Building a mystery

Hunting Eric Rudolph

He done it. That’s what Eric Rudolph has finally told federal authorities, just as they were preparing to prosecute him for a string of bombings. Surprising many longtime observers of his case, last week he agreed to drop his non-guilty plea, admit to the bombings and show government agents where he had stashed hundreds of pounds of dynamite and a fully constructed bomb that lay in wait. In exchange, the authorities will grant him life in prison — as opposed to the death penalty, which they had planned to seek at trial.

Where did Rudolph plan to use that buried bomb? Did he build it — and the ones he detonated — alone? And during Rudolph’s five years on the lam as a federal fugitive, did anyone harbor him? Or did he actually hide out in the woods all that time, alone, as he told law officers in Murphy, N.C., shortly after his 2003 capture?

With the ink still drying on the plea deal, these and other crucial questions about Rudolph’s case remain unanswered. So far, it’s reported that Rudolph, now 38, has admitted to the main crimes he was charged with: In the late 1990s, he bombed three targets in Atlanta — an abortion clinic, a gay nightclub and a heavily populated park set up for the Olympic Games — killing two people and injuring more than 100, and an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., killing one person and gravely wounding another.

In 1998, when Rudolph was identified as the prime suspect in the bombings, he disappeared from his home near Murphy and subsequently managed to elude a five-year, $30 million manhunt. His run came to an almost comical conclusion when a rookie cop caught him Dumpster-diving behind a convenience store in the wee hours of the morning.

As he enters his guilty plea, the public portrait of Rudolph remains a superficial one, offering little more detail than did his wanted poster. But now, at a most fitting time, comes a new book that makes a concerted and well-informed attempt to fill in the blanks. Hunting Eric Rudolph (Berkley Books, 2005), by Henry Schuster (a CNN producer who has covered the case from the beginning) with Charles Stone (a retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who investigated the bombings), may offer the best chance the public will ever get to understand Rudolph’s life, motives and lethal actions.

The authors unearth much about the nasty brew of religious and political extremism that apparently led Rudolph to turn terrorist. Some of these influences have been noted by previous writers, but never with the level of detail that is offered here. The book explains how Rudolph was steeped in the hate-filled doctrines of Christian Identity, a hard-right sect that holds that Caucasians are God’s chosen people, and that blacks, other minorities, Jews and homosexuals are the spawn of Satan.

As one of Rudolph’s in-laws would later explain, “Eric’s calculus about abortion was based more on race than anything else. He felt that if white women continued to get abortions, then pretty soon demographics would take over, and the white race would find itself in the minority. He didn’t oppose abortion, only abortion for whites.”

But that’s not all. Rudolph was also virulently anti-government, despite — and perhaps because of — his 18-month stint in the Army. He was an avid reader of ultra-rightwing texts, and, odd as it may seem, a prolific marijuana grower, user and dealer.

After reviewing Rudolph’s steady drift toward the ideological fringe, the authors make a painstaking examination of the campsites where he told the authorities he holed up at. The sites, while somewhat remote and fairly well-provisioned, raised questions of their own. When he was caught, Rudolph — though somewhat lean — seemed surprisingly fit for a man who claimed that at times he’d subsisted on acorns, salamanders and pilfered corn feed. (Investigators also turned up numerous Taco Bell wrappers at one of the sites.) And, as the authors point out, investigators never got a satisfactory answer to the question of where Rudolph, who had a buzz cut when he was caught, got his hair shorn.

Did Rudolph, then, have help from sympathetic locals or perhaps even longtime co-conspirators? Hunting Eric Rudolph relays many rumors of such from the Murphy area, but no hard proof. (Perhaps, some commentators now speculate, Rudolph will give up some names.)

Whether he was assisted or not, Rudolph’s story is laced with bizarre side characters that may have shaped his extremism. Shortly after Eric went on the run, for example, his brother Daniel turned on a video camera and proceeded to saw off his left hand, telling the camera that this was his protest to the FBI and the media. (The hand was later reattached by doctors.) And then, there’s the weird tangent of Brenda Kay Phillips, a professed (but unconfirmed) Rudolph accomplice from Murphy who later fired shotgun blasts into an Asheville abortion clinic.

Despite all the biographic and forensic details Schuster and Stone weave together, the fact remains that only Rudolph knows his full story. Perhaps, from prison, the serial bomber will spill some more beans. After all, he’s got nothing but time now — and nowhere to run.

[Mountain Xpress contributing editor Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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