'You start to think that he's dead'

Federal agents wonder if Eric Rudolph has really survived his year in the wilderness.

Published March 18, 1999 2:30PM (EST)

With Eric Rudolph almost completely ruled out as a suspect in the attempted bombing of a North Carolina abortion clinic last week, federal officials are contemplating a severe cutback in the number of agents assigned to tracking the notorious fugitive in the southern Appalachian wilderness.

A senior federal official directly involved in the hunt for Rudolph said the strategy of deploying hundreds of agents into the western North Carolina forests where the boyish-looking 32-year-old disappeared 13 months ago "has been ineffective," and will likely be replaced with other tactics, such as relying more on the National Park Service's expert wilderness trackers and "more traditional methods of following up investigative leads."

The official also said federal and state police are beginning to consider another possibility: that Rudolph may have perished in the harsh wilderness.

"After awhile, you start to think that he's dead," the official said, explaining that the fugitive may have been mortally injured in a fall, infected from an untreated cut or from drinking bad water. He and other officials also suggested that Rudolph may be running low on food, especially protein.

Rudolph is the only suspect in the bombing of the All Woman New Woman clinic in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 29, 1998, which killed an off-duty policeman and gravely injured a nurse. He is also wanted for questioning in connection with the 1996 Olympics bombing and two more bombings in the Atlanta area in 1997.

A federal task force made up of agents from the FBI, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was formed to catch Rudolph after he disappeared into the woods near his home in Murphy, N.C., a day after the Alabama bombing. Despite the help of bloodhounds, helicopters equipped with heat-seeking sensors and ground movement detection devices, the hundreds of agents working out of tiny Andrews, N.C., have failed to find Rudolph.

"The bomb in Asheville [North Carolina] had nothing to do with him," said a senior task force official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He's always known what to do with a bomb, and whoever set the one in Asheville didn't." The bomb in Asheville failed to explode fully and did no damage to the Femcare clinic there.

The official also ridiculed early reports noting that the area where Rudolph is suspected of hiding is "only" 70 miles away.

"Sometimes some methods don't work and you try something else," the official said of the hunt for Rudolph, who was indoctrinated with right-wing extremist teachings during a childhood sojourn at a so-called Christian Identity commune in Missouri with his mother in the early 1980s.

But Patrick J. Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Atlanta, said "a cutback" in agents in North Carolina was not because the methods hadn't worked.

"It's cyclical," Crosby said, due to the changing seasons. "We're not pulling back or going away." He also said agents scouring the mountains had
found "things that are just weird enough that make you feel certain he's still

"The agents know this is a long term thing," Crosby said.

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

MORE FROM Jeff Stein

Related Topics ------------------------------------------