MURPHY, N.C. — One of the most intense manhunts in the nation ended early Saturday when a rookie police officer on night patrol apprehended Eric Robert Rudolph, accused of the fatal bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and separate bomb attacks at two abortion clinics and a gay nightclub.
Rudolph, 36, was taken into custody about 4 a.m. Saturday while near the garbage bins of a Sav-A-Lot supermarket in Murphy, N.C.
Rudolph's capture was a mundane ending for the most notorious fugitive on the FBI's most wanted list. He had been on the run and likely hiding for the past five years in the mountains and hollows of western North Carolina, eluding heat-seeking helicopters and bloodhounds.
A 21-year-old patrolman with the Murphy Police Department, Jeffrey Postell, thought he had spotted a probable burglar behind the Sav-A-Lot. After the man jumped behind some milk crates to hide, Postell drew his weapon and called for backup. The man wore a stubbly growth of beard and an Army camouflage jacket. He had no ID and gave an alias of Jerry Wilson.
The young police officer "did not have a clue" whom he had apprehended, Postell said at a news conference.
"He was very cooperative and not a bit disrespectful," Postell said. Sean Mathews, a Cherokee County sheriff's deputy who arrived on the scene, was struck by the suspect's resemblance to the man whose face was plastered on wanted posters in rural convenience stores.
At the sheriff's office, Rudolph confessed his real name and expressed relief, law enforcement officials said. His face was visibly thinner than the face on the wanted poster, and the sheriff's department said he wolfed down a breakfast of biscuits and gravy. After fingerprints were matched, the five-year manhunt was over.
Rudolph slipped into hiding Jan. 30, 1998, the day after allegedly bombing an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala., killing an off-duty police officer and maiming a nurse. Authorities linked Rudolph to the unsolved Olympic bombing two years earlier that killed a Georgia mother and injured 111. He was also charged with bombing an Atlanta gay bar that injured five people and an abortion clinic that injured six.
Rudolph is scheduled to appear in court Monday in Asheville, N.C. Justice Department officials are talking with federal prosecutors about which jurisdiction would proceed first with a case.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft applauded the apprehension.
"American law enforcement's unending efforts to capture Eric Robert Rudolph have been rewarded," Ashcroft said in a statement. "Working with law enforcement nationwide, the FBI always gets its man."
But the manhunt for Rudolph cost millions and the trail had grown so cold that some authorities figured he had died in the wilderness from hunger or exposure. Forensic psychologists put together a profile of Rudolph that calculated the number of daily calories he would need to survive. The last official sighting of Rudolph was nearly five years ago, when he took a supply-laden pickup truck from the home of a North Carolina health food store owner he had known. Rudolph left behind cash, but the store owner called police.
Rudolph, a Florida native who worked as a handyman and carpenter, reportedly moved to western North Carolina with his mother in 1981. Experts on hate groups have tied him to the Christian Identity movement, a white supremacist group with an anti-government ideology.
Rudolph's acts of terrorism, however, allegedly began with the most benign of political targets: the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
During a night concert at Centennial Park midway through the Games, a knapsack filled with explosives and flooring nails tore through the crowd, killing Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old mother and cable TV customer service rep from Albany, Ga., and injuring her 14-year-old daughter, Fallon Stubbs. More than 100 others were hurt.
Initially, investigators focused on a part-time security guard, Richard A. Jewell, who was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
In January 1997, 18 months after the explosion rocked the Olympic festivities, two bombs went off outside the Northside Family Planning Service in Sandy Springs, an Atlanta suburb. Six were injured. The next month, an Atlanta gay bar was the target: A bomb detonated at the Otherside Lounge, injuring five people. A second bomb exploded while being handled by a police robot.
The Atlanta bombings remained unsolved. But a year later, in January 1998, a bomb exploded at an abortion clinic in Birmingham. An off-duty police officer, Robert Sanderson, was killed outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Center and a nurse, Emily Lyons, was maimed and blinded.
A witness saw Rudolph walking away from the explosion. A student who lived nearby reportedly jotted down the North Carolina license tags on Rudolph's 1999 Nissan pickup. Within a few weeks, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Investigators focused on everything from the type of roofing nails used in the bombs to the letters sent to news organizations claiming that the violence was the work of the "Army of God."
Rudolph disappeared into the steep ravines of mountain wilderness in western North Carolina. He knew the 530,000 acres of the Nantahala National Forest, having explored them as a teenager. He eluded a multimillion-dollar dragnet that lasted month after month. Locals so deplored the massive presence of federal agents that bumper stickers began to appear with the words, "Run Rudolph Run."
"We walked every hollow and every creek," said Jim Cavanaugh, a lead investigator for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Cavanaugh said he always figured Rudolph was living in a mobile home in the mountains, sleeping on a mattress and watching "Rambo" movies. He did not have a driver's license, and he liked to smoke marijuana, Cavanaugh said, two factors that he expected to eventually lead to Rudolph's apprehension.
Instead, Rudolph was caught looking for food.
"He was purported to be a much-vaunted outdoorsman, this mythical figure, this Jeremiah Johnson," said Cavanaugh. "That's overblown. He's been scavenging Dumpsters."