Memoir of a Manhunt

Birmingham Weekly | April 19, 2005
HUNTING ERIC RUDOLPH: An Insider’s Account of the Five-Year Search for the Olympic Bombing Suspect by Henry Schuster with Charles Stone
Berkley Publishing Group, 374 pages $19.95 Let’s say you’re a news junkie par excellence, and have through dint of sheer willpower and grit managed to read every article printed, and to hear every story broadcast, about the Eric Rudolph case ever since his name burst into headlines shortly after the Birmingham clinic bombing of January 29, 1998. As a result, you might understandably be planning to skip the new book Hunting Eric Rudolph, figuring it to be a quick rehash of things you already know.

That would be your loss.

Not only is this collaboration by a veteran investigative reporter (Schuster) and a veteran law enforcement officer (Stone) rich with the kind of real-life minutiae that never makes it into wire-service stories and TV sound-bites, the narrative also helps place Rudolph’s exceedingly bizarre saga in the larger context of America’s culture war, circa 1990s through the present.

The biggest surprise here, though, is the exceptional quality of the writing. Just the fact that Hunting Eric Rudolph is free of hyperbole and sensationalism makes it a minor miracle among the true-crime genre, whose titles are often so frantically rushed into print that their text has all the substance of cappuccino froth. This book’s solid prose style, by contrast, manages to be both conversational and dramatic at once — which adds up to a gripping read, even though we already know the ending. (Serious researchers will also be glad to see a thorough index and meticulous bibliography.)

But “context” doesn’t necessarily translate into easy answers, and there is much in Schuster’s and Stone’s account that refutes both the public image and (among his supporters) the private mythology of Eric Rudolph as fugitive. Even as headlines about his plea deal typically proclaimed “Abortion Fueled Bomber’s Rage,” the friends and family interviewed by the book’s authors tell a very different story.

Eric’s brother Joel, for example, told investigators early on that Eric, unlike the rest of his family, didn’t have strong feelings about the abortion issue: “We’ve talked about abortion before... He said abortion has been going on since women first started getting pregnant, and it would continue to go on no matter what.” His brother Daniel agreed with Joel’s assessment, telling the FBI that he (Daniel) would be far more likely to bomb an abortion clinic than Eric would.

Likewise, it was Joel who cast doubt on Eric’s involvement with the botched bombing of an Atlanta gay nightclub named “The Otherside Lounge” in February, 1997, in which nobody was injured. Joel pointed out to investigators that his and Eric’s brother Jamie was gay (the first that the FBI knew of this), but that Eric was comfortable with the fact and loved Jamie equally with the rest of the siblings, an account that others verified.

But while homosexuality and abortion were not subjects that got Eric particularly riled up, nearly everyone who knew him reported that there was a long list of subjects that did: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Internal Revenue Service; and the Food and Drug Administration (the Rudolph family apparently believed that their father could have beaten his fatal cancer years earlier if the government had not banned the experimental drug Laetrile).

But apparently Eric reserved a special level of rage for (a) the mainstream news media, and (b) people who were not Caucasian. These obsessions sometimes fused into outbursts, according to his former sister-in-law Deborah Rudolph, Joel’s ex-wife. She described frequent scenes of Eric screaming at the family’s TV set, which he referred to as “the electric Jew.”

Apparently his white-supremacy views were shaped by the Christian Identity (CI) movement, which his mother Patricia (who was, ironically, a former novice nun) gravitated toward in her ongoing search for a religion that meshed with her own ethical beliefs. In the 1980s she went so far as to uproot her family and move them to a small town in Missouri in order to be near a particular CI congregation called the Church of Israel, whose pastor Dan Gayman would later be indicted for his involvement with a right-wing paramilitary group known as “The Order,” which was charged with sedition.

The book describes the Christian Identity movement in a nutshell as “a belief system which maintains that white Europeans or Aryans represent the true chosen people of Yahweh, that they are the real Israelites. Jews are not considered the people of the Bible, but rather the spawn of Satan. CI minions believe the world is on the verge of a final, apocalyptic struggle between these good Aryans and Satan’s evil minions, who include Jews, the federal government, mass media, U.S. banks, and homosexuals.”

By all indications, abortion doesn’t rank any higher on the CI agenda than it supposedly did on Eric’s personal one. But the authors resolve that seeming puzzle with this rather convincing theory proposed by Deborah Rudolph:

“Deborah said that Eric’s calculus about abortion was based more on race than anything else. He felt that if white women continued to get abortions, then pretty soon demographics would take over, and the white race would find itself in the minority. He didn’t oppose abortion, only abortion for whites. And fertility mattered to Eric... Deborah had a daughter by a previous marriage before she hooked up with Joel; but at that point, she was unable to have more children. It was always her impression that Eric saw her as inferior because she couldn’t bear more children and increase not only the Rudolph line, but also the white race.”

As readers might expect from the title Hunting for Eric Rudolph, the most dramatic part of the book is its account of the unprecedented five-year manhunt in the Appalachian wilderness, replete with teams of helicopters, teams of tracking dogs, and hundreds of various law enforcement agents expending shoe leather in the woods.

It’s an engaging tale of lucky breaks, unlucky breaks, near misses, and instances of outright bumbling worthy of the Keystone Kops. It’s safe to say that the book will not be used as a public relations tool by the law enforcement community — least of all the FBI, ATF, and their various sub-task forces, who are often depicted as arrogant turf-fighters attempting to shut out local officers who arguably knew the various locales and their residents better than anyone, and whose boots were already on the ground.

The most crucial, and blatant, law enforcement slip-up was one that could have ended the five-year manhunt before it even began.

When Jack Thompson, a rural county sheriff in North Carolina, was told by the FBI that Rudolph was wanted “only for questioning,” the sheriff quickly rustled up a local postmaster, found a postbox rented by an Eric Rudolph, and followed that lead with a simple phone call to Murphy Power Company, who gave him the address of the trailer on a remote county road where Rudolph paid for electricity. Case solved.

Except that when Sheriff Thompson called the Feds and asked if they wanted him to go arrest Rudolph, they told him to “hold off.” Shouldn’t he at least put some surveillance on the trailer, then? Nope, they told him. Just wait. We’ll handle it.

While the FBI was “handling it,” Eric Rudolph packed up his survival kit, slipped into the woods, and was not seen again by lawmen until more than five years later, on the pre-dawn when he was arrested while sifting through the dumpster of a Save-A-Lot store, not far from where he had disappeared.

Perhaps the most haunting aspect of Schuster’s and Stone’s story, though, is the heroic stature Rudolph assumed in the eyes of so many Americans. He became a “poster boy” to pro-life extremists, the authors report, his name drawing applause when it was mentioned at rallies.

And in the hills of North Carolina where he was hiding, there was a brisk trade in T-shirts with the slogan “Run, Rudolph, Run.” An original song with that same title even made it onto local radio: “The lyrics about a ‘baby killing factory’ and Eric and the lawmen were emblematic of a long Scotch-Irish tradition in the hills,” the authors write, “the same sort that had produced the ballads about Tom Dooley and John Henry over the past 150 years.”

The investigators closest to the case feel certain that Rudolph had help, and a good deal of it, from sympathizers during his years on the run. When captured, one lawman pointed out, Eric’s hair and mustache were closely trimmed, he had no body odor, needed no dental work, and his skin was not at all weathered — hardly qualities you’d expect from a man who’d been living in a cave for half a decade.

Rudolph’s first request, when assigned to a jail cell, was a Bible.

The ominous message that a reader takes away from this complicated story is that while Eric Rudolph is indeed a strange bird, he’s clearly part of a growing flock. And while we might have seen the last of Eric, we may only be seeing the beginning of his kind.

Dale Short’s website is; his e-mail is

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