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How did Eric Rudolph survive?

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2003


He may have prayed for an apocalyptic race war, but in the end Eric Rudolph was just another neighbor - quiet, unobtrusive, slightly strange.

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For months, maybe years, the fugitive hid near a small valley of brick houses and trailers, leading a life so reclusive he was nearly invisible - though neighbors suggest it wasn't just the chipmunks stealing all that squash from their gardens.

"In retrospect, it doesn't bother me," says Mary Pickens, who lives nearby. "He hadn't ever hurt anyone around here."

Since Mr. Rudolph's capture by a rookie cop on Saturday, this mountain town is coming to grips with the ghost in its midst, wondering how the alleged terrorist went undetected - and whether he was helped by some of their own.

Rudolph, painted by some as a modern Daniel Boone, apparently needed them. While evading a dogged five-year manhunt, he clung to the fringes of society in a neat ridge-top camp only 200 yards from two strip malls and the high school - and a half-mile from Murphy's blue-marble courthouse. In winter, he could likely see the town from his camp; in summer, he could have heard the roar of trucks on the Appalachian Highway.

Instead of retreating into the deep mountains or urban anonymity, he stayed in a "comfort zone" at the edge of society. Experts say that choice shows Rudolph's limits as a survivalist, but also a distaste for total isolation - and, perhaps, a need to stay close to a network of conspirators.

"I don't believe he was a good survivalist," says Kevin Reeve, director of the Tom Brown Tracking School in Asbury, N.J., who's studied the Rudolph case. "The analogy is of a scuba diver who's fine until his oxygen supply runs out - and then he has to come up for air." A real survivalist, says Mr. Reeve, would have taken off up through the Great Smokies.

Instead, Rudolph, with his "Regular Joe" looks, crossed a few ridges from Natahala Gorge, where the FBI found his truck five years ago, and planted himself in Murphy, a community that was changing from a close-knit town of jean-factory and saw-mill workers to a bustling retirement destination for Floridians.

Murphy may have been a logical choice for Rudolph's Butch-and-Sundance hideaway: rivers flush with bass and trout, lots of Dumpsters when the fish weren't biting, some sympathetic locals, and enough new residents so he wouldn't stick out as long as he stayed neat and nonchalant. His friendliness may have helped. Reports suggest that people spotted him - but "wanted" posters apparently didn't spring to mind.

Rudolph also might have known how politics ran in this mountain town. Some here may have shared his sentiments - at least enough to turn the other way. Even after his capture, the story is greeted as half scandal, half legend. At the Daily Grind coffee shop, women served up "Captured Cappuccinos" this weekend, and a sign outside town read: "Pray for Eric Rudolph." After his arrest, Rudolph signed autographs of his "wanted" posters for sheriff's deputies.

"I'd like to say he was or he wasn't [helped]," says Officer Jeff Postell, the 21-year-old former Wal-Mart security guard who caught Rudolph behind the Save-A-Lot market early Saturday. "But I don't know."

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Rudolph had skills, strong beliefs, and perhaps a small cadre of friends. At his camp he left behind a cache of pilfered bananas, onions, and tomatoes, and a pile of firewood. Small footpaths led into the mountains and to his secondary camp - what survivalists call the "castle keep," a refuge should the full-scale search resume.