Olympic Bomb Suspect Rudolph Caught

ByABC News

May 31, 2003 -- The man suspected of a fatal Atlanta park bombing during the 1996 Olympics eluded a five-year federal dragnet, but got tripped up this morning by a small-town rookie cop walking the beat in the wee hours of the morning.

Eric Robert Rudolph, 36 — already charged with the 1996 bombing at Centennial Park in Atlanta, and suspected of attacks on abortion clinics and a gay bar in the South — was caught digging through a supermarket dumpster in Murphy, N.C., near his home.

Rudolph is suspected in a string of bomb attacks that killed two people and injured more than 150.

Law enforcement officials said they never gave up on finding the man Attorney General John Ashcroft called the "most notorious American fugitive" on the FBI's most wanted list.

Luck and a Rookie Cop

It took luck and a rookie cop trying to keep his town safe to break the case.

In the early hours before dawn, 21-year-old policeman Jeffrey Scott Postell, on routine patrol, saw a man at the back of a Save-A-Lot grocery store sifting through a garbage bin.

"He took off running, and he got behind some milk crates," Postell said.

Postell drew his gun, and took the suspect into custody.

"He was very cooperative — not a bit disrespectful," Postell said.

The suspect told the police his name was Jerry Wilson. But at the county jail, some of the guards recognized him as Rudolph.

"We asked us to give us who he actually was, and he did volunteer that," Cherokee County Sheriff Keith Lovin said.

"After five years, everybody was speculating that he could have passed away in the mountains," said Chris Swecker, an FBI special agent.

But Rudolph was not dead. And he apparently never went very far from home.

String of Bombings

The five-year manhunt began after investigators linked Rudolph to bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham — the first being the July 27, 1996 Olympic bombing that killed one and injured 111.

Investigators were left with few clues — only shrapnel and a 911 call placed to police just minutes before the attack that warned, "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes."

"I couldn't begin to tell you how many false trails we went down, how many false suspects," said John C. Killorin, a retired agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Five months later, a blast at an Atlanta abortion clinic injured seven people. Then, another bombing, at a gay bar in suburban Atlanta, wounded five people.

After that attack, the alleged bomber mailed a calling card to the media, an angry letter signed the Army of God, a little-known white extremist group. It railed against the government, homosexuals, and abortion rights supporters.

Pool of Forensic Evidence

The FBI and ATF began to suspect a serial bomber. The same type of clock was used as a timer in the bombings, as well as the same type of nails for shrapnel.

"We begin to put together this pool of forensic evidence that we can [use to] tie the three together," Killorin said.

In January 1998, a fourth bombing rocked a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic, killing a police officer and severely injuring a nurse.

A witness noticed a man running from the scene and followed him, giving police a license plate number from a truck, which led them to a name — Eric Robert Rudolph.

The next day, Rudolph's truck was discovered near Murphy, N.C., where he had lived since 1981.

The Army veteran and avid outdoorsman was placed on the FBI's most-wanted list. But he vanished into the rugged mountains of western North Carolina, a place he knew well.

ABCNEWS' Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.