Southern Cultures 7.4 (2001) 6-30
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Whatever Happened to the Search for Eric Rudolph?
On a June day at the River's End restaurant, part of the large sporting complex that is the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in western North Carolina, a patron waiting to be seated wore a T-shirt featuring a now familiar joke. An FBI agent sits on a tree stump in the forest, surrounded by books, while a red-nosed
reindeer says to him, "I hear you're looking for Rudolph." Despite claims in the area that the search for alleged serial bomber Eric Rudolph is now all but forgotten, such remnants as the T-shirt signify the ongoing search, even as the Southeast Bomb Task Force scaled back in June 2000 from over two hundred agents to a mere dozen. Tensions also linger in the region between natives and strangers, citizenry and government, local and federal law enforcement. Is the FBI inside or outside the reindeer joke? The answer to that question depends entirely upon who is being asked.
No sooner is history made than it starts getting reconstructed. The shuttle between truth and memory, fact and fabrication, accounts for the greater part of the narrative tangle about this case--a thicket of information, false assumptions, and guesswork as dense as the forest where Eric Robert Rudolph may still be hiding. Accused of four bombings-- at the 1996 Olympics, at two abortion clinics, and at a lesbian bar--Rudolph was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list in May 1998, when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) offered a $1 million reward for information leading to his capture. He is formally charged with having "maliciously damaged, by means of an explosive device, buildings and property affecting interstate commerce which resulted in death and injury." When I began interviewing for this piece, I thought I would discover agreement among locals that Rudolph hadn't been captured yet because the FBI fumbled the case. I was wrong about that hunch and wrong about others--for instance, my assumption that western North Carolinians would be skeptical toward a female academic with the nerve to investigate a stereotypically male topic like a serial bomber.
My own private western North Carolina, in fact, turned out to welcome my questions, even the uncomfortable ones, and taught me how little I already knew about this case from what I had read in the newspapers and seen on television. Rather than being specifically about anti-abortion or gay rights, the Eric Rudolph case is about the complex motives that might have driven Rudolph to commit the acts of which he is accused. Rather than encountering sexism and prejudice, I felt trusted by the men working on the case, who, by now, had ample reason to distrust outsiders asking hard questions. Our discussions revealed that, at present, the most compelling issues about the unresolved search for Eric Rudolph are why he hasn't been captured by the Southeast Bomb Task Force, which includes the FBI; whether Rudolph has received assistance from locals or outside sympathizers; Rudolph's motives for the four bombings with which he's charged; and what, at this point, has become of him. [End Page 6] [Begin Page 8]
Bombs, Law Enforcement, Wilderness, and Media
The bitterest views of why Rudolph remains at large after three and a half years, despite the high price on his head, fault the FBI for bungling the search from the beginning. "The FBI wanted all the glory," says a white-water rafting guide and manager at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, in reference to the now legendary episode in which, one day after the January 1998 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, abortion clinic, law enforcement officers appeared at Rudolph's mobile home only moments after the suspect had fled for good. The popular story about what happened in this instance disparages the FBI agents who had been searching for Rudolph in Asheville, North Carolina, when they received a call from Jack Thompson, then sheriff of Cherokee County. Thompson had located Rudolph...