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The Story of Eric Rudolph, the Real 1996 Olympic Park Bomber

Eric Rudolph
Eric Rudolph was one of the FBI's 10 Most wanted after a series of bombings rocked the south in the '90s. FBI

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Clint Eastwood's latest directorial offering is the true story of a man falsely accused. It's the story of an earnest, eccentric outcast painted as the perpetrator of a horrific crime. "Richard Jewell" examines how two of the most powerful forces in America — the federal government and the media — can concoct a narrative out of faulty information and hurried decision-making that inalterably changes the course of an innocent man's life.

It's a compelling film (a 96 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes) that barely mentions the real terrorist, Eric Robert Rudolph.

Two people died and more than 100 were injured when a pipe bomb Rudolph planted exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. Jewell, a security guard at the park, was initially credited with discovering the suspicious backpack that held the device. But three days later, in a media and law enforcement frenzy that the movie dramatizes, Jewell became a primary suspect in the crime.

Rudolph escaped, killed more ... and eluded police for almost seven years.

Who Is Eric Robert Rudolph?

"The people who wrote three books about [Rudolph] were impressed with him as a person," George Conklin, a Professor Emeritus in the department of sociology at North Carolina Central University, said of Rudolph. "They're impressed that he does not meet the stereotype of a terrorist. He's a man of fairly good humor. He had good survival skills. He seemed to get along well with most people in daily life. And [the authors] were impressed with the good-looking women that he became lovers with ... You could sit down and talk to him.

"Apparently, in daily life, he was a nice guy. It's amazing, isn't it?"

Rudolph, now serving four consecutive life sentences in the federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, was born in Florida but moved to the western reaches of North Carolina as a teen. He dropped out of high school but later earned his GED, then joined the Army. He was kicked out a few years later on drug charges.

Along the way, he became affiliated with at least two ultra-right organizations: the Christian Identity movement, which sees whites as God's chosen race, and the Army of God, an anti-abortion group that hails people like Rudolph and Paul Hill (who died by lethal injection in 2003 for killing a physician and his bodyguard outside a Florida abortion clinic in 1994) as heroes. Rudolph cited his anti-abortion views as the reason for the Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

Eric Rudolph
Federal agents sift through the rubble at the base of the sound stack in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta after the pipe bomb that Eric Rudolph planted exploded July 27, 1996, killing two and injuring 100.
John Giles - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

From Rudolph's memoirs posted on the Army of God website, "Between the Lines of Drift":

In the spring of 1995, I decided to embark on a mission. I'd carry out a series of high profile attacks against symbols of the regime: abortion mills, Sodomite organizations, left-wing interest groups, and agents of the Washington government. Because it is the most egregious of Washington's many crimes, abortion would be the main focus of my attacks. The hope was that my actions would push other pro-lifers and Patriots to bridge the gap between their rhetoric and their actions. These attacks were not part of some personal vendetta against abortionists, homosexuals, or government agents; they were acts of war aimed at damaging, undermining, and ultimately, overthrowing the liberal establishment in America. When I heard they were bringing the Summer Olympics to Atlanta, I thought it would make the perfect target.

A little less than two years after the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, in January 1998, Rudolph killed again. This time it was an off-duty policeman during the bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic that also badly injured a nurse who worked there. (Rudolph later confessed to bombing another Atlanta-area abortion clinic and a gay bar in Atlanta.)

A college student observed Rudolph walking away from the explosion in Birmingham, the license plate on his truck was recorded, and police — still looking for the real Centennial Olympic Park bomber — had a hot, new suspect to track down.

But Rudolph was ready for them.

"Rudolph had prepared to disappear, if caught, and possessed a unique set of skills useful for survival in the wilderness," Conklin wrote in a case study of Rudolph in 2016. "He had good hunting skills and understood the basics of hiding out even when dogs are tracking your trail."

Rudolph, Profiling and Richard Jewell

Despite portrayals in popular culture, criminal profiles are notoriously uncertain, often depending on who is doing the profiling — say, psychologists or criminologists — and how it's done. "It appears that statistically generated profiles are more likely to lead to positive results than profiles created using subjective clinical methods alone," Bryanna Fox, a professor in the department of criminology at the University of South Florida, wrote in Psychology Today.

Jewell was an easy target for law enforcement and the media in that he fit a convenient criminal profile. He was a loner of sorts, socially challenged and eager to please. He still lived with his mother and was enamored with police procedures. He was the first to discover the suspicious backpack in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park and alert those in the park to get to safety before the bomb exploded. Instead of being hailed a real hero for saving countless lives, early suggestions from profilers were instead that Jewell planted the pipe bomb so he could warn about it and be portrayed as a hero. The profilers got it dead wrong.

Rudolph, in many ways, fit no such profile. His extremist views, in retrospect, help explain his actions. But Rudolph was known and admired in many parts of western North Carolina. Some police officers and civilians may have aided him while he was in hiding. "He liked women, used marijuana, played team sports, fell in love and was a highly successful businessman [growing marijuana]," Conklin wrote in his study, "none of which is predicted in the usual profiles."

Still, when the student spotted him leaving the scene of the Birmingham crime and police came up with a name and a background, it all finally made sense. Less than two weeks later, his truck was found abandoned in the woods outside of Murphy, North Carolina. The hunt was on.

Eric Rudolph
Eric Rudolph was finally captured May 31, 2003 in Murphy, North Carolina for his involvement in multiple bombings, including the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta.
Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images

Hunting for Eric Rudolph

Rudolph hid in a 500,000-acre (202,342-hectare) forest in the mountains near Murphy, living off what he hunted, foraged for and stole during occasional forays into town. He slept in various places, including in camps up hills and between the trails in the so-called "lines of drift". He remarked later how unlikely it was that people would actually leave a trail and climb up a hill in a search.

"He was anticipating a great conflict and he had clearly lined up caves and campsites where he could go," Chris Swecker, the former head of the FBI's Charlotte office, told the bureau. "He had a number of hiding places, and he knew the mountains so well he could navigate them at night,"

But that all came to an end May 31, 2003, while Rudolph was raiding a grocery store dumpster for food. It was five years after he headed into the woods and nearly seven years after the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Finally the local police cornered Rudolph. "It had ended pretty much as I always thought it would," Rudolph wrote. "The cop did a Crazy Ivan on me. [He] had circled around the front of the Save-A-Lot, and then drove back through the alley, this time with his lights out. I never saw him coming. He was on top of me before I knew it."

Two years later, after pleading guilty to a series of bombings, including the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the bombing of a gay nightclub in Atlanta and two Atlanta-area abortion clinics, as well as the women's health clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, Rudolph was sentenced to life in prison, without the opportunity for parole.

"The thing about Rudolph was that he could move around ... without any attention at all. He was an attractive fellow and led a normal life," Conklin says. "That's what's kind of unique about him. Nobody would suspect him."

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