Did Eric Rudolph try to surrender?

A national anti-abortion activist says he was asked to help the fugitive bombing suspect turn himself in to authorities last year -- but "nothing came of it."

Published April 19, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

A leading national anti-abortion activist says he was approached twice last year by a man representing himself as an emissary of Eric Rudolph, who told him the nation's most sought-after bombing fugitive wanted to surrender.

David Lackey, director of the Alabama chapter of the pro-life group Operation Rescue, told Salon that the unidentified man asked him twice if he would help facilitate Rudolph's surrender to authorities last year. The first approach was in July, the second in late fall. Lackey said he informed the stranger he'd be glad to help turn Rudolph in, but "nothing ever came of it."

Lackey, a member of Operation Rescue's national committee for the past eight years, is presently participating in a week-long anti-abortion campaign in Buffalo, N.Y. The turnout in Buffalo is much lighter than expected, with a crowd of perhaps 75 people Monday picketing two local high schools, showing graphic photos of aborted fetuses in an effort to curb teen sex. At some events, protesters have been outnumbered by media members.

Eric Rudolph has been the subject of a massive manhunt and a $1 million reward since he was identified as the lone suspect in the bombing of the One Woman All Women Clinic in Birmingham, Ala., in January 1998, which killed an off-duty policeman and gravely wounded a nurse, Emily Lyons. He is also wanted in connection with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, which killed one woman and injured 111 people, and the bombings of an Atlanta gay bar and abortion clinic, which injured several more people and law enforcement personnel. Federal agents are searching for him in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Lackey's first contact with the alleged emissary came after church services at the Cathedral of the Cross in Birmingham, Ala., in late July -- he couldn't remember the exact date.

"He said someone had been in contact with him and that Rudolph wanted to turn himself in and he wanted me to do it. He had seen me on TV."

Lackey said in an interview he had never seen the man before. He described him as "about age 50, well dressed, with thinning hair, not overweight, about 5 [feet] 10 or 11 [inches]" tall.

"He just came up asked me, 'Can I talk to you for a minute?' I said, 'Sure.'

"First he asked me, 'Would you be willing to turn Rudolph in?' And I said, 'Sure, I'd be willing to turn Rudolph in.' And then he said someone had been in contact with him [Rudolph] and he wanted to turn himself in and he wanted me to do it. He had seen some of the statements I had made in the news about the bombings."

Like most Operation Rescue activists, Lackey says he opposes bombing clinics and shooting abortion doctors, but believes the violence is "inevitable" as long as abortions continue. A Buffalo physician who ran an abortion clinic, Barnett Slepian, was killed by a rifle shot through his kitchen window last October. Anti-abortion activist James Kopp is being sought for questioning in the case.

What makes the mysterious July encounter more than a passing curiosity is its timing.

At about the same time last summer, Rudolph emerged from the Nantahala Forest in western North Carolina and made his only known contact with the public, approaching the home of George Nordman, a family friend and fellow traveler in anti-Semitic and white supremacist politics. They chatted for a while and Nordman made food available, according to his later account to local police, but refused to give Rudolph his truck. A day later Rudolph returned, took more food, stole Nordman's pickup truck (which police later recovered) and left behind $500 in crisp $100 bills. Nordman, who also discovered his dog had been poisoned, waited four days before reporting his encounter with Rudolph to the police.

Lackey's second encounter with the alleged Rudolph emissary came in late October or November 1998, he said. The same man approached him, again after services at the Cathedral of the Cross Church.

"I saw him once again about three months later and he asked me if anything had happened yet -- if anybody had been in contact with me," Lackey said. No, he told the man.

Lackey did not ask the man for his name on either occasion.

"I hear so many things," he shrugged. "I mean, I didn't know who the guy was. If he calls me [to arrange a surrender], I'll get involved."

Lackey said he did, however, call his Birmingham attorney, Eric Johnston, who he says advised him not to go off to a meeting with Rudolph without alerting police first or he'd be vulnerable to arrest. Reached by telephone, Johnston said he recalled the conversation. "I do vaguely remember him calling me about that. I said if you see him again find out who he is and call the FBI and see what they tell you to do," Johnston said.

Meanwhile, Lackey doesn't know what to make of the episode. The mysterious man seemed credible, but it was a wild story.

"He looked like a businessman. He had a suit and tie. He was well dressed. He looked like a professional guy. That's what was curious about it. He looked like somebody who was intelligent. He didn't look like somebody who would see flying saucers flying around," said Lackey.

"He was either a fruitcake or he really knew somebody who knew Rudolph wanted to talk. And I didn't know which one," he added before leaving for an afternoon of distributing anti-abortion literature at Buffalo high schools.

"My attitude was, if it's true, I will take it and do what I need to do. If it's not, I'm not even going to think about it."

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.

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