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Where's Eric Rudolph?

This sketch of Eric Robert Rudolph was released in July 1998, shortly after he was spotted in Nantahala, North Carolina. As far as authorities know, the Nantahala incident was the last time anyone has seen Rudolph.  

'We're not going to give up,' FBI spokesman says

In this story:

Coming down from the mountains

A loner off in the woods

'You can't see squat'

Trackers on the trail

Speculation on whereabouts


ANDREWS, North Carolina (CNN) -- Despite a place on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and a $1 million reward, bombing suspect Eric Robert Rudolph remains at large three years after a massive manhunt was launched for him in the North Carolina wilderness. The posse of hundreds of federal, state and local law enforcement officers has now dwindled to six investigators who monitor the mountainous Nantahala National Forest.

"We're not going to give up. There are too many victims, too many people hurt," said Patrick Crosby, spokesman for the FBI's Southeast Bomb Task Force, referring to the series of bombings in the Atlanta area and Alabama that Rudolph is charged with committing. "Even if it was one victim, these are serious federal crimes that will be aggressively pursued."


So the question for investigators remains -- where's Eric Rudolph? Three years after he was identified as a suspect, nobody knows what has become of him. Or if they do, they're not telling.

Rudolph is charged in the bombing of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1996 Olympics, a double bombing at a suburban Atlanta abortion clinic in January 1997, the double bombing of a lesbian nightclub in Atlanta a month later and the bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in January 1998. Rudolph's pickup was spotted near the last explosion, triggering the massive manhunt that followed.

Two people were killed in the bombings, and the FBI says that more than 150 were injured, some of them seriously. Emily Lyons, a nurse injured in the Birmingham bombing, lost an eye and still has so much metal in her that refrigerator magnets stick to her legs.

The nature of the bombings accounted for the grim, almost vengeful way the searchers went about hunting for Rudolph.

Two of the bombs -- one at the Atlanta abortion clinic, the other at the nightclub -- were secondary bombs. They were set to go off well after the first bomb, when law enforcement personnel would be on the site investigating.

The second bomb at the nightclub was discovered and detonated without harming anyone. The second bomb at the Atlanta clinic did detonate, and only serendipity kept the injury toll at seven. Someone had parked a car between the second bomb and the rest of the area, and the car absorbed most of the explosion.

Investigators also said they believe that Rudolph actually detonated the Birmingham bomb himself as security guard Robert Sanderson bent over it. Sanderson, an off-duty policeman, was killed.

"This is also a guy who is charged with blowing up a big ... bomb among families and other people at Centennial Olympic Park," said a law enforcement source. A 44-year-old Albany, Georgia, woman, Alice Hawthorne, was killed in that explosion.

Darren Free searches for Rudolph in one of the hundreds of caves in the Nantahala National Forest, where authorities believed Rudolph might have been hiding.  

Coming down from the mountains

As far as authorities know, the last person to have seen Rudolph is George O. Nordmann, the owner of Better Way Health Foods store in Andrews. Nordmann and Rudolph were acquaintances when both lived in Nantahala, a rustic community a dozen miles from Andrews.

On July 7, 1998, according to published reports, Rudolph went to Nordmann's house in Nantahala and asked for his help, giving him a list of supplies he needed. Nordmann said Rudolph told him he had staked out the house for a month before coming down from the mountains.

Rudolph had long hair and a beard and had lost a lot of weight, Nordmann said, and told him, "Look at me, I look like a hippie."

Nordmann also said that Rudolph claimed he was innocent.

Nordmann said he fed Rudolph, a common civility in an area where it would be considered impolite not to offer food and drink. A local deputy was quoted as saying later, "I'd have done the same thing."

Nordmann said he agreed to get the supplies for Rudolph but changed his mind after much prayer and deliberation.

Instead, Nordmann spent the appointed night in his store, and when he got home the following night, discovered that 75 pounds worth of food and supplies and his pickup had been taken. On the table, he found five $100 bills.

Nordmann also found his dog near the creek behind his house dead. According to published accounts, the dog had been poisoned.

Nordmann's soul-searching ended four days after Rudolph's first visit, and he called the police. His truck was later recovered with a note asking that it be returned to Nordmann. Handwriting analysts confirmed that the note had been written by Rudolph.

The FBI released this photo of Rudolph in May 1998, when he was added to its 10 most-wanted list.  

Nordmann has been reluctant to discuss Rudolph, saying, "I'd like to wring his neck, the trouble he's caused me."

Asked if he thought Rudolph had poisoned his dog, he said, "Well, he got sick and I found him dead down by the creek. Can't say he poisoned him, but the way he acted he could have been. He was part chow ... a good dog. And loud. He always let me know when someone was around. He would have been a problem. ..."

Nordmann has been known for expressing extremist beliefs, including comments he made in 1999 to Jim Margolis, an associate producer from CBS' "60 Minutes," that the Holocaust never happened. "Gas chambers in Poland and so on were built by the Russians after the war," Nordmann told Margolis, who was carrying a hidden camera. "The whole thing is a farce."

Rudolph himself had also claimed the Holocaust was fiction, writing a paper on the subject when he was in the ninth grade at Nantahala School, according to media accounts. Asked what he used as a source, he produced a right-wing pamphlet.

Rudolph is believed to have written letters received by the media after the bombings that were signed by a group called the Army of God. The letters claim responsibility for the bombings and are declarations of war against the federal government.

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, which tracks extremist groups, said Rudolph was "definitely a Christian Identity believer and an adherent of Nord Davis."

The Christian Identity movement is a militant, racist and anti-Semitic organization that believes that whites are God's chosen people.

Davis, an ideologue of the far right who died in 1997, built a walled compound in the Nantahala community called Northpoint and wrote propaganda decrying a New World Order that he claimed was controlled by Jews. He advocated killing gays and those who engaged in mixed-race relationships, and in a 1995 interview told the Greensboro, North Carolina, News & Record, "If you are an enemy of God, I am obliged to kill you."

Three of the four bombings in which authorities allege Rudolph was involved. On the left, spectators react after a bomb explodes at Atlanta, Georgia's Centennial Olympic Park in 1996. Center, the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic. On the right, a second bomb explodes in 1997 at a suburban Atlanta abortion clinic.  

'You can't see squat'

Word of Nordmann's meeting with Rudolph reinvigorated searchers. Helicopters flew night and day. Everything from cameras and motion sensors to night-vision goggles was employed. Teams of agents, heavily armed, camouflaged and accompanied by sharpshooters, plunged into the 517,000-acre Nantahala National Forest with a new sense of urgency.

But at the height of the search came a demonstration of just how formidable their task was. The father of an FBI agent involved in the search flew down from Ohio in a small plane to visit his son and crashed in the forest. Despite having an activated locator beacon aboard, neither the plane nor the pilot was found.

"We stopped aerial surveillance up there because you couldn't see anything," said Crosby, the Southeast Bomb Task Force spokesman. "I don't care how many satellites you've got that could see a postage stamp on the moon. With that triple canopy of high pines and hardwoods and incredibly thick brush, you couldn't see a Chevy.

"It's incredibly difficult. You can't see squat, and there are sudden cliffs and rocks and you could get shot or blown up at any time. It's hot as hell during the day and cold as hell at night. And once you're in the woods, all bets are off. This is a guy who plants bombs and in Birmingham watched it go off. And now you're on his turf."

A loner off in the woods

Rudolph was born in Florida in September 1966 and moved to Nantahala from the Miami area in 1981 with his mother, Patricia, an older brother and sister and two younger brothers. His father Robert, an airline mechanic, had died earlier that same year of cancer.

Rudolph attended Nantahala School during the ninth grade but dropped out and was homeschooled thereafter. After receiving a General Equivalency Diploma, he attended Western Carolina University for two semesters before enlisting in the Army in August 1987.

He served with the 101st Airborne Division in Kentucky but was discharged after a year and a half, reportedly for smoking marijuana. Rudolph returned to Nantahala, where he took up carpentry with his older brother, Daniel, and reportedly was an excellent craftsman.

(Daniel Rudolph added a bizarre twist to the story in March 1998 when he went into his garage near Charleston, South Carolina, and turned on a video camera and a circular saw. "This is for the FBI and media," he said to the camera, then thrust his left arm into the saw, cutting off his hand. The hand was later surgically reattached.)

Nantahala, North Carolina, resident George Nordmann talked with Rudolph in July 1998, when the fugitive showed up at Nordmann's door asking to buy supplies.  

Although Rudolph had lived in the area for the better part of 16 years, he was not well-known. Jim Dailey, then the mayor of Andrews, said in June 2000 that "Rudolph could probably come to town and the average citizen wouldn't know him."

By all accounts, Rudolph was a loner who spent much of his time in the woods, in one case setting off for an extended stay in snow-covered woods and taking only a poncho to protect him from the weather.

Darren Free, an outdoorsman who assisted investigators during the more active phase of the manhunt, chanced upon Rudolph in the woods several years ago, long before he became one of the world's most famous fugitives.

Rudolph was friendly and polite and gave Free a beer. He also spoke enthusiastically of the caves he had explored, a passion that was documented in a photograph acquired by investigators. It shows the teen-age Rudolph grinning widely as he rappels into a cave.

"He likes caves," Free said. "He feels at home in 'em. Besides, there were nitrates on his pants when he used the commode at Nordmann's. That comes from mines. There are more mines than caves up there, and we know he's been in a hole. But which one?"

Many caves have a year-round temperature of 60 degrees, plentiful fresh water and fissures that would dissipate smoke from a fire, making them perfect for long-term, undetected habitation. Given his long absences from home, investigators suspect that Rudolph probably equipped more than one cave with food, fuel, water, bedding and even such niceties as a generator.

But, indeed, which caves or mines? Free estimates there are more than 1,000 caves and abandoned mines in the area, and only a fraction of them have been searched. But he also thinks that Rudolph may have inadvertently revealed the kind of cave he was hiding in when Nordmann asked where he was living.

Rudolph replied, "Where no man or dog will ever find me," according to Nordmann.

Free, whom federal agents hired for his caving expertise, said he thinks Rudolph is living in a cave that can only be reached by water. "He told me about caves that you have to swim to get into," Free said. "I think that's where he is."

An aerial view of the mountains where authorities believe Rudolph was hiding. The thick tree cover made aerial surveillance difficult.  

Trackers on the trail

Tom Brown, a nationally known tracker, instructor and the author of numerous books on wilderness living, takes issue with the contention that no man or dog could ever find Rudolph.

"Wrong," said Brown. "There's no such thing. You're gonna leave tracks. I don't care whether you're walking across a cement floor or pathless woods, you will leave tracks."

Brown said that even those who know such techniques as counter-tracking -- walking in streams, climbing trees and dropping down to leave false trails, changing diet, traveling on ridges -- can be found.

"It's a war of the titans," Brown said. "For every evasive maneuver someone takes, you know the counter-maneuvers."

The best way to catch Rudolph, Brown said, would have been to "send teams of people to live in the area almost as undetected as Rudolph is doing. And sooner or later, he is going to make a mistake and these people will pick him up."

Jerry Wolfe, a Cherokee Indian knowledgeable in Indian lore and an employee at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, suggested the same approach.

"They made a big mistake by letting the world know they were going after him," Wolfe said. "They broadcast it and showed it on the tube. ... You have to go quietly and be very observant and send only a couple of men, not a whole army.

"If you're on top of a ridge, you can listen and hear down at the bottom if anything's coming up. Even if they're talking real low, you can hear all the way to the top. Sound carries up. ... You have to be real skillful to hunt a man down in the Smokies and Nantahala. Out there, you can hear everything."

Brown, who learned to track from a Lipan Apache from northern Mexico named Stalking Wolf, sent two instructors from his school to help the task force at no charge. But the task force did not take them up on their offer.

"It wasn't surprising," said Brown, who often trains military and law enforcement personnel. "There's a politics issue I don't want to get involved in."

A task force spokesman said he did not know the specifics but that it would have been counterproductive to bring in strangers when speed, familiarity and coordination were paramount.

Brown said that 15 years ago he trained two of the men who were involved in the manhunt and sympathizes with their plight.

"I'm sure they did everything at their disposal," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of times searchers go into an area and they have no skill in tracking, and they destroy the heck out of a trail. I'd be willing to wager that if the government trackers and guys I trained got there before the mass amount of searching, they could have followed him."

Media reports indicate that, indeed, by the time trackers reached Nordmann's pickup, which was found in a Nantahala campground, the trail had been badly contaminated.

Darren Free shows searchers a tight spot in a cave. The Nantahala National Forest is apparently filled with hiding places for a person who doesn't want to be found.  

Speculation on whereabouts

In January 1999, an intruder broke into a home in the Nantahala community, took a shower, shaved and made off with a supply of toilet paper. If investigators have identified Rudolph as the culprit, they have not confirmed. Nevertheless, it sounds like something someone who had been living in a cave might do.

"We've had a jillion break-ins," Crosby said. "There are cabins in that area that are used once a year by rich people from Florida. There is not one (break-in) that has been publicly identified as definitely being (Rudolph)."

Although officials have said there is no indication that Rudolph is getting help, many believe otherwise. There are a number of anti-government and militia groups in North Carolina, and while they are in the minority, residents of this part of the state may be more inclined to distrust government than people are elsewhere.

"If he's in the area, somebody's got to be taking care of him, or he's in such a well-supplied bunker that he's not needing to come out for anything," said Brown. "The other possibility is he's out of the area completely."

Others speculate that he may no longer be alive.

In December 1999, John Magaw, retiring director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said he thought Rudolph was dead.

A group of searchers examines a map before venturing into the Nantahala National Forest during attempts to track down Rudolph.  

Crosby of the FBI's Southeast Bomb Task Force counters. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but the task force can't presume anything. It's possible to live a long time in those caves."

Free said he thinks Rudolph is alive.

"I feel like he's up there," he said. "He's in the woods, dead or alive, and I think he's alive. It's a big puzzle, but Eric knows the woods very well."

While Rudolph remains elusive, a handful of agents is rotated in and out of an office in a National Guard Armory 10 miles away from Andrews in the town of Murphy. Meanwhile the rest of the task force continues its investigation in Atlanta.

The government's response to charges that the search has been expensive, if not wasteful, has been, "How do you put value on a human life?" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in August 2000 that $24.6 million had been spent on the search -- and those numbers were incomplete.

Whatever Rudolph's fate, search leaders have noted that since the suspect has been on the run, there have been no more bombings.

It took 18 years to capture the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, and that involved luck. But if Rudolph is alive, the authorities believe they will catch him, too.

FBI scales back search for suspected serial bomber
March 22, 1999
Rudolph link not ruled out in weekend bombing
March 15, 1999
Birmingham clinic bomb set off by remote control, agents say
January 29, 1999
Cave expert helps in Rudolph search
January 28, 1999
Bullet grazes agent at Rudolph command post
November 12, 1998
Rudolph charged in Olympic bombing
October 14, 1998

FBI Major Cases: Eric Rudolph
FBI Ten Most Wanted: Eric Rudolph

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