How did Eric Rudolph survive?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

Recommended: Wilma Rudolph: 10 quotes from the athlete on her birthday

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.

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.

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.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...