Ten years have passed, but it remains one of the most anticlimactic arrests in U.S. history.
On May 31, 2003, Eric Robert Rudolph, the target of the largest federal manhunt other than the search for Osama bin Laden, was felled by a rookie police officer who caught the domestic terrorist foraging for food in a supermarket dumpster.
The long-sought bust happened in Murphy, N.C., where Rudolph had holed up in nearby mountain camps for most of his five years on the run. The FBI and other law agencies spent $24 million trying to catch him after he was identified as the main suspect in a series of bombings.
Rudolph, a right-wing militant driven by his hatred of abortion and homosexuality, ultimately plead guilty to a series of attacks including the bombings of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic festivities, an abortion clinic and lesbian bar in the same city, and an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala.
Along the way, Rudolph acknowledged his role in killing two people and injuring more than 100.
An unexpected arrest
Rudolph was born in Florida, but spent most of his life in Western North Carolina, where his family moved when he was a teenager. At the time of his arrest, he was 36.
The fugitive’s arrest capped years of speculation about his whereabouts. In 1998, after he was seen fleeing the scene of the Birmingham bombing, the FBI pronounced Rudolph one of its most-wanted criminals. A federal task force sent scores of searchers into Cherokee County, but many observers wondered if Rudolph had fled to somewhere far from home.
In fact, as Rudolph would later explain in a series of writings, he’d been in the Murphy area during his entire time on the lam. He hid in makeshift camps and foraged supplies from trash dumps and local businesses and residences. Several times, he explained, he was nearly caught by local authorities.
His arrest was detailed by Maryanne Vollers in her 2006 book, “Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph — Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw.” She recounted how Jeff Postell, then a 21-year-old Murphy police officer, happened upon Rudolph behind a Sav-A-Lot grocery store at 3:30 a.m., while on a routine patrol.
At the time, Rudolph “seemed calm and cooperative,” Vollers recounted. “He said his name was Jerry Wilson … but he had no identification on him.” He claimed to be a homeless man from Ohio.
But at the Cherokee County jail, later that morning, other officers came to suspect that “Jerry Wilson” was someone else — someone who looked like the suspect on the “Wanted” posters.
When pressed, the man admitted: “I’m Eric Robert Rudolph. You got me.”
Rudolph in captivity
Rudolph has been in jails and prisons ever since. In 2005, he made a plea deal with federal prosecutors, admitting to the bombings and agreeing to reveal the locations of his remaining dynamite stashes. Under the deal, he was spared the death penalty and given four consecutive life sentences.
While his time on the run in WNC has become a fading memory, Rudolph continues to surface in the news from time to time. Early this year, for example, he self-published a memoir, “Between the Lines of Drift: The Memoirs of a Militant.” But he suspended sales of the book when it became apparent that all proceeds from it would go toward paying the more than $1 million in restitution that he owes some of his surviving victims.
Since the sentencing, Rudolph has been incarcerated at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Florence, Colo., where he is scheduled to live out the remainder of his life.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s press release about Rudolph’s arrest.
- “The Pursuit and Capture of Eric Rudolph,” a two-part interview with FBI executive Chris Swecker, who headed our Charlotte office when the arrest was made. Part one. Part two.