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The Olympic Bomber is identified and captured

Eric Rudolph

Eric Rudolph

Millions of people around the world were shaken by the 1996 Olympic park bombing in Atlanta, Georgia.  Security guard Richard Jewell, who was an early suspect, was cleared of any wrongdoing.  And the person responsible for planting what the FBI called one of the largest pipe bombs in U.S. history, has yet to be caught.  For those in Centennial Park that fateful night, their lives were changed forever.

Fallon Stubbs, and her mother, Alice Hawthorne, were visiting from Albany, Georgia.  The last-minute trip was a 14th birthday gift for Fallon:

“We were enjoying the moment, enjoying the people.  It was an experience like no other.  And… to be in that kind of surrounding, it was a beautiful thing.”

Just before 1:20 AM, Fallon and her mother paused to take a photograph—a memento of a wonderful night.  Then suddenly, a huge explosion knocked them to the ground:

“After the explosion, it was chaos.  You never forget that moment afterwards, and I ran towards anybody who could help.  And I was, like, ‘My mother, my mother.  Somebody’s got to help my mother.’”

44-year-old Alice Hawthorne died instantly from injuries sustained in the explosion.  Although hundreds were injured, she was the only person killed by the bomb at Centennial Park.  A task force of federal and state investigators was quickly assembled to apprehend the terrorist behind this vicious attack. Over the next seven months, Atlanta was subjected to two more bombings.  But an even more disturbing trend had developed.  The bomber was now planting a second device apparently designed to harm police and rescue workers who responded to the victims of the first explosion. According to Special Agent Charles Stone of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, there was a reason police did not indicate a specific suspect:

“We were building a good, prosecutable court case based upon the forensic evidence we had where we could tie the bombs together, but we still didn’t know the identity of the bomber.  We didn’t know who he was.”

According to Agent Stone, authorities received letters from the so-called Army of God who claimed responsibility for the last two bombings:

“In the letters, he got into the components of the bomb, which had not been made public at that time, so we knew the letters were written by the bomber.”

An FBI profiler analyzed the letters and the details of all three bombings.  He came to the conclusion that the bomber’s real target was law enforcement.

Eleven months after the third Atlanta bombing, head nurse Emily Lyons came to work early at a woman’s health and abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.  Off-duty police officer Robert Sanderson was working there as a security guard.  Just then, Emily spotted something that looked strangely out of place:

“There was an overturned flowerpot kind of buried a little bit.  And that was not anything we would have ever had.  So at that point, Sandy knew something was wrong.”

The explosion instantly killed security guard Robert Sanderson.  Emily Lyons lost her left eye in the explosion.  Dozens of masonry nails and screws tore through 90% of her body.  Robert Sanderson left behind a wife and two sons.  He had been a Birmingham police officer for eight years.  Task force members believed the bomber had achieved his objective—to murder a law enforcement officer.  But this time the authorities got a break.  Forensics later revealed that the bomber had detonated this device by remote control.  According to Agent Stone, this meant the bomber had been there:

“That increased his chances of killing police officers, but it also directly increased his chances of being identified and caught.”

Police questioned a witness who saw a man walking away from the scene just after the explosion.  When the man removed a wig, the witness became suspicious and followed him. The witness observed the suspicious man getting into a pickup truck, and before losing him, relayed the license plate number to police.  The gray Nissan truck was traced to a man named Eric Rudolph, who resided in Western North Carolina.  A warrant was issued for his arrest.  Investigators learned where Eric Rudolph lived and an FBI SWAT team raided his trailer.  The trailer’s air conditioner was still running and food was still on the table.  Todd Letcher, coordinator of the Southeast Bomb Task Force, believed they missed Eric Rudolph by just minutes:

“He told friends and associates when he was a teenager that if he got in trouble with law enforcement, he would disappear into the mountains, and we feel that this is something that he was planning for a long time.”

250 law enforcement officers converged on the Nantahala National Forest after Rudolph’s truck was found abandoned nearby.  But Eric Rudolph had vanished.  Rudolph would prove to be a formidable adversary.  Investigators learned he’d been raised in a family that preached white separatism.  The experienced outdoorsman and survivalist had also served in the U.S. Army.  Deborah Rudolph was married to Eric’s brother and had known Eric since he was a teenager:

“I never really heard him talk about positive things.  It was a lot of hateful things.  A lot of negativity.  You know… our gun laws and government and politics.”

The last known sighting of Eric Rudolph was made by George Nordmann, a health food store owner who lived in a remote mountain cabin.  According to Agent Stone, Nordmann had known Eric Rudolph for years:

“When Eric approached him about foodstuffs, George made the decision not to help Eric and I believe became somewhat frightened of him.”

A few nights later, Nordmann’s home was raided.  Several hundred pounds of food and Nordmann’s truck were stolen.  It was believed Rudolph had made a return visit.

Update:

Five years after Eric Rudolph disappeared, a police officer noticed a suspicious person behind a market in Murphy, North Carolina.  Suspecting a burglary, the officer made an arrest.  The suspect proved to be none other than Eric Rudolph.  He was later convicted for his various bombings and sentenced to four life terms plus 120 years.