Jeff Postell and Turtle Matthews looked at each other and decided it was time wake up the sheriff and the chief of police. Dispatch reached the Sheriff, Keith Lovin, at home at 4 am. It had already been a long, difficult day that started with the execution of a major arrest warrant, and ended at the scene of a gruesome accident in a neighboring county. A state trooper had been killed in the wreck, and Lovin had gone to help with the scene. He'd known the dead man, having been a trooper himself before he ran for sheriff last year. Lovin had hit the pillow at 1 am, and three hours later was driving to the jail to have a look at someone who said he was Eric Rudolph. Mark Thigpen, the Murphy police chief, met him there with a manila folder left by the FBI five years ago: the protocol for identifying Eric Rudolph. They had to be sure this wasn't a hoax, or one of those characters with a compulsion to confess to famous crimes. Lovin, a dark-haired man in his forties, sat down across from the prisoner and started asking questions. Thigpen, tall and sturdy with a military flattop, stood out of sight behind an open door and checked the answers against the file. Lovin thought the man seemed fairly calm, considering his situation. Thoughtful, even.
"Where were you born?" "Merritt Island, Florida." "What's your driver's license number?" He gave the right answer.
Sheriff Lovin notified the FBI regional office in Asheville that it looked like they really had Rudolph. This set off a chain reaction of jingling cell phones and buzzing pagers from Washington to Atlanta to Birmingham and back as word spread through the community of agents, cops and federal prosecutors who had been waiting for this moment for five long years. The news quickly leaked to CNN, and the network had the story on the air before the first federal agents arrived in Murphy. Satellite trucks and carloads of reporters soon followed. SWAT-team snipers set up defensive positions on rooftops around the jail, gaining the attention of curious townspeople who had gathered to watch the commotion. The mayor and a former sheriff made themselves available for interviews in front of the blue marble courthouse.
Rudolph's arrest was welcome news in Washington, where the present administration was having a hard time tracking down the government's most infamous fugitives. Eighteen months after George W. Bush had declared a war on terror, U.S. forces were still chasing Osama bin Laden like a ghost dog through the Tora Bora mountains. Weeks after the US invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein had yet to be extracted from his spider hole. Catching a domestic terrorist was a PR bonanza, and John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, wasted no time releasing a triumphant statement. "Today, Eric Robert Rudolph, the most notorious American fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted list has been captured and will face American justice," he said. "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."