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Why did Rudolph do it?

Question lingers after plea deal reached

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit, has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those. He is the author of the newly published book, "Hunting Eric Rudolph."

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After five years on the run and two years preparing for a trial, Eric Rudolph agreed to admit his guilt.
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CNN's Kelli Arena reports on the Rudolph plea deal.
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(CNN) -- When Eric Rudolph stood before two federal judges Wednesday and confessed his guilt in a series of bombings in Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, it wasn't the last chapter in this strange story.

Rudolph will go to prison for the rest of his life. That, after all, is the term of his plea agreement with federal prosecutors.

He has already given up five locations where dynamite, bomb components and at least one bomb have been found, identified and destroyed (even though he still apparently has not revealed the location of his main hideout or whether anyone might have helped him when he was on the run).

This case of domestic terrorism has seen four bombing incidents, including the 1996 blast at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park; two deaths; a manhunt that lasted longer than five years; now, at the end of it, a plea bargain from a marijuana-growing white supremacist. What could possibly be left to say?

If I have the chance to interview Rudolph, and I certainly asked many times over the last two years since he was captured, my first question would be -- "Why did you do it?"

That's a question that Emily Lyons, who was badly wounded in the Birmingham abortion clinic bombing, also wants to know.

So does Rudolph's former sister-in-law, Deborah.

For years, she thought Eric was guilty, having known him and his background. But there was always, she said, that tiny voice of doubt in her mind, which was erased when she heard news of Rudolph's plea deal last Friday.

A family matter, mounting scrutiny

Deborah Rudolph (she was married to Eric's brother, Joel) thinks she knows why the man she describes as incredibly arrogant and says hates the federal government took the government's deal of life without parole.

"He wanted to protect his family from further scrutiny."

Deborah had been interviewed by members of the defense team preparing for what might have been the penalty phase of Rudolph's trial.

The legal strategy, she and others were told, would have been to plead for mercy, in the form of a life sentence, by blaming Eric's homicidal tendencies and many hatreds on the upbringing of his mother.

Patricia Rudolph was a former nun who not only left the Roman Catholic Church, but went on what Deborah has called "the search for the true church." She eventually embraced a version of Christian Identity, which is a theological version of white supremacy.

Eric Rudolph was exposed to this, first in North Carolina when his mother moved the family there, then when she took him and his brothers to a Christian Identity compound in Missouri. By ninth grade, he had written a term paper claiming the Holocaust never happened.

Deborah Rudolph believes her former brother-in-law not only flinched at the potential prospect of being put to death for his own beliefs (the exact word she used was too graphic for this column), but also at the possibility of exposing his mother to such treatment at the hands of his own lawyers.

To demonstrate the extremely close ties between Eric and his family, Deborah brought up perhaps the most bizarre incident in this story: how Eric's brother Daniel amputated his hand and videotaped it in protest of the FBI and media attention on his brother.

That was back in 1998, shortly after the longer than five-year manhunt for Eric Rudolph began. Daniel Rudolph's hand was surgically reattached. Later, after divorcing his wife, he moved back in with his mother.

Deborah Rudolph believes Eric just didn't want to revisit any of that history in a public forum as a courtroom.

But, she says, Rudolph is man who always felt he was smarter than anyone else, so she doesn't think he'll be able to resist talking, now that there are no more legal repercussions.

One of Eric Rudolph's lawyers has already said his client looked forward to telling his side of the story.

He can start with why.

Maybe that will help us write the final chapter of this story.

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