Dec. 1, 2006 -- It's rare to get inside the mind of a terrorist, but Maryanne Vollers does just that in her new book, "Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw."
"Lone Wolf" tells the story of Eric Rudolph, a deadly bomber who evaded the largest manhunt in FBI history. Letters from Rudolph unlock the mystery surrounding his mindset and run from the law.
Vollers paints a chilling, disturbing portrait that no reader will soon forget.
Read an excerpt from "Lone Wolf" below:
"Liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs." --Isaiah Berlin
1: Lone Wolf
In the end, the moon was just another enemy. It hadn't always been that way. When he started writing about his fugitive years the word he chose was addicting: "There is something addicting about the full moon on an early summer or fall evening in the South…" Now the moonlight pinned him to the shadows, kept him off the roads and dirt tracks where the breeze would quickly disperse his scent, leaving no trace for the hounds to follow. The damp grass and foliage could hold his trail for days. The years of hiding, he later said, had turned him into a nocturnal creature, sleeping in the day, prowling for food at night, always watchful.
Eric Rudolph kept his campsite orderly: Hiking boots lined up like soldiers on the cardboard pallet beneath a double tarp. Discarded newspapers and magazines stacked to read. A small ring of stones for a cooking fire, with two blackened pots upturned to drain. He had scattered overripe bananas, tomatoes and onions to dry in the sun. He could store them, use them later when food was scarce. His life was consumed with planning: Figuring out the movement of police patrols through town, knowing which days the grocery stores dumped their expired bread and vegetables. He traced a grid on notebook paper to make into a calendar. Every day was neatly crossed off as it passed. When the federal agents found the calendar at his camp the last marked date was May 30, 2003.
It was a weekend night, not much of a moon, and the lone patrolman would be distracted by teenage drunks out looking for trouble. Rudolph pulled on his "rummaging" clothes: a black cotton tee shirt, dark slacks, old black tennis shoes. In the darkness his feet remembered the steep trail down the small mountain overlooking town. When he reached the bottom he watched for the glow of headlights approaching, and when it was safe he ran across the four-lane highway, following the bridge a short distance until it crossed the Valley River. One time a car had surprised him and he'd had to hang off the side of the bridge to keep from being seen. Tonight the trip went smoothly and he dropped down quietly into a field on the other side of the river. He followed another well-worn path through the grass and weeds to the edge of a small shopping mall. The patrol car usually drove down this alley once every hour or so. He crouched in the darkness and waited.
It was late in the third shift on the first night of the long Memorial Day weekend and Officer Jeff Postell was running through his routine business checks along Highway 19 in Murphy, North Carolina. At about 3:30 am, Postell cruised through the alley behind the Save-A-Lot grocery store and the Sears appliance retailer, past a random cluster of old, one-story shops with their backs to the marshy bottomland of the Valley River. Then he turned his patrol car back into the deserted parking lot. Postell was short and slight, a 21-year-old rookie with less than a year on the Murphy police force. But as his colleagues had already noticed, Postell managed to compensate for his size. More seasoned police officers might slide through the bottom of the third shift, waiting for trouble to call itself in. Not Jeff Postell. He was flush with the optimism of inexperience, and he wanted to catch himself a burglar before he switched over to working days.
Murphy is the largest municipality in the mountainous western tip of North Carolina. The town has 2500 people in a county with 25,000 scattered residents, a population that almost doubles in the summer months. Locals like to boast that the area is "two-hours from anywhere," which is the driving time to the nearest city in any direction: Asheville to the east, Chattanooga to the west, Atlanta to the south. Due north is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Appalachian heartland. Now that the textile factories and other light industries have packed up and moved to Mexico, Murphy's main industry is tourism. The visitors come for the clean air and long mountain views, fishing and water sports. Four counties, Cherokee, Clay, Macon and Swain are interspersed with the 500,000 acre Nantahala National Forest. If you don't count the transgressions of marijuana growers in the mountains or the crank syndicates that exploit the area as a regional distribution center, crime rates are pleasantly low. The most common police blotter items involve DUI's. Restaurants close early and the streets empty out after dark. People sleep soundly in the velvet warm nights of late spring, windows open to the breeze.
As soon as Postell was clear of the lot, he cut off his lights and swung the car around the corner and back into the alley, hoping to surprise any prowlers. It was then that he spotted the figure of a man crouched down and scurrying toward the supermarket loading dock. The rookie saw something long tucked under the subject's arm, like a rifle or a shotgun on a sling. The man heard him coming and darted behind a stack of milk crates. Postell turned on his "alley lights" while he radioed dispatch for backup. Then, using his open door for cover, he got out of the patrol car, drew his sidearm and shouted, "Come out! Put your hands where I can see 'em!"
Which is just what the man did. "Okay, drop to your knees." The man complied. "Now, down on the ground. Arms out. Cross your feet…" The subject seemed so docile that Postell felt comfortable enough to approach and cuff him.
Cherokee County deputy Sean Matthews, known to all as Turtle, was walking out of Fatback's Citgo with a paper cup of coffee in his hand when he heard a commotion on his patrol car radio. As he climbed behind the wheel he could make out Jeff Postell's voice shouting "man with a gun!" It sounded pretty urgent. Jody Bandy, an officer with the Tennessee Valley Authority whose jurisdiction covered the federal lakes in the region, had stopped for coffee with Matthews and heard the same call. He jumped into his own car, and both of them took off with their lights on and sirens blaring. By the time they arrived at the Save-A-Lot alley, a third backup had already arrived: Charles Kilby, an off-duty city policeman who had been finishing some paperwork at the station when the call came in.
As the four officers stood around the man lying face-down in the dirt, Postell started asking him the routine questions: What's your name? Where are you from and what are you doing here? The man seemed calm and respectful. Cooperative. He said his name was Jerry Wilson, born December 19, 1964, but he had no identification on him. He was homeless, he said, just passing through from Ohio. He'd been living under a bridge, and he was hungry. He looked to be somewhere in his thirties, thin, average height, with short dark hair. He wore a dirty camouflage jacket, black tennis shoes and dark pants tied at the ankles with string. A bulge underneath his jacket turned out to be a pair of binoculars. The object tucked under his arm was not a gun, but a long black Mag-lite slung on a piece of rope. Nearby they found an army rucksack, empty except for some plastic bags and string. Postell called his dispatch to run an identity check, and the name and date of birth he gave came back "no match." That was odd. Most people had at least some sort of records in the system.
Jody Bandy asked "Mr. Wilson" if he had a social security number. He'd lost his, he said, and added, "I don't believe in them."
Meanwhile Matthews was staring at the man on the ground. He asked him to roll over, and the man turned his face away. Matthews asked him again, and this time he flipped himself over on his side. The deputy bent down and pointed his flashlight in the man's face. He had a few days' stubble on his cheeks, a noticeable scar on his chin and searing blue eyes. Matthew's stomach started to churn. He was just about sure. And he might as well forget about the vacation he was planning to take, starting this morning.
He stood up and pulled his colleagues aside. "This looks like Eric Rudolph."
Postell shook his head, wondering at the possibility. Rudolph was one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted. Postell had been in high school in 1998, when Rudolph's name first came up as a suspect in the fatal bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, AL. He was also accused of a series of bombings in Georgia, including one at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where two people died. Postell had heard that Rudolph was some sort of survivalist with links to a racist militia group, and that he had been living alone in a trailer outside Murphy before he disappeared. When he was in high school, Postell used to work at the McDonald's in Andrews, serving morning coffee to the state and federal agents who arrived in droves to search the national forest for Rudolph. He'd even rode around with some of them for a Boy Scout project. It was the biggest federal manhunt in history, but they never caught Rudolph. By now most people thought he was either dead or long gone. Postell thought this was a strange way for him to show up after five years. But Matthews had actually met Eric Rudolph years back. They'd both grown up in Macon County, just northwest of here. That put a certain weight behind his suspicions. After some discussion about what to do with him, the officers agreed "Mr. Wilson" should be taken into custody under the safe-keeping statute, a state law designed to sweep vagrants and drunks off the streets for their own good. Then they could hold him for up to twenty-four hours. When Postell informed "Wilson" he was being taken to the county jail to be given a warm bed and a hot meal, the man showed no signs of alarm.
Matthews put the suspect in the back of Postell's cruiser and looked him in the eye. "You're not who you say you are," he told him, and the man said nothing, just smiled, as Matthews later recalled, "a big shit-eating grin."
Within three minutes they were at the county jail, a square brick building behind the courthouse. The jailhouse was half a century past its prime, and far too small for the county. The sheriff's offices, which were once housed in the building, had been pushed out to make room for more cells – enough to hold eighty prisoners in cramped quarters. The sheriff now occupied a cluster of white trailers on the other side of the parking lot. The city police station was on Peachtree Street, a block away.
As soon as they got Mr. Wilson settled in the booking room of the old jail, the cops looked around for a picture of the fugitive Eric Rudolph. Nobody could find one. So Postell went on the Internet and printed out an FBI wanted poster. One of the images was clean-shaven, and sure enough, although the old picture of Rudolph was much beefier than the subject at hand, he had the same attached earlobes, the same hairline, the same scar on his chin.
Jody Bandy from the TVA brought the poster into the booking room and held it up behind the man who sat placidly in his chair, saying nothing. Everyone gathered around. Matthews told him, "You look like someone I used to know." He snickered.
Finally Bandy said, "Just tell us who you really are." The man laughed softly, and Postell remembered it was "the coldest laugh I ever heard." "I'm Eric Robert Rudolph," he said. "You got me." Just like that.
He did not say "I'm Eric Rudolph," the way his friends and family knew him. No, this was Eric Robert Rudolph, a man familiar with his own legend.
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."
Inside the old jailhouse the deputies fingerprinted Rudolph and took a mug shot before they let him clean up a bit. To a man, nobody who saw Rudolph that morning could believe he'd been living in the mountains for so long. He was scruffy and not too fragrant but his hands were soft and his fingernails intact. His hair was trimmed and his teeth seemed sound. One jailer who saw him strip off his shirt in the washroom said his skin was clean and unscarred. Deer hunters returning home from a weekend in the woods looked worse than Rudolph. People were saying he should have been tanned like a leather strap if he'd spent years out in the wind and snow. But that was his story and he was sticking to it. "This is the first time I've talked to anyone in five years," he told Matthews.
One of the jailers gave Rudolph a Marlboro from a fresh pack of cigarettes. He said he was grateful to smoke something he didn't have to fish out of Taco Bell's outdoor ash can.
Turtle Matthews was assigned to sit with Rudolph. Since he had the only connection to him, however tenuous, the sheriff thought the prisoner might open up with him. He was told not to ask him any questions, but not to discourage him from talking, either. The jailers brought them some scrambled eggs and bacon, biscuits and gravy, juice and coffee – the first of two breakfasts for Rudolph, who wasn't lying when he said he was hungry. Mama Liz, the jail's excellent weekend cook, was famous for her biscuits. While they ate, Rudolph started to chat with Matthews. He asked about the outcome of a recent referendum in Murphy to allow beer and liquor to be sold by the drink in restaurants. "It lost," said the deputy. Rudolph nodded. He said he followed the papers whenever he could find them. Then Rudolph looked Matthews in the eye.
"I knew you knew," he said. "Then why did you lie to me tonight?"
"Well, it had happened before," he said, and proceeded to describe how he had been picked up by some cops back in 1999. He said a truck he had stolen to move his supplies ran out of gas outside of Murphy. Two deputy sheriffs stopped to offer him a ride to the filling station. They even dropped him back at his stolen truck without a question asked. He thought he might get lucky again. Matthews got the impression, though, that Rudolph was just relieved the running was over. He said he was tired of eating out of Dumpsters. He told him that he had never left the area, and he had a camp just outside of town. Turtle could tell the bomb technicians not to worry, he said, because it wouldn't be booby-trapped. And they would find it neat and sanitary. "Cleanliness is next to godliness," he said.
As Matthews got up to report this information to the sheriff, Rudolph told him something else. "No matter what you hear," he said, "tell them I'm not a monster."
Rudolph spent the next two days at the Cherokee County Jail. He would turn stone cold any time he saw a federal agent, but he was talking a blue streak to his the round-the-clock guards about the Old Testament and politics and how to live off acorns and salamanders; just about everything except his crimes. He seemed interested in his jailer's lives, and even inquired after their families. But he never asked anyone whether his own mother was still alive, or for any news about his sister and brothers. Finally, when it was obvious he wasn't going to confess to anything, the federal agents took custody of the prisoner. As he prepared to leave, Rudolph shook hands with the deputies and jail staff. He even signed wanted posters for them, like some kind of rock star. Rudolph inscribed one with a reference to Psalm 144, that begins: "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight." FBI agents confiscated every one of the posters. For handwriting samples, they said.
The camera crews who had been waiting outside the jail all weekend finally got what they wanted when Rudolph was moved from Murphy to a federal court in Asheville. It was a ritual "perp walk," the modern equivalent of a public stoning, where the accused is marched from the jailhouse door to a waiting vehicle. He is dressed in prison orange and fitted with a large bulletproof vest, shackled at wrist and ankle, and hustled along in a scrum of anxious-looking guards, quickly, but with enough time in the open for photographers to capture a few frames of his cool, watchful gaze. Timothy McVeigh, after his arrest for the Oklahoma City bombing, was photographed in this way, setting the gold standard for the terrorist perp walk. McVeigh looked menacing, scowling into the sun. He later said he was scanning the crowd for a gunman he was sure would appear, like Jack Ruby, and kill him on the spot.
Eric Robert Rudolph had a similar look on his face when he emerged from the Cherokee County jail, flanked by Lovin and Thigpen. He turned his head to glare in the direction of the assembled media before he was hustled off in convoy to a waiting helicopter, where he would be delivered to his enemies. He rode to the airport in silence, staring straight ahead. But as the chopper lifted off, Rudolph took one last look at the green river valley and the smooth-knuckled mountains of the Nantahala, folded like hands in prayer.
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.
"The media blitz turned into a media circus, unfortunately," he said. "You get to see journalism at its worst and at its best. They portrayed us as ignorant illiterate hillbillies, painting us as the stereotype – distrustful of the federal government, totally ignorant of the outside world, close-knit, antigovernment. The things they said about us simply are not true." What, then, was the truth about Murphy and the people of Cherokee County?
"I would say Murphy is just a typical small American town," said the mayor. "Every one knows everybody else. You have your town characters, you live in a goldfish bowl. People are basically honest. They are basically trusting. Our people are tolerant, they are law-abiding, they do respect authority."
I would spend many afternoons like this one in the next three years, dipping into the parallel and paradoxical narratives that run through the story of Eric Robert Rudolph. Like the perceptions of North Carolina, the descriptions of Rudolph I encountered were so strangely divergent that I might have been hearing about twin brothers with the same faces and different personalities, one who committed the crimes and one who was captured and punished for them. Eric Rudolph was, by his own inclination, the most reclusive and enigmatic kind of outlaw. He left a faint trail to follow. And in doing so, Rudolph became less a real person than a touchstone for the expectations of others.
From the time he went into hiding after the Birmingham clinic bombing to the morning he was captured, Eric Rudolph had disappeared in more ways than the obvious one. In fact he had been slowly vanishing for years. He lived alone, paid cash for everything, lied about his whereabouts to his family and occasional girlfriends. When he was identified as the main suspect in the series of bombings, federal investigators profiled him as a "lone offender," or "lone wolf": a self-appointed avenger with no real alliances, no meaningful social ties; an inadequate male who converts his frustrations and longings into a campaign of murder. He tries to justify his actions by attaching them to a cause: saving babies, defending the white race, striking a blow against technology. The lone wolves believe history will judge them to be heroes. The lawyers who were later chosen to defend him were prepared to present a very different picture of Eric Rudolph. They describe him as a misguided but sensitive and engaging human being who isolated himself to protect his lonely mission. And this was not just a defense strategy. They looked forward to visiting him in jail; some considered him a friend. And one of his attorneys, a conservative Jew, came to love him like a son.
In many ways, offenders like Eric Rudolph are ciphers, blank screens upon which all interested parties can project their expectations and their agendas. And the more sensational the crime, the more agendas emerge. To the radical anti-abortion movement, Rudolph became a source of inspiration; to the so-called "patriots" he was a government scapegoat; to militia watchdog groups and pro-choice advocates, he was a poster child for the dangers of the extremist right. He became a trophy as well for the federal agencies, investigators, lawyers, government bureaucrats and members of the media who fought for position to define him, hunt him, study him, defend him, and try him.
The enormous consequences of the case affected, and sometimes distorted, every aspect of it. Rudolph's bombing campaign was what the federal agencies call a "major incident," a bland term for a Big Crime. Big Crimes are spectacles that draw public interest and law enforcement attention beyond what would logically be expected based on the damage done to property or the number of casualties. Big Crimes are like plane crashes; more people are killed on the highways every day, but we are still transfixed by the special horror of the fuselage tumbling from the sky. Serial crimes are the most sensational of all because they are rare, frightening and seemingly random with a built-in dramatic hook: Where will he strike next?
The government pursued Rudolph with such ferocity not just for the sake of his victims, although they were important, but for the audacity of his bombings. An attack on the Olympics while the games were being hosted on US soil was more than just a bombing, it was domestic terrorism, a symbolic attack on America itself. The subsequent bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham, which appeared to be aimed at law enforcement personnel as well as the specific targets, amplified the government's response. And once the death penalty was put on the table, another layer of symbolism was added to the mix, raising the stakes for another group, the anti-death penalty advocates.
Outside of this circle of interest, the American public seemed both fascinated and repelled by Rudolph. As a society we tend to have at least two conflicting impulses when it comes to famous fugitives: The first is to ignore our legal presumption of innocence and assume they are guilty as soon as they are accused, try them and execute them without mercy. The other impulse is to romanticize them in some way, to separate them from the cowardice and brutality of their crimes and to fit them into the archetype of the outlaw hero. They become Robin Hood or Jesse James or Pretty Boy Floyd – guys who perform daring deeds, who outwit the authorities, who are forced by circumstance to ride on the other side of the law, and who always have some redeeming qualities to burnish their legends.
Rudolph seems aware that his story occupies the uneasy territory between the outlaw hero and the deranged killer, the Christian soldier and the despised terrorist. He is a prodigious reader of history, philosophy and Russian literature – he has informed me, without irony, that Crime and Punishment is his favorite novel. He followed his own publicity from wherever he was hiding, and while in jail obsessively watched news reports about his case. He held his silence for years before he finally tried to explain himself -- first in brief court statements, then through a handful of broadsides published on the Army of God website, and, finally, in a series of written interviews with me.
I had my own agenda, of course. Eric Rudolph was a puzzle I needed to solve for the sake of a story I wanted to tell.
This book was never meant to be the biography of a serial bomber, nor an academic study of terrorism. It is an extended act of journalism, a thin slice taken from a time in the life of our country in an attempt to illuminate a series of horrific events. The idea was not to mythologize Rudolph or his crimes, but to pick them up like rocks in a stream, to hold them up and see what's underneath. On its most elevated level the story is a journey into the darkest precincts of idealism, an exploration of how things can go terribly wrong in the name of doing good. But it is still a story, and in many ways an incomplete one. The challenge has been to take disparate and often contradictory facts and try to fit them into a sensible narrative. This is what prosecutors and writers have in common. So I began my study of Eric Robert Rudolph the way the investigators always begin: by looking at the crimes and at the evidence. And never forgetting the victims.