FBI usually does get its man, even if tardily
Saturday's capture of Eric Rudolph offers a lens on the tools - and twists - of manhunts.
Just about all of them get caught ... eventually. That may be a central lesson in Saturday's capture of FBI fugitive Eric Rudolph, suspected of masterminding four bombings - including the 1996 Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta - that killed two and injured more than 100.Skip to next paragraph
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Sometimes it's a mug shot or an appearance on "America's Most Wanted" that does the job. Sometimes it's a suspect's slip-up - as when David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer, was caught after getting a parking ticket in New York City in 1977. And sometimes, as happened with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, it's a family member or acquaintance who proffers the crucial clue.
One way or another, though, authorities tend to nab their culprits. In this case, it wasn't the vaunted FBI but a bit of serendip-ity and a rookie deputy who used to be a Wal-Mart security guard. And it wasn't just Rudolph's wiles that kept him out of reach, but a mountain culture that may have helped him disappear - taunting authorities with bumper stickers praising him as an "escape artist" and urging, "Run, Rudolph, Run."
Of the 100 people on the FBI's most-wanted list over the past decade, only a handful have eluded capture. And if history holds up, many other high-profile fugitives may eventually be captured - from James "Whitey" Bulger to Osama bin Laden.
This time, after five years of searches with howling bloodhounds and high-tech tools, the survivalist credited with Houdini-like escape skills was found in a dark alley behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store in the small mountain town of Murphy, N.C.
At 3:27 a.m. on Saturday, Officer Jeffrey Scott Postell spotted a man squatting in the alley. The man scrambled into a bin of milk cartons, where Mr. Postell, gun drawn, apprehended him. Rudolph reportedly did not put up a fight, accepting his arrest with almost a sense of relief.
"Usually people get tripped up not because of great investigative work but because they do something stupid," says Tod Burke, a former forensics investigator who's now a professor at Radford University in Radford, Va.
Indeed, suggests Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, Md., the "cult of law-enforcement cheerleading" that often surrounds the FBI is sometimes unwarranted.
The Army veteran had apparently lost weight, but had clean-cut hair and light stubble. He looked much like the FBI most-wanted pictures. Officer Sean Matthews, who first recognized Rudolph, says he was familiar with those images, which were "plastered all over the place."
To be sure, many high-profile fugitives are still on the lam, including alleged police killer Charles Eugene Webb, who's eluded capture for nearly 25 years. And those who evade capture often do so by relying on the sympathies of a surrounding community. Observers say that Mr. bin Laden, for instance, may have allies among Pakistani and Afghani tribal leaders who are sheltering him in a lawless border region. Former Bosnian leaders - and war-crime suspects - Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic also have many sympathizers in Serbian enclaves near Sarajevo.
Sometimes, of course, those support networks disintegrate. For years, "Carlos the Jackal" relied on sympathy from Eastern European governments, as well as regimes in Syria and Sudan. But the end of the cold war and changing Arab politics ended that support, and he was captured in 1994. Likewise, when Yugslavia's political mood shifted in 2000, former president Slobodan Milosevic was shipped to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes.
One reason Mr. Rudolph may have been able to hide out so long is the strong antigovernment sentiment in the rugged moonshine country of North Carolina's Smoky Mountains. It was that antipathy toward the feds that long ago led Scots-Irish settlers to form remote villages and fight every effort to tax them. While most residents don't share Rudolph's embrace of violent means, many sympathize with his hard-line Christian views and hatred of gays and abortion.