I arrived in Murphy a few weeks after Rudolph was captured. By then the media road show had moved on, leaving the local citizens in turns bemused and resentful. With far too much time on their hands, reporters and producers had started looking for some local color to fill in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. They wanted to know whether someone in this mountain community had helped Rudolph survive all these years on the run. This was not an unreasonable line of inquiry, since the FBI was looking for the same answers. In service of this story, however, a lot of old hillbilly clichés were dragged out of the dusty files on Appalachia. Significance was assigned to the gun racks and Confederate flags plastered on local pickup trucks, and the sign above the Peachtree Restaurant urging people to "Pray for Eric Rudolph." The Associated Press quoted more than a few local sympathizers who said they wouldn't have turned him in. Jeffery Gettleman of the New York Times wrote, rather elegantly, "If there is an antigovernment current here, coursing through the woods clear as a splashing brook or a pint of moonshine, it is nothing new." Television coverage gave the general impression that Murphy and the surrounding towns were nests of anti-government zealots.
Murphy's mayor, Bill Hughes, was indignant. When I met him on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the city office building, the first thing wanted me to understand was that Eric Robert Rudolph was not, as he put it, "a local product." Rudolph was born in Florida. The family moved to western North Carolina when Eric was a teenager. Hardly anyone knew him.
Hughes sat at his big squared-off mayor's desk in front of a large American flag, sifting through a scrapbook of clippings, photographs and letters "from all over the world" about the recent unpleasantness. Hughes' face is tanned and fine-boned and he speaks with the deep, modulated voice of a retired principal who spent years intoning class announcements over the school intercom. His smooth delivery and uncompromising civic boosterism made him a favorite on cable news during the media siege.
The cameras and mikes disappeared after Rudolph was whisked away to Asheville, but the notoriety lingered. "Here's a postcard from Louisiana," said Hughes, squinting at the cramped handwriting as he read aloud: " 'Long Live Eric Robert Rudolph...'" He shook his head sadly.
"Here's one from England: 'I thought the country was beautiful…'" That got a smile.
"Here's another one: 'It seems to me that Rudolph must have had local help to survive, hiding a murderer who thought he was doing God's work. I'm sure you don't want us Virginians to think y'all down in North Carolina are a bunch of redneck criminals and gun nuts. Maybe you don't care, but you should. I'm just going to leave this as 'A Law Abiding Citizen' since I don't want you and your friends up bombing my house.'" Hughes laughed incredulously. "And it goes on and on and on."
Along with the letters, Hughes has collected a thick stack of newspaper articles, and scanning them caused the mayor's bright blue eyes to narrow with resentment. To his mind, many of them were inaccurate and downright offensive.