How did Eric Rudolph survive?
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With or without aid, he may have taken advantage of sleepy rhythms in a town "used to routines," says Wanda Stalcup, director of the Cherokee County Museum. While plenty of campers come through, she says, few would have trudged over the Appalachian Highway on a cowpath and climbed the hill to Rudolph's camp. Most likely, experts surmise, the former carpenter slept during the day and scavenged at night. "He became a nocturnal being," says Reeve.Skip to next paragraph
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Above all, he was a local boy who knew how to act in a changing mountain culture, where Toyota-driving kayakers live next to bearded mountain men and trading posts. Many thought he was long gone. "I might've seen him a hundred times. I wouldn't know him from Adam," says Charles Franklin, a life-long valley resident mowing a park near Rudolph's camp on Fires Creek.
Mr. Franklin - like many locals - has scant sympathy for Rudolph's alleged misdeeds, which include bombing Centennial Park, a gay nightclub, and an abortion clinic - killing two and injuring over 100.
Rudolph was aligned with the radical Christian Identity movement, which posits that Jews and blacks are "polluting" America. But others trace his anger to his father's death - and the government's failure to approve a cancer drug that Rudolph reportedly believes could have saved him.
People here knew Rudolph, in his younger days, as a quiet, well-mannered young man who lived with his mom, two brothers, and sister near Natahala Gorge. Those who hired him as a carpenter recall seeing him study the Bible during breaks, and some say he volunteered at a senior citizens' home on weekends. He also dabbled in drinking, with a twist: Caught for drunk driving in his 20s, he returned the next day to thank the officer who arrested him.
But while he might have gleaned survival skills from fellow Christian Identity adherents in the mountains, some here insist he shared little with original settlers and the Indian tribes that found bounty in these temperate crags and valleys.
"Everybody's making him out to be some kind of Daniel Boone, but all he did was grow some dope up in the mountains," says a bearded hunter whittling cedar backscratchers on the stoop of Mason's Bait & Tackle. "People blame the FBI, which they say couldn't track a gut-shot buffalo through six feet of snow."
Law-enforcement experts say the FBI deserves credit for flooding the media with pictures and publicizing Rudolph's alleged misdeeds. Still, the FBI itself may have been a reason why some here who nurse an old suspicion of the federal government looked the other way - even with a $1 million reward. "People here don't believe in killing, but there's lots of people who believe he may not have done it," says Harold Helton, owner of H&H Sports in Murphy.
Those who study how extremist movements integrate themselves into communities say Cherokee County, along with northern Idaho, is one of a few places in the country where a fugitive can find sympathy in eluding the long arm of Washington.
In fact, a few months before Rudolph was captured, police found militia leader Steve Anderson, former host of shortwave radio show "The Militia Hour," holed up in Cherokee County - three years after he allegedly shot at a Kentucky sheriff's deputy.
"He and Eric Rudolph were, in essence, neighbors," says Mark Pitcavage, national director of Fact Finding for the Anti-Defamation League. "It's an example of committed extremists being able to stay in western North Carolina for quite a long time, clearly with the help of somebody."
But the allure of living on the outskirts of society - albeit a society he rejected - may have worn thin. Many suggest that, after five years in the woods, Rudolph got lonely and basically gave himself up. True survivalism - total severance from society - might, at any rate, have eluded a man dogged by his past. "Being a fugitive would certainly cramp your style," says Reeve.