MURPHY, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) — Jeffrey Postell was heading down Andrews Road. He was on the hunt. It was just before 3:27 a.m. when Postell flicked the turn signal and his Ford wobbled across the transition from the street into the Valley Village Shopping Center’s parking lot.
Postell immediately turned off his headlights.
He’d patrolled this store hundreds, if not a thousand, times since he was sworn into office 10 months earlier. It was just another routine middle-of-the-night business check when he turned on his alley light and splashed it on the side of the Save-A-Lot and turned the corner to round the back of the store.
“And bam—saw him right there and I was stopped right here,” Postell said as he pointed out of his windshield to a spot near the store’s loading dock. We’d flown Postell back to Murphy so he could retell the moment he caught a man crouched down in the middle of the road that circles the back of the shopping center.
The man bolted and took cover behind a stack of milk crates lining the back of the store.
Postell yanked his pistol from his holster, positioned himself behind his cruiser door and yelled for the man to show himself. After a few tense seconds, a man wearing a camouflaged jacket, a blue shirt and white tennis shoes walked out from behind the milk crates.
“He came out, came off the loading dock and came onto the ground, at which time I told him to get on the ground face-first and to put his hands out by his side,” Postell said. He put the man in handcuffs and within seconds, the back up he asked Cherokee dispatchers to send was beginning to show up behind the store.
“Again, keep in mind. I’ve been on the force 10 months, I was 21; really didn’t have a clue what I had or who it was, but I knew that it was out of place. It was uncharacteristic for that time of the of the morning and so I needed to further investigate this,” Postell said.
The man told Postell he’d hitchhiked from Ohio to Murphy and was looking for food.
“He gave me the name of Jerry Wilson with a date of birth. I actually ran that name and date of birth through our police database. And, he came back with no match, no record on file so that that kind of raised the red flag,” Postell told FOX 46 Chief Investigator Jody Barr.
“And then it was at that time a sheriff’s deputy pulled me off to the side and says, ‘You know, he really has an uncanny resemblance to Eric Rudolph.’ And I said, ‘Do you really think so?’ Because probably like anyone else, I would have never imagined that this would be Eric Robert Rudolph.”
Postell loaded the man into the back of his patrol car and headed for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office. The man never took his eyes off Postell, he recalled. The men did not have any meaningful conversation during the six-minute ride into town.
At the time, Rudolph had been on the run for five years and the federal government had a $1 million reward for his capture. No one knew where Rudolph was – or if he was even still alive.
“I just kept thinking about what the deputy said,” Postell recalled, “While transporting him, I was thinking to myself could this possibly be Eric Rudolph? Could it have ended like this?”
‘YOU’VE GOT ME’
Postell sat the man down inside a holding room and made a dash to a computer to pull up the FBI’s Most Wanted list. He found Eric Robert Rudolph’s wanted poster and printed it.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation published the flier more than five years earlier.
“I started out with hair color: check. Eye color: check. Height: check. Until I get down to noticeable scars and Eric Rudolph’s description had a scar to his chin. And I remember very, very clearly, I remember looking over my shoulder and looking across the hallway, and he was in a chair with his hands behind his back handcuffed. He was staring at the ceiling. And the scar on his chin was glaring right at me and that’s when I started saying we might have something here, something a little bit bigger,” Postell recalled.
Postell took the wanted poster and joined three other law enforcers who’d gathered inside the sheriff’s office.
“We held it up behind his head. And we’re kind of looking back and forth all of us in like a u-shape around him; kind of looking and going back and forth,” Postell said as he demonstrated with his hands how they held the wanted poster up behind Rudolph in an effort to positively identify him.
“And Officer Bandy (Jody Bandy) from the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) police asked him, ‘Tell us who you are.’ And he (Rudolph) said, ‘What’s the paper say?’ And we all said, ‘That’s not the question. Tell us who you really are.’ And after just a moment, he looked up and says, ‘I’m Eric Robert Rudolph, and you’ve got me.’”
“At that time, I think the hairs on the back of my head stood up, my knees started knocking because here I am, a 21-year-old rookie police officer and I’m standing in front of an FBI top 10 Most Wanted, one of the longest manhunts in U.S. history, responsible for the bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham that killed people, including a police officer and here I am thinking to myself how lucky I am that I did not become a victim, as well,” Postell told FOX 46.
“I immediately walked out of the room and I sat down at the desk. I picked up the phone and I called the police station. I said you need to find the chief, we have something big and I said, ‘We have Eric Rudolph.”
The capture ended a five-year manhunt for Rudolph. A rookie cop, who was 16 years old when Rudolph bombed the 1996 Olympics, had captured the most wanted man in the nation and ended the most expensive manhunt in United States’ history.
AT WAR WITH THE ‘BABY KILLERS’
On July 27, 1996, Eric Robert Rudolph loaded a military-style backpack into his Nissan truck and headed toward Atlanta. The former soldier fired up his truck and coasted out of the North Carolina mountains toward the epicenter of the 1996 Olympic Games.
Inside the backpack was a pipe bomb that would become Rudolph’s first attack in his personal battle against abortion, the “homosexual agenda,” and the government Rudolph viewed as condoning it all.
Rudolph spent the previous six months performing research and development. Working out of his Caney Creek trailer near Murphy, Rudolph built a pipe bomb equipped with a timer designed to detonate long after he’d scurried away to safety.
His initial plan was to bomb and disable the Atlanta power grid, Rudolph wrote in his 2013 “The Memoirs of a Militant,” a book Rudolph, with help from his brother, wrote from prison. The book detailed Rudolph’s reasons for his bomb spree and his time on the run.
Rudolph opposed abortion and wrote that he believed the federal government had taken a hard turn toward the political left by funding “baby killers” and “abortion mills.” Rudolph also wrote that he viewed the federal government’s actions in Ruby Ridge and the raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco as an attack on political “dissidents.”
“The Clinton regime wanted to send a message, a warning to all those dissident groups and
individuals out there: you cannot break with our system and build your own private Idaho; and if you try
to, we will shoot you in the face, burn you alive, or put you in prison,” Rudolph wrote in his memoir.
Bombing the Olympic games in Atlanta was the target after Rudolph decided to nix an attack on the power grid.
“Governments and corporations had invested close to $1 billion dollars in the Atlanta games. As a
simple American, I despised these elitists. These same entities – the U.S. Government through Title X,
AT&T and Coca Cola through annual donations – funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the bloody
coffers of Planned Parenthood, the world’s biggest baby killer. In order to hurt these sponsors, I would
take aim at their pocket books. Causing them to cancel the Olympics would be a tremendous victory, but
beyond my capabilities. At the very least, I knew I could disrupt the games, causing an enormous loss of
money and much embarrassment for the powers that be,” Rudolph wrote.
“He believed that America was at war, and that the only recourse – as twisted as it is and was – is the only recourse someone needed to stop the war and defend the unborn babies, and he decided it was him,” Rudolph’s first death penalty attorney Richard Jaffe told FOX 46.
“Eric believed that anyone that was participating in abortion, which would include coworkers, the doctor, the guards of the clinic, anyone in the world that was facilitating abortion was the enemy, and at war, and that he thought that it was his responsibility, basically, to play God, and do his part to defend those children.” Jaffe said.
Rudolph made his way through security wearing the backpack and eventually placed it under a bench outside a sound and video production tower inside Centennial Olympic Park. Rudolph reached inside the backpack and wound the timer.
The ticking started, counting down the sixty minutes to detonation.
Rudolph scurried away to a payphone to tell 911 dispatchers about the bomb. The dispatcher disconnected the call. Rudolph’s plan was to notify emergency crews about the bomb so that spectators would be cleared from the blast zone. The plan failed.
At 1:20 a.m., with more than 100 spectators, security guards and law enforcement in the park, the bomb exploded. The blast sent one Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent flying through the air. The nails Rudolph packed inside the pipe nipples ripped through the backpack and flew through the air.
The FBI estimated Rudolph dumped 432 masonry nails into the bomb. Some of those nails and shrapnel from the bomb hit Alice Hawthorne in the head.
The 44-year-old Albany, GA mother died at the scene. More than 100 others were injured in the bombing.
Rudolph got some of what he wanted. The Olympic games were postponed, but only for a single day. As investigators worked to process evidence at the blast site, the games eventually resumed. Meanwhile, Rudolph was back in Murphy plotting his next move.
If it was a fight with the federal government, Eric Robert Rudolph got that. The problem for the FBI and the ATF, they didn’t know anything about Rudolph in the months following the bombing. The government had mistakenly identified a security guard inside the park as a potential suspect.
Richard Jewell, who was later recognized for saving dozens of lives, had spotted Rudolph’s backpack under the bench minutes before the bombing and alerted law enforcement. Jewell worked to clear bystanders from the bomb’s path before it detonated. While the FBI focused on Jewell, Rudolph had slipped back into his life in Murphy, having essentially gotten away with murder.
For a while.
TARGET: ABORTION CLINIC, GAY CLUB
“We will spare no effort to find out who is responsible for this murderous act. We will track them down, we will bring them to justice, we will see that they are punished,” then-President Bill Clinton told reporters in a press conference following the Olympic bombing.
Federal investigators were no closer to identifying Rudolph as a suspect when he built two new bombs and returned to Atlanta in January 1997. January marked another anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark case where the U.S. Supreme Court found a woman’s right to an abortion without “excessive” government restriction was a right provided under the U.S. Constitution.
Rudolph planned to celebrate the anniversary with a second strike in his battle against the government.
“I was planning my own protest for the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Unlike the other protests, mine wouldn’t be ignored. I planned to blow Northside Family Planning off the map.”
Rudolph wrote that he drove the bombs down to Atlanta from Murphy. He placed one bomb on the ground along an exterior wall of the Sandy Springs Professional Building in north Atlanta. The other he placed in the parking lot near where he thought federal agents would gather to investigate the initial blast.
He planned to ambush the responding agents with the timer on the bomb in the parking lot set for one hour after the first bomb exploded.
The first bomb exploded on schedule. The second detonated as reporters and law enforcement gathered at the Northside clinic. The blasts injured six people. No one died.
“At Northside, I wanted to send a lethal message to the entire abortion industry and their protectors in Washington: If you work in an abortion mill or provide aid and protection for abortionists, you may end up looking like one of the 5,000 unborn babies who are mangled by abortionists every single day in this country,” Rudolph wrote.
As Rudolph monitored news reports out of Atlanta, it appeared he had not been identified yet again. He went back to Murphy to plan his next attack.
A little more than a month later, Rudolph returned to Atlanta armed with two more pipe bombs. This time he’d attack the Otherside Lounge on Piedmont Road, a gay nightclub Rudolph picked after seeing an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution listing the club as a “Gay/Lesbian” club.
An attack on the club, Rudolph wrote in his memoir, would be his way to “weigh in on the debate” over a new hate crimes bill making its way through Congress at the time. “The law would include special protections for Sodomites, elevating them into the aristocracy of official victims,” Rudolph wrote.
Rudolph picked the club, seeking out a “sodomite organization” in Atlanta for his bombing. Rudolph detonated the first bomb at 10 p.m. and again placed a second bomb on the property to ambush law enforcement an hour later.
Rudolph was close enough to the first blast to feel the impact of the explosion, writing that it nearly knocked him down. Law enforcement found the second bomb before it exploded, but as bomb technicians worked to disarm it with a robot, Rudolph wrote that it exploded and “The robot was blown to bits.”
BIRMINGHAM: ‘A FATEFUL, TRAGIC DECISION FOR ME’
After the bombings across Atlanta, federal investigators had still not named Eric Robert Rudolph a suspect. In fact, agents would later admit they had nothing to tie him to any of the five bombs detonated in Atlanta between 1996 and 1997 that would have allowed investigators to identify him.
“I’m not saying they couldn’t have done it. But it wouldn’t have been easy, and they knew it,” Jaffe told FOX 46 when asked about whether the feds had the evidence to guarantee a conviction in the Atlanta bombings.
“The evidence was really thin. I mean, it was almost nonexistent,” Jaffe said of the evidence federal prosecutors had on Rudolph in Atlanta. “The possibility of an acquittal existed; the chances of an acquittal were slim.”
But a Jan. 29, 1998 trip to Birmingham brought the lone soldier in a solo battle with the U.S. government into the sites of Washington’s top law enforcers.
In December 1997, Rudolph pulled out a road map to find his next bomb site. He’d designed a new bomb and a way to detonate it using a remote controller. Now he needed to find his next target.
Rudolph wrote in his memoir how he picked Birmingham, “‘I placed my finger on Atlanta and traced it westward. It first stopped on Anniston, Alabama. “Too small,” I thought. Moving my finger farther west, I tapped the map. “Birmingham…that’ll do just fine.'”
“Another statement seemed in order,” Rudolph wrote in his memoir, “The plan was to find another abortion mill and take out its employees.”
He went to the Murphy library and grabbed a phone book off the shelf. After jotting down three addresses, Rudolph hopped in his Nissan pickup truck and headed south for Alabama.
“It felt strange planning the deaths of other human beings. During the next month, the employees of New Woman would go about their lives oblivious to their date with death. Perhaps it was better not knowing. But I knew, and that unsettled me. I never wavered in my conviction, though. To me this was war. As the operators of a facility that slaughtered 10 to 20 unborn babies every day, the employees of New Woman were mass murderers. I saw them as enemy targets. Pushing aside any feelings of pity, I proceeded with a clear conscience.”Eric Rudolph, The Memoirs of a Militant
Rudolph’s three addresses were abortion clinics. The first was a Planned Parenthood office, but Rudolph decided against it because he didn’t have “line-of-sight” between where he wanted to sit to detonate the bomb and where he planned to place it. A second clinic was scrubbed off the list because high bushes surrounding the building prevented Rudolph from being able to see his bomb to detonate it.
He settled on a clinic near the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s campus: New Woman All Women Healthcare Clinic near the corner of 17th Street and 10th Avenue.
Rudolph spent days in Birmingham on recon missions to pick a spot to plant the bomb and from where he’d sit to detonate it. He spent time only yards away from the clinic, watching and noting when protestors, staff and clients came and went.
Rudolph traveled back to Murphy to wait. He figured a month was long enough for “memories to fade and surveillance tapes to loop over,” he wrote. He also spent that month building his next bomb.
He packed it into a tool box he bought from Walmart and disguised it in plastic foliage to make it look like a plant. Rudolph wrote that he did not have confidence in his decision to bomb the Birmingham site.
“This turned out to be a fateful, tragic decision for me,” Rudolph wrote in his memoir.
The night before, Rudolph carried the bomb to the New Woman clinic and planted it in the bushes out front.
When Rudolph arrived the next morning to watch for the perfect time to detonate the bomb, he spotted a clinic nurse and a security guard, who happened to be an off-duty Birmingham Police officer, surveying the bomb. It had already been found.
Rudolph was only 100 yards away near 9th Street – less than a block away.
“Without hesitation, I pulled the book bag around to my chest, unzipped the top, and flipped the switch. Dust and debris slammed against New Woman’s front – BOOM – like an ocean wave crashing into a seawall. The shockwave shoved me backwards; air sucked out of my lungs; a withering pain pierced my ear drums. The security guard was bitten by the blast and thrown several feet away. The abortionist bounced off the door jam and came to rest on the sidewalk below. Glass rained down on the scene,” Rudolph wrote.
“God have mercy on their souls,” Rudolph wrote indicating he knew the damage to the two would be lethal.
The blast killed the guard and permanently injured the nurse. Rudolph turned toward Rast Park and to his Nissan truck he parked near the city’s Vulcan Park. As others walked toward the explosion, a UAB student standing in the Rast Hall dorm building spotted a man walking away from the blast.
The student, who’d grown immediately suspicious of the man, followed him for several blocks. A lawyer eventually joined the student’s pursuit of the man and the pair were able to catch up to the man and his Nissan pickup truck.
After the pursuit, which lasted several city blocks, both men jotted down the license plate number. One wrote the plate information on an empty McDonald’s cup, the other wrote it on an envelope. Both were delivered to law enforcement and both contained the North Carolina license plate number: KND 1117.
Jaffe, Rudolph’s attorney, agreed with Rudolph: his Birmingham trip was his undoing.
“Do you think had Eric Rudolph never came to Birmingham and hit the switch on that bomb, the likelihood that he ever would have been caught; what do you think that would have been,” Chief Investigator Jody Barr asked, “It never would’ve happened,” Jaffe said.
Jaffe pointed to the fact that the discovery in the case and the FBI’s focus on Richard Jewell proves his theory that there was no evidence tying Rudolph to any of the Atlanta bombings. Of course, that all changed in Birmingham when the license plate came back to Eric Rudolph.
“He never would have been caught, in my opinion, if he never did anything again,” Jaffe said.
The two witnesses in Birmingham had delivered federal investigators their first major break in the case. Eric Rudolph was now on the run.
$24 Million Manhunt
“A jolt of adrenaline shot through me like an armor-piercing bullet. I knew then that they had me.
Now it was either fight or flight. I debated whether to run or to fight them in court. I chose the woods,” Rudolph wrote, describing the moment he heard a radio report the morning following the Birmingham bombing.
The report broadcast news that witnesses had spotted Rudolph getting into a grey Nissan truck and driving away.
Rudolph said he immediately loaded supplies he’d need to live as a fugitive in the mountains around Murphy. He made a dash to the Burger King in town and downed what would be his last fast food meal as a free man: a double Whopper with a large order of French fries.
The best estimate the FBI could give at the time was 200 federal agents; all assigned to a task force based near Murphy. The agents spent two years on the hunt for Rudolph. Ground searches with dog teams and heavily armed FBI agents scoured the Appalachian mountains that stood tall in Cherokee County.
The federal government deployed helicopter teams to Cherokee County in the hunt for Rudolph. Some of the choppers were outfitted with heat-sensing radar, which would have increased the chances of spotting Rudolph under the thick canopy that decorates the mountains in the Nantahala National Forest.
The manhunt spanned five years. Estimates of the total manhunt costs at the time of Rudolph’s arrest in 2003 put the price tag at around $24 million.
“That’s a conservative number,” Special Agent Chris Swecker told FOX 46. Swecker, now retired from the FBI, was the Special Agent in Charge for the Charlotte FBI office and led the FBI’s fugitive task force charged with capturing Rudolph.
“We were constantly rolling over a millon-dollar budget for just travel and that was just for maybe two-dozen agents,” Swecker said when asked to estimate the total spent on the manhunt. “It may be much higher than that.”
Rudolph saw the numbers of FBI agents on the ground in Murphy dwindle as the manhunt moved into its second year. He joked that the FBI had given up finding him. When 9/11 hit, the FBI had diverted resources and agents away from Murphy and multiple ongoing domestic terrorism investigations.
The priority on Sept. 12, 2001 and beyond: international terrorism.
“A lot of agents had to be shifted over to work in counterterrorism and counterintelligence matters,” Swecker told FOX 46.
“We just could not sustain that level of expenditure and intensity. But what Louis Freeh, the FBI director, wanted to do; as much as he wanted to catch Eric Rudolph, he also wanted to suppress him. He wanted to make sure he never bombed again,” Swecker said.
The FBI’s game plan was to wait and let Rudolph get himself caught by thinking the feds had moved on from Murphy.
WAS RUDOLPH REALLY ALONE?
When Jeffery Postell arrested Rudolph in May 2003, Rudolph was headed for a dumpster behind the Murphy Save-A-Lot grocery store. Rudolph wrote that he’d frequent that dumpster, and others in Murphy, looking for food to take back to his summer camp.
At that point, he’d been on the run for more than five years following the Birmingham bombing when he heard his name given as the lone suspect in the Atlanta and Birmingham bombings.
Rudolph claimed he lived off the food he killed and gathered in the mountains while on the run. He also stole grain from silos off Airport Road in Andrews, a town just north of Murphy, and stored the grain in containers near his many campsites in the mountains.
He also admitted to stealing vegetables from gardens around town. One of those gardens belonged to Gene Webb.
“People said Rudolph was in your garden,” Webb told FOX 46, “I don’t know if he was or not. He probably was…somebody was stealing.” Webb said he noticed potatoes, corn, and other vegetables were picked from his garden; a three-sided acre of land at the intersection of Airport and Webb Creek Road.
Webb believed Rudolph could’ve easily lived out of gardens for the five years he spent on the run, “A lot of people had gardens back then, just about everybody. But look at the population now it’s over doubled, tripled, houses everywhere,” Webb said, acknowledging doing so today might not be possible.
The first look the public got of Rudolph following the arrest on May 31, 2003 was within a few hours of his capture. Video cameras were rolling when law enforcement officers, holding a handcuffed Rudolph by the arms, walked him down an outside staircase and into a patrol car.
Rudolph had a mustache, but his hair appeared to be recently cut and he had no facial hair other than a stubble beard.
“He certainly did not look like the he had been living on his own for a very long period of time,” Postell told FOX 46, “He had, you know, a little bit of stubble growth on his face, his hair was cut short, almost like a buzz cut.”
Postell still, nearly 20 years later, isn’t convinced someone – or some people – wasn’t helping Rudolph avoid capture, “I think that’s the million-dollar question. And I don’t think anyone has the answer to that,” Postell said.
“I do, however, have an opinion, as everyone else does. I also am from this area. I was born and raised in Cherokee County. This is my home. This is my stomping grounds. And I find it very difficult to grasp that a lone individual can prepare the amount of resources that he had in his camps and in the position and the conditions he had them in, and then live off the land for a total of five years in the climate that this area gets with the four seasons,” Postell said.
“I do think that it’s hard to believe that he would not have had some help along the way,” Postell, now a Lieutenant with the Boston College Police Department, told Barr.
Rudolph detailed stories about stealing vehicles to haul food and supplies to his camps in the mountains during his run. He also admitted to receiving help from a man in Andrews, George Nordmann, who owned a health food store in town and who was identified as CW#5, or cooperating witness #5 in the government’s charging documents against Rudolph.
Nordmann was never charged with helping Rudolph. The memoir details Rudolph’s account of breaking into Nordmann’s home and cooking food, then coming back to borrow an old, broken down pickup truck that belonged to Nordmann to use to haul supplies back to one of Rudolph’s camps.
Rudolph claimed he left Nordmann $500 and a note when he took off in Nordmann’s Datsun truck. Rudolph said he’d made an agreement with Nordmann to wait two days before telling law enforcement he’d seen him.
Rudolph’s memoir indicated Nordmann kept that end of the deal.
“The only person that we could come up with was a fella named George Nordmann, who ran a survivalist store out in the country,” Swecker said when asked about the FBI’s investigation into whether someone harbored Rudolph during his run.
“But nothing beyond the one incident where Rudolph paid him and got help on that one occasion that seemed to be the end of that,” Swecker said.
“I am convinced that he didn’t get help from anywhere. The reason I’m convinced is because as much as people up there sympathize – many people up there sympathize with him – there was a million dollars offered for his capture – or information leading to this capture,” Jaffe said when asked if Rudolph truly survived five years in the mountains.
“When the FBI comes and pressures people as they are supposed to do, to try to get people to help them find a fugitive…” JB: “And tell the truth.” RJ: “And tell the truth. Exactly. And they never identified one person that helped him.”
“That would be too difficult of a secret to keep. So, I am completely convinced that he did this on his own understanding that he would break into cabins, and he did get a little help from now deceased George Nordmann, but that was very, very limited help for one occasion,” Jaffe explained.
“Do you think that a local police officer catching a fugitive eating out of a dumpster is indicative of that person having help,” Barr asked Jaffe. “I don’t. I think that was his help.”
STALKING THE STALKERS
Eric Rudolph spent many days on the run tucked into the mountainsides near three operation centers the FBI opened in Andrews and Murphy. Using binoculars or a rifle scope, he’d watch federal agents – even FBI leadership – come in and out of Cherokee County.
They’d fly into the Andrews-Murphy airport. Rudolph said he’d watch them come and go. He’d watch the chopper pilots who were searching for him refuel their aircraft, then set back out to find him.
They never did.
As the search for Eric Rudolph wore on into its second year, the FBI’s ground force in Murphy had dwindled. The fugitive task force was still actively hunting for Rudolph, but the number of agents in Murphy dropped from 200 in the beginning to only one or two.
That’s according to Rudolph who’d set up camp directly across the street and spent weeks watching the front door of the FBI headquarters in Murphy. The bureau moved into the National Guard Armory. Rudolph was sitting on the ridge right across the four-lane highway watching the agents’ every move.
“I think the story is probably true, because we found the IEDs later, you know, other IEDs up in the general area where he said he watched the command post. He described Todd Letcher – certain characteristics – physical characteristics were accurate. And from his vantage point, he would have been able to look down on what was then the headquarters of the taskforce,” Swecker said.
Rudolph’s writings identified the agents as his enemies. The agents, like the abortion doctors, were just one cog in the machine Rudolph had committed to destroy. The headquarters and his position on the ridge opened the door for Rudolph to accomplish a goal he longed to achieve.
To take the life of a federal agent.
By November 2000, the bomb was assembled; at 40 pounds it contained more explosives than any of the bombs Rudolph built before. Rudolph wrote that he’d watched FBI Special Agent Todd Letcher’s trips into work at the Murphy headquarters. He identified Letcher by a white streak that ran through his hair.
Rudolph compared the white streak to that of a skunk.
In plotting his escape, Rudolph placed multiple booby trapped IEDs along the ridge and other escape routes be believed the feds would surely use to pursue him. Around midnight, Rudolph slipped down from the ridge and headed toward the boxwood planters that lined the walkway leading to the front door of the FBI’s Murphy headquarters.
“I jogged for the entrance, cradling the heavy bomb like a baby. I pushed it between the boxwoods and quickly unraveled the antenna wire and threaded it through the bush nearest the parking lot and tied it off. Within seconds, I was back in the shadows of the gravel driveway, my heart pounding a million beats per
minute,” Rudolph wrote.
Rudolph scurried back across the highway and took his position on the ridge. He’d wait for the sun to rise and for Letcher to show up for work. A sedan arrived the next morning, then Letcher’s blue Chevy Suburban.
“Positioning the transmitter in my lap, I prepared to detonate the bomb. When I pushed the button the
servo would complete the circuit to the detonator. The device would kill both men instantly,” Rudolph wrote.
Letcher and the other man walked up the long concrete walkway toward the door. Rudolph said he’d placed his thumb over the remote controller to kill Letcher and the other man. But, he couldn’t do it.
“I don’t know exactly why I didn’t push the button. Perhaps, after all those days on the Ridge watching Agent Letcher, his humanity began to show through the uniform. I came to know him in a strange sort of way, and I just couldn’t bring myself to kill him,” Rudolph wrote in his memoir.
Todd Letcher is still alive today.
Rudolph wrote that he’d planned to kill Letcher long before that night. When Rudolph first climbed the ridge across from the armory he’d identified the building’s recessed doorway as the “perfect kill zone,” because of the two brick walls lining the walkway.
It was also during his first surveillance trips to the armory when he started humanizing Agent Letcher at the same time he was plotting his death.
“The recessed walls of the entrance would magnify the blast tenfold,” Rudolph theorized in his 2013 memoir.
“’Looks like a nice guy,’” I said off-handedly. ‘Going to be a shame to . . .’ Before the last words
could leave my mouth, something happened – inexplicable, visceral, uncontrollable – and I pulled the
binoculars away from my eyes in horror. Images poured into my mind like water. I pictured this guy’s
mother wiping his runny nose when he was a child; spoon-feeding him in a high chair; then weeping
over his closed casket. I shuddered and turned away from the armory,” Rudolph wrote.
When Rudolph nixed his initial plan to attack the armory he decided to bomb an abortion clinic in Asheville instead. But, the 1967 Chevy truck Rudolph stole to drive to Asheville proved too unreliable to make the two-hour trip from Murphy.
Then, it was back to planning the attack on Letcher and the FBI’s Murphy headquarters; an attack Rudolph – with a flash of compassion – thwarted what would’ve been his chance to take out a federal agent.
“I think that’s one of the most dramatic things that’ve come out of this story since he was arrested. And I think it’s – in a way – it’s a good story. It shows that he has some humanity in him,” Swecker told FOX 46. “But he wasn’t necessarily bloodthirsty, if you will. He originally planted the Olympic Park bomb, to blow away from the crowd and someone had jostled it and pointed it back towards the crowd. So there was some humanity in him, and I think it came out in that story,” Swecker said.
Officer Postell also didn’t know it at the time, but Rudolph also had his eyes on the rookie Murphy policeman.
“He would actually sit at the top of this ridge line and watch and take note of how often, how frequent the patrols will come through,” Postell said pointing out the trail leading to Rudolph’s summer camp that overlooked the Murphy Save-A-Lot.
Rudolph later wrote that he’d use binoculars to watch the store to learn delivery schedules and to watch police patrols to learn when – and how – Murphy police would patrol the back of the store. Rudolph also wrote that he used an extension cord left hanging out of the back door of the store to charge his battery pack in his remote controller used to bomb the Birmingham abortion clinic.
It was the same one he planned to use on Letcher at the headquarters.
RUDOLPH’S LIFE SPARED
Within hours of Jeffrey Postell cuffing Eric Rudolph as the fugitive lay face-down behind the Save-A-Lot, Rudolph was on a plane headed for Birmingham. Rudolph had a date with a federal court judge the next morning.
U.S. Marshals escorted Rudolph across the tarmac at the Andrews-Murphy airport and loaded him into a plane bound for Birmingham. He’d leave Murphy from the same airport where he’d spent so many days stalking FBI agents from the ridges surrounding it.
Rudolph had to know this would be the last time he’d ever see the Appalachians again.
The potential penalty for killing two people, injuring more than 100 others, and detonating the six bombs in two states was almost certain: death.
But, Rudolph had a plan to save his own life. He knew – and so did federal investigators – there was around 250 pounds of dynamite still unaccounted for. Rudolph wrote that he’d broken into Austin Powder, a blasting company in Asheville, and stolen the dynamite.
It’s likely the law enforcement investigation into the theft had an accounting for just how much was stolen.
Rudolph wrote that he’d used those explosives to build the 40-pound bomb intended for the FBI headquarters and used some of the other dynamite sticks to build IEDs. He also wrote that he stockpiled the rest.
On Dec. 11, 2003, federal prosecutors filed notice of the government’s intent to seek the death penalty against Rudolph.
On April 13, 2005, Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty to the charges against him. The court records show Rudolph made a deal with prosecutors. He’d give up the locations of all of the explosives he stored in five separate sites in the mountains if the government would exchange the death penalty for life sentences.
Rudolph and federal prosecutors made the deal. Rudolph would later lead investigators to the sites. Investigators found the 40-pound bomb Rudolph built to kill FBI Agent Todd Letcher.
“Until last week, a part of western North Carolina was literally a hidden minefield, and indeed had we not entered these plea agreements, Eric Rudolph might have ended up killing more people after he was imprisoned or executed than he ever did when he was free,” U.S. Attorney David Nahmias announced at a press conference the day Rudolph pleaded guilty.
“I have decided to deprive the government of its goal of sentencing me to death,” Rudolph wrote in a prepared statement he delivered at his guilty plea hearing.
Rudolph did not express remorse for the bombings and the people he injured. He got close when he detailed how he attempted to call in a warning to Atlanta 911 dispatchers about the bomb, so law enforcement could clear people from Centennial Park, “The result of all this was to produce a disaster — a disaster of my making and for which I do apologize to the victims and their families,” Rudolph said.
“I have no regrets or remorse for my actions that day in January and consider what happened morally justified,” Rudolph wrote in the plea hearing when describing the death of the off-duty police officer and the injuries he caused to the abortion clinic nurse.
“The fact that I have entered an agreement with the government is purely a tactical choice on my part and in no way legitimizes the moral authority of Washington’s government to judge this matter or impute guilt,” Rudolph wrote in his guilty plea.
Despite Rudolph’s violent attempts to end abortion and to turn the federal government back toward the political right, Rudolph’s guilty plea statement did not contain any declarations of victory.
“I formed what I thought was a very strong bond with him and I became very fond of him and I know that that infuriates and offends many people, but it’s just the truth,” Jaffe told FOX 46, “And while I don’t excuse what he did, his actions were atrocious. I found him at its core to have goodness in him. And that’s something that is hard for most people to accept or believe.”
“What do you think is Eric Rudolph’s legacy,” Barr asked Jaffe, “Well, the legacy, of course, is one of destruction. Unfortunately for him it was not effective in terms of the goals that he had in mind for himself, because everything is happening exactly the opposite of what he hoped would happen.”
“He didn’t change a thing?” Barr asked. “No, except that his actions destroyed a lot of lives, including his,” said Jaffe.
Eric Rudolph is serving multiple life sentences in the federal super-maximum security prison in Florence, CO. The prison also houses the Boston Marathon Bomber, a 1993 World Trade Center attacker, Al-Qaeda members, a 9/11 planner, an Osama Bin Laden advisor, The Unabomber, Terry Nichols-a co-conspirator in the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, four convicted spies, and multiple organized crime convicts to include Mexican cartel founder Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.