Rudolph unmasked

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Ghost of the Nantahala
Ready to crank up the Rudolph publicity machine?

CNN is. The cable news company is already hawking a book about Rudolph by one of its producers, just in time for the scheduled start of the trial. If it weren’t for the King of Pop’s case being heard now, I might call Eric Robert Rudolph’s court proceedings the Trial of the Century.

The bomb
Why? Because he’s charged with bombing the Olympics. Terrorizing the Olympic Games gives one a singular place in history, beside the others who’ve used the games for similar gain – to highlight their particular crusade. It could be political, could be ideaological.

God’s work
The feds, who’ve apparently connected all the dots, say Rudolph bombed gay bars and abortion clinics, too. They’ve painted him as an anti-government extremist, a soldier for the Army of God.

But is he really? The defense attorneys likely will portray a very different man. Just like the Michael Jackson case, it’s what makes Rudolph so compelling.

The bag

Is he a modern day Daniel Boone or abortionist deathmaiden? A pothead or Christian Identity priest? Kull the Conquerer (after the last movie he rented before he went on the run), or Rudolph the righteous?

Let me back up and just offer some impressions, because in my own small way, I was on Rudolph’s trail, with a million other reporters, federal agents, thirsty bloodhounds and the occasional bounty hunter (remember Bo Gritz?).

I remember the day of the 1998 abortion clinic bombing, the one that killed a security guard and disfigured a nurse. The cable news was all over it, reporting that a man was seen leaving the area in a gray pickup. Soon after, police had given out a license plate number, description of the suspect and we had a name.

sketchy details
Bad mistake. Local sheriff’s deputies and state police have said quietly, and with a little bitterness, that if the feds had just kept their mouths shut and contacted them first, they would have had Rudolph in custody before day’s end.

Instead, Rudolph apparently picked up the news and hit the highway. His Cherokee County trailer door was open when police finally showed up, and the trail was already going cold, with a bad movie rental and a few Burger King receipts blowing around agents’ feet.

A few years ago, a newspaper tried to tally up the taxpayer expense for the manhunt, the largest in recent history. It came up with a figure of $24.5 million, and that was with incomplete records from the government.

Rudolph had a great hiding spot – the half-million acres of national forestland in Western North Carolina. Two hundred agents swarmed in with dogs and forward-looking infrared sensors on their helicopters. He’d later say that some agents practically tripped over him a couple of times while on the hunt.

But the show of force didn’t do a damn bit of good, except piss off a lot of mountain people who mostly just wanted to be left alone. They couldn’t do much about, so they retaliated best way they knew how – by jabbing the establishment. Local diners put up signs like “Rudolph ate here.” Some went so far as to hang signs urging people to “Pray for Eric.”

Mostly they were just scared. I remember trying to track down an old girlfriend of Rudolph’s. I went into some little hair salon, really just an addition onto a house. Everyone just froze up and didn’t want to say a single word.

Rudolph eluded arrest for five years. The twists and turns during that time could fill volumes in and of themselves. Richard Jewell was made out to the be the lowest of the low – an overweight security guard with a hero-complex that had his life turned upside down. WNC was unmasked as a haven for anti-government militias. Rudolph’s brother set up a camera in a Charleston garage, proclaimed “This is for the FBI and the media,” and proceeded to cut his hand off (it was surgically reattached).

ain’t no picnic
Experts postulated endlessly on Rudolph’s ability to hide out. His mythology grew. Who was helping him? Was he dead in an old mine? Had he made it out and overseas to Amsterdam, his Mary Jane heaven? Was there some cave, accesible only by water, in which he lived out those legend years?

It was just crazy. Then one summer day two years ago, a 20-something Murphy police officer spotted the ghost out back of a Save-a-lot, scrounging for day-old bread and some funky fruit.

Feral fugitive
Busted. But none the worse for wear, apparently. A little thin, yes, but his hair was short, his mustache not unruly and his teeth decent.

He signed his “Wanted” posters for deputies, and told them stories of scrounging for salamanders, shooting bear and living off the land.

So now we’ll go back to the beginning. The two sides in the trial will lay out Rudolph’s life as each sees it. We’ll drag out all the cliches about mountain people and right-wing extremists and inept policework.

Will all the questions ever be answered? Probably not.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

  • 1

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