had first located the bomb and attempted to evacuate the area, as the primary suspect in the bombing. Jewell was eventually cleared of all charges and won numerous libel suits against the media and government outlets on claims that they had tarnished his character.

On October 14, 1998, the Department of Justice announced that a thirty-two-year-old resident of North Carolina, Eric Rudolph, had been charged in the Olympic park attack. Rudolph was also charged with two other Atlanta-area bombings, one at an abortion clinic and a second at a lesbian nightclub. Rudolph also bombed a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic, killing one person and critically injuring another.

On May 31, 2003, Rudolph was captured by a local law enforcement officer in Murphy, North Carolina, a mountain town where the suspect had been hiding out throughout what had become one of the most intensive searches in American history by a task force of numerous federal, state, and local agencies.

On April 8, 2005, in an attempt to avoid the death penalty, Rudolph plead guilty to his role in four separate bombings and was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences. In a statement released by Rudolph following his conviction, he said the purpose of the Olympic park attack was to "confound, anger, and embarrass the Washington government in the eyes of the world for its abominable sanctioning of abortion on demand."


Murphy, N.C.— He may have prayed for an apocalyptic race war, but in the end Eric Rudolph was just another neighbor—quiet, unobtrusive, slightly strange. For months, maybe years, the fugitive hid near a small valley of brick houses and trailers, leading a life so reclusive he was nearly invisible, though neighbors suggest it wasn't just the chipmunks stealing all that squash from their gardens.

"In retrospect, it doesn't bother me," says Mary Pickens, who lives nearby. "He hadn't ever hurt anyone around here." Since Mr. Rudolph's capture by a rookie cop on Saturday, this mountain town is coming to grips with the ghost in its midst, wondering how the alleged terrorist went undetected, and whether he was helped by some of their own. Rudolph, painted by some as a modern Daniel Boone, apparently needed them. While evading a dogged five-year manhunt, he clung to the fringes of society in a neat ridge-top camp only 200 yards from two strip malls and the high school, and a half-mile from Murphy's bluemarble courthouse. In winter, he could likely see the town from his camp; in summer, he could have heard the roar of trucks on the Appalachian Highway.

Instead of retreating into the deep mountains or urban anonymity, he stayed in a "comfort zone" at the edge of society. Experts say that choice shows Rudolph's limits as a survivalist, but also a distaste for total isolation and, perhaps, a need to stay close to a network of conspirators. "I don't believe he was a good survivalist," says Kevin Reeve, director of the Tom Brown Tracking School in Asbury, N.J., who's studied the Rudolph case. "The analogy is of a scuba diver who's fine until his oxygen supply runs out, and then he has to come up for air." A real survivalist, says Mr. Reeve, would have taken off up through the Great Smokies.

Instead, Rudolph, with his "Regular Joe" looks, crossed a few ridges from Natahala Gorge, where the FBI found his truck five years ago, and planted himself in Murphy, a community that was changing from a close-knit town of jean-factory and saw-mill workers to a bustling retirement destination for Floridians.

Murphy may have been a logical choice for Rudolph's Butch-and-Sundance hideaway; rivers flush with bass and trout, there are lots of Dumpsters when the fish weren't biting, some sympathetic locals, and enough new residents so he wouldn't stick out as long as he stayed neat and nonchalant. His friendliness may have helped. Reports suggest that people spotted him, but "wanted" posters apparently didn't spring to mind.

Rudolph also might have known how politics ran in this mountain town. Some here may have shared his sentiments, at least enough to turn the other way. Even after his capture, the story is greeted as half scandal, half legend. At the Daily Grind coffee shop, women served up "Captured Cappuccinos" this weekend, and a sign outside town read "Pray for Eric Rudolph." After his arrest, Rudolph signed autographs of his "wanted" posters for sheriff's deputies.

"I'd like to say he was or he wasn't [helped]," says Officer Jeff Postell, the 21-year-old former Wal-Mart security guard who caught Rudolph behind the Save-A-Lot market early Saturday. "But I don't know."

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Rudolph had skills, strong beliefs, and perhaps a small cadre of friends. At his camp he left behind a cache of pilfered bananas, onions, and tomatoes, and a pile of firewood. Small footpaths led into the mountains and to his secondary camp, what survivalists call the "castle keep," a refuge should the full-scale search resume.

With or without aid, he may have taken advantage of sleepy rhythms in a town "used to routines," says Wanda Stalcup, director of the Cherokee County Museum. While plenty of campers come through, she says, few would have trudged over the Appalachian Highway on a cowpath and climbed the hill to Rudolph's camp. Most likely, experts surmise, the former carpenter slept during the day and scavenged at night."He became a nocturnal being," says Reeve.

Above all, he was a local boy who knew how to act in a changing mountain culture, where Toyota-driving kayakers live next to bearded mountain men and trading posts. Many thought he was long gone. "I might've seen him a hundred times. I wouldn't know him from Adam," says Charles Franklin, a life-long valley resident mowing a park near Rudolph's camp on Fires Creek.

Mr. Franklin, like many locals, has scant sympathy for Rudolph's alleged misdeeds, which include bombing Centennial Park, a gay nightclub, and an abortion clinic, killing two and injuring over 100.

Rudolph was aligned with the radical Christian Identity movement, which posits that Jews and blacks are "polluting" America. But others trace his anger to his father's death and the government's failure to approve a cancer drug that Rudolph reportedly believes could have saved him.

People here knew Rudolph in his younger days as a quiet, well-mannered young man who lived with his mom, two brothers, and sister near Natahala Gorge. Those who hired him as a carpenter recall seeing him study the Bible during breaks, and some say he volunteered at a senior citizens' home on weekends. He also dabbled in drinking, with a twist: Caught for drunk driving in his 20s, he returned the next day to thank the officer who arrested him. But while he might have gleaned survival skills from fellow Christian Identity adherents in the mountains, some here insist he shared little with original settlers and the Indian tribes that found bounty in these temperate crags and valleys.

"Everybody's making him out to be some kind of Daniel Boone, but all he did was grow some dope up in the mountains," says a bearded hunter whittling cedar backscratchers on the stoop of Mason's Bait & Tackle. "People blame the FBI, which they say couldn't track a gut-shot buffalo through six feet of snow."

Law enforcement experts say the FBI deserves credit for flooding the media with pictures and publicizing Rudolph's alleged misdeeds. Still, the FBI itself may have been a reason why some here who nurse an old suspicion of the federal government looked the other way—even with a $1 million reward."People here don't believe in killing, but there's lots of people who believe he may not have done it," says Harold Helton, owner of H&H Sports in Murphy.

Those who study how extremist movements integrate themselves into communities say Cherokee County, along with northern Idaho, is one of a few places in the country where a fugitive can find sympathy in eluding the long arm of Washington.

In fact, a few months before Rudolph was captured, police found militia leader Steve Anderson, former host of shortwave radio show "The Militia Hour," holed up in Cherokee County, three years after he allegedly shot at a Kentucky sheriff's deputy.

"He and Eric Rudolph were, in essence, neighbors," says Mark Pitcavage, national director of Fact Finding for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's an example of committed extremists being able to stay in western North Carolina for quite a long time, clearly with the help of somebody."

But the allure of living on the outskirts of society, albeit a society he rejected, may have worn thin. Many suggest that, after five years in the woods, Rudolph got lonely and basically gave himself up. True survivalism, total severance from society, might, at any rate, have eluded a man dogged by his past. "Being a fugitive would certainly cramp your style," says Reeve.


The arrest of Eric Rudolph as the perpetrator behind the 1996 Olympic Park bombing reaffirmed for the people of the United States the danger posed by domestic terrorists. The fact that he was able to evade capture for more than five years despite being placed on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and remaining in the United States, has led many to assume as this article suggests, that he may have hid with the aid of friends and supporters—despite the $1 million award which was promised to anyone who assisted in Rudolph's capture.

The article further exposes the relative ease with which a domestic terrorist can slip undiscovered into society and disappear for long periods of time in a way similar to how the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, succeeded in evading authorities for nearly two decades, while continuing to carry out terrorist attacks.

On April 8, 2005, the U.S. Justice department announced that Rudolph had agreed to a deal in which he would avoid a possible death sentence. Rudolph agreed to plead guilty to all charges against him. He also disclosed the location of his hidden weapons caches containing 250 pounds of dynamite, an already assembled bomb, detonators, bomb making materials, and guns. In July 2005, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.



Farrington, Jay. Domestic Terrorism. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Xlibris Corporation, 2001.

Schuster, Henry and Stone, Charles. Hunting Eric Rudolph. New York: Berkley, 2005.

Web sites

USA Today. Morrison, Tom. "Eric Rudolph tells how he eluded FBI." July 5, 2005. <> (accessed July 10, 2905).

United States Department of Justice. "Eric Rudolph Charged in Centennial Park Bombing." October 14, 1998. <> (accessed July 7, 2005).

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How Did Eric Rudolph Survive?

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