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.
RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.
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.
As Rudolph continued to elude the police, he become a folk hero for many locals, and the fact that he was clean-cut at the time of his arrest may indicate he'd received some aid. The FBI has not ruled out bringing charges against anyone who sheltered him.
Murphy is a town of 1,568 people, rimmed by the gentle slopes of the Smoky Mountains. Rudolph may have been living nearby for years. Police believe they've located his campsite on the east side of Will Scott Mountain near Cherokee High School - just a quarter of a mile from the home of former Cherokee County Sheriff Jack Thompson, who told the Asheville Citizen-Times with a laugh: "He's probably been eating out of my garden."
A footpath used by high school students leads from the school to Valley River, 200 yards from the Valley Village shopping center where Rudolph was apprehended.
"Mountain folk take care of mountain folk," says Jack Allen Powell, a former IRS "revenuer" who spent his career putting axes through moonshine stills all through Appalachia. "Old folk still hanging around, moonshiners, farmers, and people like that, may have some feeling for him, and there's a real possibility that they did aid and assist him."
When Rudolph was 13, his father died - a loss that, some say, left the boy angry. Soon after, his mother introduced him to the Christian Identity movement, a radical faith that sat well with an avowed loner seeking not only to remove himself from American society, but to wage war against it. Rudolph isolated himself at an early age, enlisting in the Army apparently only to bolster his survival and weaponry skills.
Experts say he had trouble maintaining relationships with women, farmed trout in a pond, and grew marijuana, which he smoked regularly. In high school, Rudolph wrote an essay denying the Holocaust. He grew increasingly distant from the Murphy community after being forced to sell the family home in 1996.
"This was something he enjoyed, that he could hit the beast with his remote-control bomb and evade the best American law enforcement had to offer," says Brian Levin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. "His targets and tactics were all part of this belief system, and not only made him the terrorist that he was, but made him an extremely effective fugitive."
The lush crags of Cherokee County were familiar to him: They're where he grew up, fished, and learned to survive without the umbilical cord of society. He didn't use phones or credit cards, and stayed away from surveillance cameras. After escaping into the hills, he simply outwaited, outmaneuvered, and outfoxed his would-be captors.
Even when the FBI pulled most of its agents off the search, freelancers, armed with handcuffs and shotguns, kept looking, in hopes of getting the $1 million reward. Bounty hunters as far away as Duck, N.C., on the Outer Banks, scoured beaches for him.
Rudolph's arrest came five years after police found nails in a storage locker that matched those used in the bombing of an Alabama abortion clinic in January of 1998.
Over 200 federal agents searched the Nantahala Forest near the Tennessee border for months. Soon after the manhunt began, a natural-foods store owner said Rudolph had grabbed six months of supplies - and left five $100 bills behind. All authorities found were discarded oatmeal tins and cans of tuna.
After months of frustration, at least one federal agent said publicly that he thought Rudolph had died. Others believed he'd finagled his way to Mexico or West Virginia. Still, many never gave up hope of his capture, suspecting a local police officer might eventually crack the case.
"This sends a clear message that we will never cease in our efforts to hunt down all terrorists, foreign or domestic, and stop them from harming the innocent," said Attorney General John Ashcroft in a statement confirming Rudolph's capture.