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Agent Who Hunted Eric Rudolph: 'He's a Survivor'

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The former head of the task force that hunted Eric Rudolph -- even before anyone knew his name -- says he isn't surprised that the anti-government extremist cut a deal to avoid the death penalty.

"He's a survivor," said retired FBI agent Woody Enderson, who lived in Charlotte while investigating the Atlanta bombings that were eventually traced to Rudolph. "The death penalty's pretty certain. You can't survive that."

Rudolph is scheduled to plead guilty today in federal courthouses in Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta in return for a plea agreement that spares his life. Instead he'll serve four life sentences, without the possibility of parole.

His attorneys say Rudolph will eventually answer a lot of questions about the four bombings that killed two people and injured more than 100 -- such as why he did it, which is the big thing Enderson still wants to know.

But those answers probably won't come in court today. Rudolph likely will do only the minimum required by law at the hearings, such as answering "yes" when a judge asks if he admits to the evidence laid out by prosecutors.

"I think Mr. Rudolph will say that's what the government could prove if they went to trial," said Bill Bowen, a member of the Rudolph defense team.

But sometime after the plea hearings, Bowen said, Rudolph plans to release a written statement explaining the bombings, which killed a woman at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and a police officer at an abortion clinic in Birmingham in 1998.

In between, Rudolph also attacked an Atlanta abortion clinic and a lesbian nightclub in the city, planting dual bombs designed to lure rescuers with the first explosion and then kill them with the second. They caused a handful of injuries.

It was the three Atlanta bombings that Enderson was assigned to investigate in 1997, when he was the No. 2 agent in the FBI's Charlotte office.

"When I went down there, we had no idea who was doing the bombings," Enderson told the Observer in an interview at his Anderson, S.C., home Tuesday. He continued living in Charlotte, commuting weekly to Atlanta, throughout the investigation.

Rudolph was identified after the Birmingham bombing by the license plate of his getaway vehicle, and Enderson -- who knew as soon as he heard the details of the crime that it was the same person -- launched one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history.

His suspect quickly disappeared into the N.C. mountains, eluding investigators for five years.

"It was interesting how good he was," Enderson said. "I had some trackers who were some of the best around. It became obvious pretty quickly that he was a worthy foe."

The terrain was on Rudolph's side, Enderson said. There were rhododendron thickets so thick that one time they found a marijuana grower's hideout camouflaged in one. A helicopter hovering right over the top of it couldn't see a thing.

After 28 years with the FBI, Enderson retired in July 1999 with Rudolph still on the run. His task force, once numbering more than 200, eventually dwindled, with no sign of their suspect and suspicions he might be dead.

Enderson never believed that, though. He left in 1999 saying he had a gut instinct Rudolph was still alive. He was proven right in 2003 when a rookie patrolman working the night shift in Murphy caught the fugitive rummaging through trash behind a convenience store.

There were signs over the years, the kind of things that Enderson couldn't talk much about at the time. The FBI kept finding homes that had been broken into, where the only thing the intruder did was take a shower and shave.

There were also weird thefts: boots, snakebite kits, socks, trout from backyard ponds. "Those folks up there had never had that kind of crime before," Enderson said.

The FBI agent also never believed Rudolph had the kind of help from local sympathizers that everyone suspected over the years.

"Here's a guy who didn't trust people," Enderson said, referring to Rudolph's loner tendencies. "He couldn't keep friends. Nobody knew him. If he had all this help, what's he doing diving into a Dumpster to get food?"

As part of his plea deal, Rudolph gave up the location of dynamite he had hidden throughout the mountains, and even a bomb he had apparently assembled near the armory that briefly headquartered Enderson's task force.

FBI agents from Charlotte were among the authorities who safely disposed of the explosives last week.

Enderson wasn't surprised to hear Rudolph might have been gunning for his team and planning other attacks. They knew he had stolen and probably hidden a lot of dynamite, even before the Olympic park bombing.

Enderson said he always believed that as long as his task force was hunting for Rudolph, keeping him on the move, he couldn't carry out any more attacks. "Those men and women were responsible for saving lives," he said.

Rudolph, 38, won't be sentenced today. That will likely take place in about three months, his attorney said. He is being held in the county jail in Birmingham.

Enderson doesn't plan to attend any of Rudolph's hearings. He's enjoying his retirement on Hartwell Lake in rural South Carolina, where he moved from Charlotte two years ago.

He's comforted by the notion that while he's on the lake fishing almost every day, he'll never again have to worry about the whereabouts of the man who hid from him for so long.

"I know where he's going," Enderson said, "and what he's going to be doing -- for the rest of his life."