Art Harris: The Hunt for Eric Rudolph
Art Harris, CNN's national investigative correspondent, joined the CNN.com chat room on the 5th anniversary of Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park bombing to discuss the search for Eric Rudolph.
CNN: How has the search for Eric Rudolph changed?
HARRIS: In the early days of the hunt in North Carolina -- when they learned his name in 1998 after the Birmingham woman's clinic bombing -- there were hundreds of federal agents, state and local law enforcement in army fatigues and basically armed to the teeth, radio headsets, automatic and semi-automatic rifles, teams of bloodhounds, and high-tech helicopters with infra-red radar. But all the radar picked up were animals and other people, never Rudolph. Now here we are, almost three years later, and the investigation has cost about 20 million dollars, and the mass of troops is gone because there are no hard leads.
So, the FBI has changed tactics, and is keeping just a couple of agents in the area who are trying to turn his old friends into informants. We found and filmed two agents in the driveway of one of his oldest friends, and they appeared very upset as we turned on our cameras, and refused to drive back down the driveway and leave until we turned them off. We are not, of course, revealing the friend's name, because any cooperation with federal agents, people in the area tell me, could subject old friends like him to some sort of reprisal, as the agents dangle the million-dollar reward for information leading to his capture in front of such folks. In addition, the FBI is paying a handful of retired federal employees in the area, from the U.S. Forest Service or with outdoor experience, to be their eyes and ears. Sometimes camping in the woods, walking the trails, and looking for any signs he is nearby.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that Rudolph is getting help from sympathetic supporters?
HARRIS: Great question. There are many people in the area who, in the early days, resented such a massive invasion, some would call it, of law enforcement. Helicopters flew over Wednesday night church services, disrupting sermons and hymns, and normally easy roads to travel were clogged by police cars ferrying troops back and forth. So, some in the community initially began to cheer him on as some sort of hero. Bumper stickers said "Run, Eric, Run" or another one I saw that said "98 US Hide and Seek Champion." Add to this hand-me-down hostility in many families from the days when the revenue agents busted moonshine stills in the area. So, while there may be still some lingering sympathies, there's no evidence anyone is helping him, but one agent told me he believes one person is giving him some sort of aid, and that's why they're trying to stay in close touch with anyone who knew him.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there any evidence that Rudolph is even still in the country?
HARRIS: If you watch our special Sunday night, you'll see for the first time some amateur home video that was taken by the son of the family that bought his house. It shows his so-called secret room that he dug out in the basement, and where investigators tell me he bred, grew, and then sold high grade marijuana, as well as growing much more in the Nantahala National Forest. One of his former relatives tells me he made at least $60,000 a year harvesting and selling it, and pocketed thousands more when he did sell his family's home just months before the first bombing in Atlanta. So, he has the means to go out of the country, and according to investigators and people who knew him has before -- to Amsterdam to buy, then smuggle back, special seeds to grow potent marijuana -- and at least one other trip to Germany with family members.
One relative believes he in the Netherlands or Germany... saying Rudolph loved Germany and German culture and Adolph Hitler, from his extremist views of white separatism from studying Christian Identity material. So this relative believes he is in Holland or Germany. However, agents say that circumstantial evidence over the last few years suggest he is still in the place where he feels most comfortable: the woods and forests of his childhood. Investigators have dug up garbage like cans of meat that he bought from a grocery store just before he fled, and have linked that back to Eric, they tell me, by forensics, and in some cases, receipts for the items he buried to try to cover his tracks.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What is the terrain like where Rudolph is?
HARRIS: It is very mountainous. I walked the trails and explored a couple of caves with a cave expert who taught agents how to safely search abandoned mines and caves. There are between 400 and 1000 caves, some mapped, many unmapped, in the area, and a cave opening, as you walk the path, could be a couple of feet away and you wouldn't notice it because the rhododendron is so thick, especially in the summer. Unless you stay on trails like the Appalachian Trail or other paths, it is virtually impossible to climb through the forest full of brush and vines and leaves and rocks at more than a snail's pace.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there a place people can go on the web to see a sketch or a picture of Eric Rudolph?
HARRIS: In fact, you can do better than that. You can watch Sunday night, and see him in a red T-shirt, showing his house, and hear his voice in our special. It's a tape that only CNN has. But if you want more than that, you can see his wanted poster on the FBI Web site, which we have linked to.
CNN: What needs to happen for Rudolph to be found?
HARRIS: The FBI would like to know that. There has to be some sort of sighting, if he's alive. Few people can believe that if anyone has seen him or knows where he is, they would not turn him in for a million dollars, but as one local waitress told me, if anyone tried to claim it, "they wouldn't live long enough to claim it. There's some pretty mean people around here." I think she was exaggerating. That's a lot of money.
I think that's why some believe he may be dead, possibly from poison gas that can be released if you accidentally step into a puddle in some of the abandoned mines. Along with my camera crew, I was warned by our cave guide to run for the exit, if we saw his [our guide's] body start to fall. These puddles form from rainwater leaching out the residue from old explosives used to blast these old mines, and if you step in one, we were told, and released this gas, you're dead before your body hits the ground. So, of course he could be dead somewhere, and we wouldn't know that, unless someone found the hideout and his body.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How would you compare America's perception of Eric Rudolph compared to say an Arab terrorist?
HARRIS: Well, those types have been on the FBI most wanted list, but there is a difference often between a domestic terrorist and an international terrorist. Many suspected and convicted international terrorists are backed by a much larger organization, philosophically and financially, and to them it's a jihad, or holy war against the so-called infidels, represented by the American government. In the case of domestic terror, from Timothy McVeigh to so-called abortion bombers to people like alleged serial bomber Eric Rudolph, these are often lone individuals not linked to any grand scheme but their own twisted, and often tragic, need to lash out in the name of their own personal ideology, often right-wing extremism. And they see themselves according to many profilers as needing to bring down or send a message to the "corrupt system."
CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
HARRIS: Some people might wonder why the FBI believes it has such a good case against him, and sources tell us that the signature in all the bombs are similar -- metal plating in two bombs, dynamite in the last three bombings. They believe Rudolph stole it after setting off the first bomb in 1996 in Atlanta. The Atlanta bomb contained smokeless powder. But the FBI found, sources tell us, the man they say Rudolph bought it from at a gun show in Nashville. Add to that the fact that eyewitnesses told police in Birmingham they saw him fleeing in a blue truck with a license tag they wrote down, and the FBI used to track him down. And, when they got to his trailer the next day, he'd gone.
Friends have told investigators he'd been planning to leave for some time, and law enforcement says he has perhaps many hideouts in the woods, and moves from place to place. Cabin break-ins in the area suggest the burglar was Rudolph, the police tell CNN, because valuable items like TV sets were left, and only men's underwear about his size, and toothpaste and soap were taken -- items a fugitive can't buy from raccoons in the woods.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today.
HARRIS: Thanks for such great questions, and we hope you'll tune in Sunday night to go behind the scenes and into the vast forest of Western North Carolina, where the FBI believes Rudolph is still hiding. We look forward to your feedback, and hope you enjoy the show.
Art Harris joined the chat room via telephone from Atlanta, GA and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Friday, July 27, 2001 at 2 p.m. EDT.
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