Eric Rudolph liked to think of himself as a great survivalist. And for more than five years, he managed to outfox a $24 million manhunt that included a $1 million bounty. The only alleged domestic terrorist on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitive list, Rudolph was a suspect in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta and bombings at a gay nightclub and an office complex that housed an abortion clinic, both in Atlanta, and at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala. His skills failed him early Saturday as police in the tiny mountain town of Murphy, N.C., got their man.
A latter-day version of North Carolina's legendary hermits and hunters, Rudolph disappeared in early 1998, shortly after the FBI received a tip that he might be the Birmingham bomber. He had fled his trailer, leaving the lights on, the door open and the air conditioning running and taking a month's worth of food, including raisins, green beans, tuna and trail mix. More than 200 federal agents fanned out across a 500,000-acre swath of North Carolina's craggy peaks, caves and snake-infested underbrush. Helicopters with infrared scopes scoured the land; listening posts and cameras were set up. Yet by mid-2000 the feds had largely dispersed.
On Saturday the authorities got lucky. In the early morning hours, rookie cop Jeff Postell spotted a thin man in an alley behind the Save-A-Lot Food store in Murphy. The man, relatively clean-cut and wearing a camouflage jacket and sneakers, dashed behind a stack of milk crates. "He was very cooperative, not a bit disrespectful," says Postell, 21, who arrested him. Another officer called to the scene recognized Rudolph.
Since he didn't look as if he had stumbled out of a cave, investigators believe Rudolph must have received help over the years. "If he's been living in a mobile home, you'd assume quite a few people knew he was there," says Ronald Baughn, a retired federal law-enforcement agent who helped investigate the Atlanta and Birmingham bombings. Indeed, Rudolph had become a local folk hero. In Murphy, T shirts and coffee mugs appeared saying RUN RUDOLPH, RUN.
Rudolph did epitomize the modern militiaman. After his father died in 1981, his mother moved the family from Florida to rural Nantahala, N.C. When she enrolled Eric and his siblings in school, she refused to give their Social Security numbers, fearing the government could track them. She introduced them to several churches that followed "Christian Identity," a rabidly anti-Semitic philosophy; in ninth grade, Eric wrote an essay denying that the Holocaust took place.
A high school dropout, Eric spent a great deal of time in the Nantahala National Forest and, according to a CNN report, learned to hunt and fish, studied herbal medicine and fashioned himself as an army survivalist. For cash, he allegedly became a backwoods pot farmer and enjoyed the fruits of his work, getting stoned and watching Cheech & Chong movies. He joined the Army in 1987 and was discharged 18 months later; investigators think he may have learned about firearms and explosives while stationed in Fort Benning, Ga. Two months before the Olympics bombing in Atlanta, he sold his childhood home for $65,000. The buyers discovered an underground hiding space in it; Rudolph had dubbed it "the root cellar."