Copyright 2000 Guardian Newspapers Limited The Observer
October 8, 2000
SECTION: Observer Life Pages, Pg. 26
LENGTH: 2948 words
HEADLINE: Dispatches: America's most wanted: : When Eric Rudolph bombed Centennial Park at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he triggered the country's biggest ever manhunt. But despite sightings and the Dollars 1m on his head, he's so far managed to elude capture. Nick Paton Walsh travels to the Cherokee forest of Nantahala and joins the bounty hunters
BYLINE: Nick Paton Walsh
Under the triple canopy of the Nantahala forest of North Carolina it is impossible to see a man 10ft away. In Cherokee the word Nantahala means the 'land of the midday sun'. It is a place that rarely cools below 30degreesC in summer, that generates a cacophony of sounds - the screech of bobcats and the maddening static of the insects that begin their assault at dusk and continue until first light. The undergrowth throws out tangled roots to trip the unwary, and rattlesnakes lurk in bracken sharp enough to razor through trousers. Through this landscape, unchanged since the Cherokee were driven from their hunting lands a century and a half ago, the agents of the FBI are now stalking the thickets in search of Eric Rudolph, America's most wanted fugitive. The forest hides other dangers. There are more than a thousand mines within its half million acres - dangerous, half-hidden workings which date back to the Gold Rush. Then there are the natural caves and caverns, some poisoned by underground gases so lethal that a single breath renders a victim unconscious before their body hits the ground. Lurking among these hazards is Rudolph - bombmaker, backwoodsman and expert marksman. A right-wing extremist so dangerous the US has ranked him in its cosmology of evil alongside the Islamic fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden, who ordered the bombing of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and in which 200 people died.
In truth, Rudolph - for all the Dollars 1 million price put on his head - is a different scale of operator. He has caused minimal disruption when compared with his fellow traveller on the lethal fringes of the far right, America's most prolific domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 and injured 500 more when he bombed the Federal building in Oklahoma City.
Charged, however, with six counts of bombing and attempted bombing, Rudolph committed one particular crime that needs to be read as much for its symbolic context as for its body count. The crime that made Rudolph infamous was seen as a humiliation for the US in front of the eyes of world. He bombed the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996, killing one and injuring hundreds, including children who were hit by flying nails packed into the crude device.
His next two bombs targeted a clinic -> <- which performed abortions, the Sandy Springs Professional Building, north of Atlanta, in January 1997. Then Rudolph switched his attention to another group loathed by the American far right. He detonated two bombs a month later in the Otherside Lounge, a lesbian bar in Atlanta, and injured five people. Rudolph is also charged with the 29 January 1998 bombing of another abortion clinic, the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, during which an off-duty policeman was killed and a nurse permanently disfigured. Rudolph carried each unstable bomb to the site in an army surplus backpack and placed it where it should have killed many more.
Eric Rudolph's significance lies not so much in the number of people he has killed or maimed but in what he represents. Like McVeigh and the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (who killed three and injured 23 in a 17-year spate of mail bombings), he forms part of the 'leaderless resistance', the lone operators that the chief of the FBI's domestic terrorism unit Robert Burnham, describes as 'the biggest threat right now' to national security. Burnham embodies a contest between all the vast resources of the federal government, against which Rudolph and his colleagues on the 'militia' right have pitted themselves.
This ruthlessness is encapsulated in a single image - the surveillance video that unmasked him and began the long manhunt. It comes from the Alabama bombing. In the grainy CCTV footage, Rudolph sits patiently in his pick-up truck, watching a policemen, Robert Sanderson, bend over to examine the bomb just before it detonates.
Emily Lyons can remember very little about the morning of 29 January 1998. There was little amiss when she arrived early at the New Woman All Women Health Centre in Birmingham, Alabama to cover for a fellow nurse on maternity leave. She does not recall seeing Rudolph's grey pick-up truck parked outside the clinic, or the blast that followed. The shrapnel from the device has left her disfigured and has permanently damaged her left eye. Since that morning, a series of operations to reconstruct her face have required that she take the powerful painkillers Bersed and Fetnayl. These two drugs have impeded her memory of events between December 1997 and February 1998. But since the bombing, she has learned of witness, forensic, and material evidence amassed by the FBI, and its sister organisations involved in the investigation, that has convinced her beyond doubt that Rudolph is responsible. 'I feel no pity or anger towards him,' she says. 'He didn't know me. He just did it to me. I could feel anger if I knew him, but I have no connection with him. I hate what he has taken away from me: my job, my socialisation. I fear he'll strike again; he has no conscience.'
What links Rudolph with McVeigh and the Unabomber is a warped version of the backwoods self-sufficiency preached by Henry David Thoreau. It is racist, anti-semitic, attached to the rights to bear arms and speak one's mind without interference, but rejecting the balancing duties in the American constitution of paying taxes and respecting the lives and opinions of others. It is Christian fundamentalist and pro-life (anti-abortion) to the extent of being prepared to murder doctors and abortion clinic staff. At its most bizarre, it believes that the United Nations is trying to take over the world.
Andrews is a tiny one-road town on Interstate Highway 74 on the edge of the Nantahala forest, home to 1,699 people, 16 churches and no bars. When an Andrews hotel suggested last year that it might want to serve beer to accompany food, one of the town's First Baptist ministers wrote a furious letter to the local paper suggesting that this was the next step to the hotel declaring itself a bordello.
It was into this deeply God-fearing area in 1981, that the 12-year-old Rudolph moved with his family from Florida. They moved into a small house on Partridge Creek, in the midst of the Nantahala. His father had just died, and it was a new beginning for the family. He enrolled at the local K12 Nantahala High School, a tiny cluster of classrooms along a single dusty corridor - each year group rarely exceeding 15 in number. Randy Cochran was one of Rudolph's better school friends. He and Eric would go camping, play war games in the woods and meet girls with the other boys from their area. 'In this part of the world, people who live near you are your friends,' he says. 'It's how life is here.' But Rudolph, who came from outside and whose family were not regular church goers, began to feel that he was an outsider - a conviction that would deepen with his years in the forest.
With hindsight it appears these early influences on Rudolph are crucial. For Patricia Rudolph, his mother, did little to aid her son's easy assimilation into the community that was his new home. Instead, Patricia shared with the far-right militia movement a paranoid distrust of the Federal govern ment. She refused to give her children's social security numbers to the school as she -> <- felt it allowed the government to track individuals. Significantly, she also introduced her sons to a neighbour, Thomas Wayne Branham, whose bail she paid in 1986 when he was charged with federal firearms violations. At his trial, Branham had denied the authority of the court and declared himself a 'freeman', an opponent of the federal government, before receiving a three-year suspended sentence.
Patricia Rudolph had first met Branham when they lived in Florida before they moved to Nantahala; the Rudolph children would often stay with him in the forest for the summer. When the fatherless family moved to the area, their bond was strengthened. The views of Branham and Patricia Rudolph are not unusual in the forest.
Two locals tell me about a rumour that has been going around. Someone has seen some tanks with United Nations markings, and non-English speaking troops have been seen on exercises in the forest. A popular theory, they assure me, is that the FBI are not solely here to try and catch Rudolph, but that they are acting as a cover for a UN takeover of the United States.
In the deeper recesses of the Nantahala, lives Jay Peircle and her two daughters. They have a National Rifle Association bumper sticker on their car which declares 'Charlton Heston is my President', two large Confederate flags waving in their driveway, and no love for the FBI. Peircle readily tells me she'd rather have a beer with Rudolph than the Feds, and wouldn't tell the authorities if she found traces of him in the forest.
The first sign of Eric Rudolph's growing disaffection and alienation came at 16. Rudolph dropped out of school - Randy Cochran says he doesn't know why - and stayed at home, in the woods. He returned to education, earning sufficient qualifications to enroll in Western Carolina University for two terms, but he was becomingly increasingly erratic.
By the summer of 1986, he had left University to enlist in the army. In August 1987, he was posted to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he served 18 months before being discharged as a private, allegedly after being found smoking cannabis.
Pot-growing is a thriving black economy in Nantahala. Agents working on the case have disclosed that Rudolph grew one of the strongest breeds of the drug in the hills near his home and sold it on to a dealer in Nash-ville, Tennessee.
It was after Rudolph returned to Nantahala that the Olympic bombing took place, as did the two other Atlanta bombings to which the FBI have now linked him. During this time, Rudolph began to betray a few signs that something was amiss: he started using several pseudonyms - Bob Randolph, Robert Randolph and Bob Rudolph - and became ever more reclusive.
The change in Rudolph during this period was noticed by Robin Key, a waitress at a local restaurant whom he first met in 1994. Key had been captivated by Rudolph's intense eyes, but otherwise says she found him dull and didn't chase him up.
They met again by chance at a video store in 1997. They had dinner soon afterwards and went to a barbecue a few weeks later. They watched a few movies together and were alone once. Key recalls Rudolph was always good with her daughter, Selina, despite the fact that Selina found his quiet demeanour 'a little weird'. The last time they met was in an Andrews store in December 1997, and Rudolph 'blanked' her. She describes him as 'cold and nonchalant', as if a change had come over him.
Two months later, Rudolph was charged with the January 1998 bombing of the Birmingham abortion clinic. But by the time the FBI turned up at the trailer he was living in, Rudolph had already fled, triggering the biggest man hunt in American history.
Jack Thompson, county sheriff at the time, had been asked to look out for Rudolph by the FBI and had found him through post office and electricity company records at a place called Caney Creek, near Murphy (the next big town to Andrews).
'My feeling', says the now-retired Thompson, who tipped off the FBI, 'is that he turned on the television at 6pm and must have seen news footage that his truck had been spotted near the Alabama blast.' Rudolph had been gone no more than 30 minutes, when seven federal agent cars arrived to find his trailer door open, the TV blaring and the lights still on. His truck was later dis-covered abandoned at St Martin's Creek, near Murphy.
Rudolph's forest trackers go by the name of the Southeast Bomb Task Force - a collection of officers from the FBI, the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Unit, and the Department of Justice. For 30 months they have been scouring the thickets, caves and disused mineworkings of the Nantahala forest. The search teams are led by trackers from the US Forestry Service and include marksmen and local guides. It is tense and exhausting work.
While Rudolph remains their main quarry, the forest itself has also become an enemy, its vastness seeming to collude with the fugitive bomber. Recently, one agent had a heart attack while searching its depths. It is little surp(rise that it took 20 minutes for the search party to hack out a clearing big enough for a helicopter to land.
Much of the effort of the search is focused on the forest's caves and mines. The caves provide perfect shelter, remaining at a constant temperature during the extremes of both summer and winter. Many also contain drinkable spring water all year round.
Darren Free has been employed by the SBTF to aid the search over the past 18 months. A caving expert and accomplished woodsman, he has an extensive knowledge of the area's caves which he accumulated while playing in them as a child. Free has proven invaluable to the SBTF. A light-hearted man with native American roots who makes a living cutting glass in nearby Hendersonville, he can theorise for hours about where he thinks Rudolph may be -> <- hiding. The Dollars 1m reward for his capture has almost lost its appeal for Free; for him it is now a personal hunt into which he pours his energy and ideas.
Free and the SBTF remain convinced that Rudolph is not only alive but still sheltering in the forest. A source close to the search team says they believe they have come near to Rudolph on several occasions. Once they heard someone talking to themselves in the bushes; they then saw a ponytailed man fleeing the scene. Another time, two agents came across a pair of boots on a rock. They went for back-up, but on their return they found that the boots were gone.
Rudolph's bootprints are themselves a problem: he has one of the most common makes of hiking boot in the country, boots in which legitimate hikers trample all over the Nantahala's trails. Regardless of the insurmountable task ahead of them, the task force has continued the search. So far it has cost at least Dollars 14m. At its peak, the force was 600 strong, now there remains a hard core of 12 dedicated hunters who scour the forest at the first sign of a fugitive.
The last officially confirmed sighting of someone matching Rudolph's description occurred last February, but unofficially there have been sightings of a man matching Rudolph's description in the area within the past month, and on two of these occasions he was seen with an unidentified female. In February, the SBTF found food parcels and boot prints consistent with Rudolph. More recently, investigators came across an observation post that Rudolph may have been using to survey the area.
A resident of the remote northern Nantahala area has also reported seeing a man matching Rudolph's description at regular intervals. A later search of the caves of that region brought to light what was described by a source close to the search as 'the strongest lead in two years'. In addition, the detailed profiles of Rudolph constructed by the FBI and all the evidence collated thus far, point to one conclusion: that Rudolph is still in these mountains, because this, if anywhere, is where he calls 'home'. More and more, however, the FBI is becoming con vinced that, if Rudolph is surviving, it is because there are those out in the forest who are helping him. There was a steady pattern of break-ins around the Nantahala area in 1998 in which the items stolen - food, supplies and men's boots and shirts - were consistent with Rudolph. These break-ins stopped in 1999, suggesting that Rudolph had left the area, met his death in the forest, or is receiving a regular drop of supplies.
George Nordmann is the last man that the authorities believe has seen Rudolph alive. The taciturn owner of an Andrews health-food store, Nordmann got close enough to be able to provide a description of the haggard Rudolph. On 9 July 1998, Rudolph, then sporting a beard and ponytail, took six months' worth of food and supplies and a truck from Nordmann's house. In Nordmann's absence, he left Dollars 500 in payment for the items and a note in the truck which apologised for the inconvenience. The truck was found abandoned near Nantahala and the search picked up pace again. The FBI erected a village of tents on the Appletree Campground outside Andrews and helicopters and agents poured into the forest.
Today, Nordmann still runs a small health-food store - The Better Way - on the main road in Andrews. He has little to say about the events of that day, bar confirming that he knew Rudolph's family and Eric himself as a child, and that Rudolph went to school with some of Nordmann's 11 children. He is tired of the association made between him and Rudolph and yet more fatigued by constant calls from reporters. 'There's so much other crime in the world; I could wring his neck now, having to put up with this baloney,' he says wearily, adding that the Dollars 500 he left 'shows he had some decency. He was not robbing me.'
Nordmann's sympathy is political, too. On the wall is a poster picturing two little girls in martial arts poses with the advice 'our children are going to need more than nursery rhymes to get through the next millennium'. Below is a number to call for classes. On one sideboard is an audio tape with the conspiratorial label 'The Real United Nations'. If Rudolph is still in the forest, he is not without friends.
For more information on America's most-wanted fugitives, see www. fbi.gov/most wanted-htm