Between 1996 to 1998, bombs exploded four times in Atlanta and Birmingham, killing two and injuring hundreds and setting off what turned out to be a five-year manhunt for the suspected bomber Eric Robert Rudolph.
On May 31, 2003, former FBI Top Ten Fugitive Eric Robert Rudolph was arrested by police officer J.S. Postell while rummaging through a trash bin behind a rural grocery story in Murphy, North Carolina. A skilled outdoorsman, Rudolph had managed to elude law enforcement officials for five years while hiding out in the mountains after bombing four sites in Georgia and Alabama. Rudolph began his violent attacks on July 27, 1996, when he planted a backpack containing a bomb in crowded Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia. A woman who traveled with her daughter to watch the 1996 Summer Olympics was killed and more than 100 others were injured in the blast. Shortly after, Rudolph bombed two more locations in Georgia and one in Birmingham, Alabama, resulting several more injuries and the death of a police officer. He pled guilty and is currently serving multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole. Rudolph ultimately told authorities where he’d stashed an additional 250 pounds of dynamite.
Former FBI executive Chris Swecker, who headed our Charlotte office when the arrest was made, shares behind-the-scenes information about the relentless pursuit and capture of the survivalist bomber.
Why was the Southeast Bomb Task Force so convinced that Rudolph was hiding in western North Carolina?
Mr. Swecker: Because of his personal makeup and overall familiarity with the area—and the fact that there were no credible sightings anywhere else. A lot of people at the highest levels said, ‘He’s dead; he’s gone.’ But three members of the task force in particular kept the focus on western North Carolina. If not for them, the whole investigation might have dwindled down to just one or two agents. They were adamant he was in the area, absolutely adamant, in the face of a lot of skepticism. I think 90 percent of the population had written off Rudolph as being out of the area, long gone, or dead.
What was the on-site strategy of the task force?
Mr. Swecker: They had a great plan because it actively involved local law enforcement—keeping them up to speed on where the sightings were and keeping in close contact. Also, even though there was so little to go on, they had really done their homework. They got to know the geography; they’d done a personality profile; they regularly contacted family members; they had a whole cadre of scouts who were walking the forest area and reporting back to us what they saw.
Did anybody help Rudolph avoid detection?
Mr. Swecker: That’s what a lot of people think. But Rudolph is such a loner that we strongly believed he simply wouldn’t have trusted anybody. He had access to news; he had newspaper articles in his camp. He knew he was being pursued. I don’t think he would have made himself vulnerable to being compromised or betrayed by letting anyone know where he was.
Did the pursuit keep him from carrying out more attacks?
Mr. Swecker: Absolutely. Rudolph admitted that he’d toyed with going after the agents who were pursuing him. We know he buried at least four caches of explosives in the area. One was right above the National Guard armory where our command post was located. He claimed he made the decision not to booby-trap our post. But I think he didn’t because we kept the pressure on him, kept patrols going, kept a visible presence. He just couldn’t get to his explosives and do what he would have liked to have done. That was the primary reason we were there. We wanted to catch him, but we also wanted to make sure he didn’t strike again. I’m convinced that the investment of manpower we had during that time period saved lives.
What did Rudolph look like when he was captured?
Mr. Swecker: He was thin, much thinner than when he first went into the mountains, but in very good shape. He talked about being very sick in the first winter, malnourished. After that, things kind of steadied for him.
Rudolph was finally caught foraging for food at a grocery store dumpster. How else did he gather food?
Mr. Swecker: A number of ways. His campsite had a lot of storage. He had a bunch of 55-gallon barrels buried in the ground, full of grain, soy, and oats. There was a granary about four miles from there, and he would go there at night. He said he always traveled at night. He would get a backpack of grain or whatever else and bring it back. He filled up these 55-gallon barrels and he said it was pretty good eating, actually. He also foraged around some of the restaurants, got the patterns down. He knew when vegetables were going to be put out on the loading dock. He knew how to live off the land, but he also knew how to live off the local restaurants and grocery stores.
Some of the nitroglycerin dynamite hidden by fugitive Eric Rudolph and recovered by the FBI and other authorities in April 2005.
How did he survive the winters?
Mr. Swecker: There are so many cabins up there that nobody goes anywhere near because they are owned by people out of town. I think it is very likely that he not only had campsites and caves, but he was also spending some time in those cabins. He knew exactly which cabins he could go into—he had them scouted out way ahead of time.
Would you call him a survivalist?
Mr. Swecker: Absolutely. He was anticipating a great conflict and he had clearly lined up caves and campsites where he could go. He had a number of hiding places, and he knew the mountains so well he could navigate them at night.
What were Rudolph’s motives for the bombings?
Mr. Swecker: He had borrowed ideas from a lot of different places and formed his own personal ideology. He clearly was anti-government and anti-abortion, anti-gay, ‘anti’ a lot of things. The bombings really sprang from his own unique biases and prejudices. He had his own way of looking at the world and didn’t get along with a lot of people.
When he pled guilty, a defiant Rudolph said he had no remorse or regrets. Was he that way at his capture?
Mr. Swecker: Not at all. When he was arrested he was actually pretty compliant and subdued. Almost relieved in a sense. His attitude was, ‘You got me.’ And that was part of our plan. We stepped back and let the local and state authorities do the talking and questioning, and that helped put Rudolph at ease. Later, when they put him on the plane to go to Atlanta, he had tears in his eyes. As he saw those mountains receding in the background, he probably realized he would never see them again. I think at that point, it wasn’t defiance. It was defeat. He knew he was defeated.