By SCOTT DODD, STAFF WRITER
Eric Rudolph, who grew up in the N.C. mountains and spent five years hiding from law enforcement there as one of the nation's most-wanted fugitives, will plead guilty to the 1996 Olympic Park bombing and three other attacks.
The man who loved the outdoors and skillfully used it to elude capture will spend the rest of his life in jail, according to the deal announced Friday by the U.S. Justice Department. Officials say Rudolph will serve four life sentences, without the possibility of parole.
His bombs killed two people and injured more than 100.
Rudolph is scheduled to enter his plea Wednesday in federal courthouses in Birmingham and Atlanta, where he planted explosives at the Olympics, a lesbian bar and two abortion clinics.
The agreement means he'll be spared the death penalty.
Some of Rudolph's victims and their family members said they accepted the decision to let Rudolph live because he cut a deal to tell where he'd hidden more than 250 pounds of dynamite throughout Western North Carolina.
"Hopefully, because of this plea bargain, other people will never have to know what it's like to lose someone the way I lost Sande," Felecia Sanderson told the Observer on Friday. Her husband, Birmingham police officer Robert "Sande" Sanderson, was killed by Rudolph's last bomb.
"I think a lot more lives could have been lost if he wasn't caught when he was," Sanderson said. "Why else would he have all that dynamite? You don't have those kind of things unless you're going to use them."
Rudolph's hidden devices included a fully built bomb with a detached detonator, officials said. Some were stashed close to populated areas, including the small towns of Andrews and Murphy, where the search for Rudolph was centered and where he was eventually caught almost two years ago, scavenging near a trash bin.
His assembled bomb, containing about 25 pounds of dynamite, was hidden near a road, homes and businesses, the Justice Department said. Locals said they've noticed a lot of odd-looking activity on mountain roads this week and heard strange booms as federal agents, including some from the Charlotte FBI office, scoured the mountains to find and detonate the devices safely.
Murphy Police Chief Mark Thigpen told the Observer he was informed of Rudolph's plea deal Friday morning. It was one of his officers, rookie patrolman Jeff Postell, who ended the five-year search for Rudolph -- one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history, involving hundreds of federal officers -- on May 31, 2003.
On routine patrol at 3:30 a.m., the then-21-year-old Postell spotted what he thought was a vagrant trying to break into the Save-A-Lot grocery store. The man was hiding amid a stack of milk crates.
Thigpen said he never thought Rudolph would make a deal with prosecutors. The anti-government extremist was too defiant after his capture. "He absolutely refused to speak to any federal authorities -- period," Thigpen said. "He just wouldn't talk to them."
He's relieved that Rudolph won't go to trial, which could have meant several days of testimony by his officers, putting a strain on the 10-man department.
It also would have brought more months of unwanted attention to the mountain communities where Rudolph grew up, hid and -- many still suspect -- likely had help from people who sympathized with his causes, if not his deadly methods.
'You have 30 minutes'
Although he was born in Florida, Rudolph, 38, and his five siblings moved to the N.C. mountains with their mother in 1981, after their father died. He roamed the Nantahala National Forest as a teenager and learned anti-government beliefs from extremist groups that found refuge there.
Rudolph's attacks started with the Olympics in July 1996. A caller to Atlanta's 911 center said: "There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have 30 minutes."
Eighteen minutes later, a knapsack hidden under a bench exploded. Shrapnel killed Alice Hawthorne, a 44-year-old mother from Albany, Ga. Another 111 people were hurt.
The FBI at first suspected Richard Jewell, a security guard who was working during the games. But the agency was later forced to issue a public statement saying he didn't plant the device.
Five months after the Olympics, a bomb exploded at the Northside Family Planning Clinic near Atlanta, causing minor damage. A second device, which police believe was meant to kill rescuers, blew up an hour later.
Rudolph used a similar strategy and materials a month later at the Otherside Lounge, a predominantly lesbian nightclub in Atlanta, again causing minor damage. Police found a second device before it went off.
The bomb that led investigators to Rudolph exploded in January 1998, outside the New Woman All Women Health Care Clinic in Birmingham. Robert Sanderson, moonlighting as a security guard, had noticed something strange in a flower pot.
When he leaned in for a closer look, it exploded, killing him and maiming a nurse, Emily Lyons. Investigators believe Rudolph detonated it by remote control.
After the explosion, witnesses saw a man in a blond wig jump into a gray van and speed away. They wrote down the plate number; it led to Rudolph.
A day later, Rudolph rented an action movie in Murphy, ate at Burger King and disappeared.
Once he went into hiding -- attracting more than 250 federal agents, bloodhounds, heat-seeking helicopters and space-age motion detectors at the height of the government's $24 million manhunt -- some residents rooted for him as a symbolic underdog.
Sympathizers viewed Rudolph, a high school dropout and former soldier, as a Christian crusader who went too far, but whose values were in the right place.
"The south is the Bible belt, and this is the buckle," Bill Green, the Andrews town manager, said Friday. "They empathize with his view on abortion and being anti-gay. They were never really convinced, like me, that the evidence pointed to him."
During the hunt for Rudolph, some people wore T-shirts with slogans like "Got Rudolph? Murphy Does" and "Run, Eric, Run."
Investigators caught his trail once, in July 1998, when Rudolph took a former neighbor's truck and six months of supplies. He left five $100 bills behind.
If Rudolph hid for years on his own, "he is the cleanest and best-dressed person I've ever seen from the mountains," said Donald Jackson of Murphy, who thinks he must have had help.
No one ever claimed the $1 million reward for his capture.
Others, however, believe the hometown support for Rudolph has been exaggerated.
"People here saw his actions as distasteful," said Bill Hughes, the mayor of Murphy. "People were embarrassed."
Jeff Lyons, the husband of the Birmingham nurse who Rudolph maimed, said he and his wife were told by investigators that no one is likely to be charged with helping Rudolph avoid capture.
"He is still claiming that he was the lone wolf," Lyons said. "It's my understanding that that's the end of the charges."
Hughes said he's relieved the case is coming to a close.
"This will not make up for all the suffering he's caused," the mayor said, "but at least it's over and he's paying the price."
Not enough of a price -- at least for Jeff Lyons and his wife, who was left blind in one eye after the Alabama bombing.
Lyons told the Observer that he and Emily thought Rudolph deserved the death penalty.
"The meticulous planning Eric went into he stood across the street and pushed the button. I think this was a cut above the average murder, and it deserves a cut above the average penalty."
In the end, though, they agreed with prosecutors and the other victims' families that "the plea bargain was the right thing to do," Lyons said. Otherwise, Rudolph might never have told authorities where he hid his bomb and dynamite in the mountains.
Plus, Lyons said, he's glad Rudolph will have to stand up in court and admit what he did.
"Even if he'd been found guilty," he said, "there are still people in North Carolina who would have said he got framed."
Felecia Sanderson said she never wanted to see Rudolph get the death penalty.
"To take Eric Rudolph's life would not bring my husband back," Sanderson said. "I don't think there's a great enough punishment we here on Earth can give. Let God be his judge."
Sanderson spent a lot of time in North Carolina during the manhunt. By her count, she visited Andrews and Murphy 37 times.
Since his capture, she's attended every one of Rudolph's court appearances. She'll be there Wednesday morning, when he's scheduled to plead guilty in Birmingham, and again when he's sentenced. That will be her first time to stand up and tell Rudolph how she feels about him taking her husband away.
She has no idea what to say.
"I need to be still and listen," she said. "I figure either God or Sande will tell me."